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Watergate Leaks Lead to Open Hearings

March 28, 1973

Photo of Howard Baker and Sam Ervin

A crowd of reporters strained against a barrier on the first floor of the Capitol hoping to question the six senators arriving for a politically charged closed-door committee hearing. That hearing had been called at the request of a single witness—a convicted burglar.

On March 28, 1973, the Senate held its first hearing on the Watergate break-in. That nearly five-hour meeting generated so many leaks to the media that committee leaders decided to conduct all future hearings in public session.

Nine months earlier, five burglars and two accomplices had been arrested in the Democratic National Committee's Watergate offices. Their eventual connection to President Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign, and their conviction in January 1973, led the Senate in February to create the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—the Watergate Committee.

Working under committee chairman Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Democratic chief counsel Sam Dash assured concerned Republicans that the panel would probe wrongdoing by members of both political parties. Its goal, he said, would be to make recommendations for the reform of election laws.

The committee's single closed-door witness, James McCord, had been security coordinator for the Committee to Re-elect the President. Preparing to sentence McCord for his crime, Federal District Judge John Sirica advised him to cooperate fully with the Senate inquiry.

In a private meeting with committee counsel Dash, McCord confirmed rumors that Nixon aides John Dean and Jeb Magruder knew about the plot before it took place and he promised to name others. When Dash reported this to the media, the resulting furor led McCord to request the opportunity to address members of the committee in secret session.

In that session, McCord testified that his boss, G. Gordon Liddy, had told him that Attorney General John Mitchell had approved the specific burglary plans. McCord also revealed the involvement of Dean, Magruder, and former presidential counsel Charles Colson. McCord promised to provide documents that would substantiate his allegations.

Within minutes of the closed session's conclusion, details of McCord's disclosures reached the media. That evening, vice-chairman Howard Baker of Tennessee, in an address to the Washington Press Club, confirmed what the committee had learned about Dean and Magruder.

McCord's performance at that closed session initiated one of the most important investigations in Senate history and began the unraveling of the White House cover-up.  As one journalist later observed, McCord "opened the road to havoc."