Thirty years ago, as counsel to President Richard Nixon, John Dean mesmerized the country with his testimony in the Watergate hearings about “a cancer growing on the presidency.” Eventually, Nixon resigned and Dean went down in history for his role in the Watergate scandal. In Dean’s 2004 book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, Dean argues that obsessive secrecy and deception in Washington is worse now than it was during the Watergate fiasco, and talks with Bill about “the hidden agenda of a White House shrouded in secrecy and a presidency that seeks to remain unaccountable.”
BILL MOYERS: You could barely keep up with the news about the 9/11 Commission this week. So tonight, we're going to talk to someone with a long range perspective...remember Watergate?
WATERGATE HEARINGS: "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
BILL MOYERS: 1973: The Watergate hearings mesmerized the nation and brought down a President of the United States, Richard Nixon. The star witness was a thirty-three year old John W. Dean.
JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the President himself would be killed by it.
BILL MOYERS: John Dean came to the White House in 1970 as Counsel to the President, joining a team that included the equally young Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
When burglars hired by the Nixon Campaign for Re-election were caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, Dean's role was to see that they got their "hush money" and kept their mouths shut. When the conspiracy began to unravel and it appeared he would be made the fall guy, Dean agreed to co-operate with the investigation Richard Nixon fired him in April 1973. Two months later, he made his dramatic appearance before the Senate committee investigating the scandal.
After five days of his testimony and cross-examination, there was no doubt that the cover-up started at the top, with the president himself.
To escape impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. John Dean pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and served four months in prison.
Returning to private life, he began a successful career as an investment banker, lecturer and author. His books include three on the Nixon administration - and now, this one, with the title: WORSE THAN WATERGATE: THE SECRET PRESIDENCY OF GEORGE W. BUSH.
BILL MOYERS: John Dean joins me now to talk about secrecy in the White House.
Welcome to NOW.
JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Let's start with the news of the day. This morning we learn that President Bush has kept thousands of pages of secret documents from the Clinton years from being turned over to the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks. What do you make of that?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I think it's very typical. I think it's very consistent with his pattern. It goes all the way back to when Cheney put together his Energy Task Force, for example, and put a shroud over that and has refused, adamantly, to release any information from that. This is just more of that pattern where this White House has decided they're going to take total control of information.
And, they did it with the Joint Inquiry on Capitol Hill into 9/11. As John McCain said they were slow-walked and stonewalled on Capitol Hill by the administration. The families of 9/11 then urged that there be a commission created which we now have. And they've done the same thing. And brought it right into their own campaign.
BILL MOYERS: But these documents deal with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the Clinton team's reaction to the terrorist attack. Why wouldn't they want the Congress the investigating commission to have that kind of information if they're trying to put the whole story together?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I'm not sure they want the whole story together. There's always a situation that when you deal with an investigation you can either be aggressive or you can be passive. You can be offensive or defensive. They've decided to put them self in a defensive posture on this.
And I'm not sure that they haven't been forced to do it because they have something that they really don't want out about the way they've handled it. Mr. Clarke, his testimony indicates that they might have some things that they don't really wanna reveal to the public.
BILL MOYERS: Their efforts to stonewall, as you say, the investigations have failed. This is out today about they're holding back the documents from the Clinton years to the commission. But political pressure, public opinion have forced the testimony next week of Condoleezza Rice.
JOHN DEAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So it's not working, is it?
JOHN DEAN: Well, it doesn't work.
They've obviously made a political decision that they cannot refuse to let Miss Rice testify. So he's agreed to let her do so. But there's still more information we don't know.
And he's also put, they put tight limits on her testimony. She's gonna do 2 1/2 hours. That isn't a lot of testimony. That's really not a lot at all.
BILL MOYERS: If Condoleezza Rice asked you to help her prepare for that testimony, what advice would you give her?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I'd say give lots of opinions. Because opinions aren't perjurious.
BILL MOYERS: They're not?
JOHN DEAN: No. They're not.
BILL MOYERS: Perjurious meaning?
JOHN DEAN: You're convicted of perjury for a false statement.
BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.
JOHN DEAN: Well, I'll give you an example with Clarke. Clarke has said that he can't believe that Bush is running on his record of terrorism. That's pure opinion. You can't be convicted for perjury on offering an opinion like that.
BILL MOYERS: You finished this book when? Back in January?
JOHN DEAN: I finished it in late-January.
BILL MOYERS: So, you actually finished the book before the last month of intense activities and disclosures, right?
JOHN DEAN: I did. But the pattern has been so consistent. And I wrote the book because no one's talking about these things. Now more with this issue has come up. But I, at times, felt sort of like a CIA analyst where I would take this fact, that fact, taking my inside knowledge as you could do as a former insider. And piecing it together and seeing patterns and understanding what they're really doing. And that's what this book lays out.
BILL MOYERS: You write that the administration has tried to block, frustrate or control any investigation into 9/11 using, quote, "well-proven tactics not unlike those used by the Nixon White House during Watergate." What tactics?
JOHN DEAN: Stall. Stall. Stall.
We knew that at the Nixon White House. Some of these are time-tested tactics. When the Congress put together its joint inquiry, a joint inquiry itself was self-defeating because it's much more difficult for a joint inquiry with its size, the lack of attention its staff can give to a group that large. It gets diffuse.
BILL MOYERS: So when you testified in Congress in the 70's there was a Senate Investigating Committee and a House Judiciary Committee, right?
JOHN DEAN: Right. Separate committees. Exactly. And they can get much more focused. So it was very effective. And Cheney and Bush were very involved. They didn't want any of the standing committees to do it. They put them together. And that was one of the first signs I saw that they're just playing it by… I think they found an old playbook down in the basement that belonged to Richard Nixon. And they said, "Well, this stuff looks like it works."
BILL MOYERS: Be specific with me. What is worse than Watergate?
JOHN DEAN: If there's anything that really is the bottom line, it's taking the nation to war in a time when they might not have had to go to war and people dying. That is worse than Watergate. No one died for Nixon's so-called Watergate abuses.
BILL MOYERS: Let me go right to page 155 of your book. You write, quote, "The evidence is overwhelming that George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have engaged in deceit and deception over going to war in Iraq. This is an impeachable offense."
JOHN DEAN: Absolutely is. The founders in the debates in the states. I cite one. I cite one that I found, I tracked down after reading the Nixon impeachment proceedings when Congressman Castenmeyer had gone back to look to see what the founders said about misrepresentations and lying to the the Congress. Clearly, it is an impeachable offense. And I think the case is overwhelming that these people presented false information to the Congress and to the American people.
BILL MOYERS: John, I was, as you know, in the Johnson White House at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin when LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam on the basis of misleading information. He said there was an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. It subsequently turns out there wasn't an attack.
Many people said then and have said that LBJ deceived the country and concealed the escalation of the war. You even say in the book that he hoodwinked Congress. Are you saying that that was not an impeachable offense but what is happening now is?
JOHN DEAN: No. I'm saying that was an impeachable offense. In fact, it comes up in the Nixon debates over whether the secret bombing would be an impeachable offense. That became a non-high crime or offense because Nixon had, in fact, told privately some members of the Congress. Johnson didn't tell anybody he was - the game he was playing to my knowledge.
And these are probably the most serious offenses that you can make when you take a country to war, blood and treasure, no higher decision can a President of the United States make as the Commander-in-Chief. To do it on bogus information, to use this kind of secrecy to do it is intolerable.
BILL MOYERS: After Congress delegated the authority to the President to go to war, it said, "Only, however, if you meet these two conditions. As you prove to us, you come back to us and determine that Iraq was involved with terrorism with al-Qaeda. And that there are weapons of mass destruction." And you say that Bush did not satisfy those two requirements?
JOHN DEAN: He did not. He explained. Had he merely sent his very general letter saying, "This is what I've determined." Keeping it very broad, not how he determined it or why he determined it, he might have been all right. But he accompanied that with an explanation of how he had done so. And it's a bogus explanation.
BILL MOYERS: Secrecy always accompanies war. Presidents can't do their job, frankly, in war, without secrecy. Citizens come to take their government's word that secrecy is essential.
JOHN DEAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Is the war on terrorism going to confirm people in the tolerance of secrecy?
JOHN DEAN: The Bush-Cheney secrecy started long before 9-11. Started long before there was war. There has been only an acceleration and a use, and to me, an abuse, of secrecy using 9-11 as an excuse to make things secret that have no business being secret. This is what presidents do.
BILL MOYERS: You're especially agitated in here by what you call the dirtiest of dirty tricks, the role of the government in revealing that Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plane Wilson, was a covert CIA agent.
JOHN DEAN: As dirty a trick as I've ever seen, bar none.
BILL MOYERS: Dirtier than Nixon's?
JOHN DEAN: Dirtier. Nixon put no hits out on anybody that I nor did he pick on his enemies' wives. And this clearly was a dangerous leak. This woman, they knew she was at the CIA. They may or may not have known how much, how deeply involved she was. But there was always that risk when you reveal the identity of a CIA agent, particularly who's an operative.
BILL MOYERS: And you're satisfied this came from within the administration?
JOHN DEAN: There's no doubt in my mind. Where else could it have come from? Who else has privy to that kind of information? Who else tried to fan the fires once it got out there? They were after Wilson for telling the truth about whether or not Saddam Hussein had uranium from Africa. And it was not a true statement that the President was relying on in this effort to go to war.
JOHN DEAN: We don't have all the details. There's a grand jury that's now investigating that. Which, incidentally, Bill if that grand jury doesn't go beyond just the staff, and talk to and somehow get statements from both the President and the Vice President as to what they knew and when they knew it because this has been kept buried. And it has all the scent, but not quite the smell yet, of cover-up going on in there.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, you claim that this potentially involves a criminal conspiracy. Help me to understand that.
JOHN DEAN: Well, if it takes very little to create a criminal conspiracy. If you and I agree here this morning that we're gonna rob a bank, and you say, "Well, that sounds good to me," and I don't really tell you I go out and do it, you're just as guilty as I am. And it doesn't-- and oh, you can join a conspiracy as it goes along.
Obstruction of justice is probably one of the broadest, most ill-defined federal offenses I know of. I learned about it the painful way. I never had thought I wasn't trained as a criminal lawyer. I learned my criminal law the hard way. In fact, that was my one mistake. You needed, in that particular presidency, to be a very good criminal lawyer.
But, the point I'm making is that, you know, they have walked into a potential situation by not trying to flush it out right away. And Bush, for example, saying, "I don't think they'll ever catch the leaker." That's sending signals. Keep it you know, keep your head down.
BILL MOYERS: It's potentially a criminal conspiracy, isn't it, because two or more officials are involved?
JOHN DEAN: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: And the WASHINGTON POST has said, without identifying anybody, that there were at least two officials involved in this leak.
JOHN DEAN: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: You and I both worked for Presidents who were obsessed with secrecy. I mean, Lyndon Johnson could be paranoid about leaks. And you write in your book that of all the Cold War Presidents, none was more secretive than Nixon who, himself, admitted he became almost, quote, "a basket case with regard to secrecy." But you go on to write that when it comes to secrecy, quote, "never before have we had a pair of rulers like Bush and Cheney." What do you mean by that?
JOHN DEAN: The Nixon approach as opposed to this White House is much more open government. Nixon wanted to, he wanted to share. It's really during Watergate when he finds himself in very bad straights that he really becomes so secretive. But as I say, and I record in this book chapter by chapter and fact by fact, we've never seen secrecy like this.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the press has not been talking about it?
JOHN DEAN: I don't know. I find as I discuss in the book, that the media decided to give the Bush Administration a pass. One of the immediate after-effects of Watergate and having watched Presidencies before and after. After Watergate, a President was presumed to be doing the wrong thing. Now, he wasn't given the benefit of the doubt. Before, he was.
BILL MOYERS: Vietnam has to be an event--
JOHN DEAN: Vietnam--
BILL MOYERS: Vietnam and Watergate. Those were the two--
JOHN DEAN: No question that they are Watergate and Vietnam are very related in many ways. But so after Watergate, you have this very questioning media. You have a lot of investigative journalism. And this really runs right through the Clinton Years. And somehow, almost like a switch was hit. When the Bush Administration came into office somebody hit that switch. And no longer is there that doubt. No longer is that questioning.
BILL MOYERS: You say secrecy is out of hand.
JOHN DEAN: No question. It's out of hand because it's never been as severe. When these people moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they closed the doors, they pulled the shades, and they put, in essence, a gag order out.
BILL MOYERS: John, what do you think about the fact that the commission, the 9-11 Commission, has agreed to allow the President and the Vice President to appear together before them, with only one staff member present to take notes? What's behind that?
JOHN DEAN: I just think that is so evident of the lack of George Bush's knowledge as to what's going on.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JOHN DEAN: Well, he needs Cheney there to be the man who can get into depth. He's as good as his script.
BILL MOYERS: But of course it would also mean that they can keep their story straight.
JOHN DEAN: It can do that.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there is no way that we're not gonna be accused of Bush-bashing. Part of the temper of the times is that journalistically it's inevitable, I think, in this polarized country today. But what's beyond that? What is at stake here?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I'm not interested in Bush bashing. I'm really only interested in the truth getting out, people understand a very complex and sensitive issue. And that is secrecy.
In fact, I rely, if you notice in the book on every chapter I start with somebody who is of Mr. Bush's party, talking and complaining about his excessive secrecy. This isn't a partisan issue for me.
This isn't an issue of Republicans versus Democrats. This is an issue of good government versus bad government. This is an informed electorate and an uninformed electorate.
And I don't think there are any options here. And it's not to me, if the truth is bashing, I'll take the charge. If when I see people making wild and baseless charges, I find that to be bashing.
BILL MOYERS: Are there any sour grapes here? I mean could it be said that your White House career ended in disgrace, while the young Cheney and Rumsfeld went on from one success to another, not only in business, but in government? Is there something about-- of an old blood feud here?
JOHN DEAN: Not for me, anyway. Not in the slightest. Bill, this is a book I could have never planned on writing. I had written a number of columns. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse.
And I said, "Nobody's speaking to these issues." I have no grudge against any of these people at all. I'm just I'm deeply disappointed in them. Deeply disappointed. And a bit frightened by them.
BILL MOYERS: You-- how so?
JOHN DEAN: That they absolutely won't, you know, what the world opinion is, is irrelevant to them. What the Americans' opinion, other than their base, is irrelevant.
They're on their own wavelength, and not listening. And they're men of zeal, while I think in their hearts they believe they're doing the right thing. This is the most dangerous kinda situation.
When you move in secrecy and you're not taking outside advice, when you get that bunker mentality, which I'm sure you saw in the Johnson administration, we saw in the Nixon White House. This is when you make bad decisions.
BILL MOYERS: I haven't seen you for many, many years. But I have noted that both of us are somewhat zealots ourselves about secrecy. And I know mine comes out of realizing too late what the price - that democracy really does die behind closed doors.
JOHN DEAN: Absolutely. Well, you know, Bill, I don't come at this as a partisan. I mean I really left those days long behind me. I'm a registered Independent. I vote for both Republicans, I vote for Democrats. I vote for the issues.
And you know, I didn't wanna get in the mix of a partisan thing. But I do think these are issues that must be on the table.
BILL MOYERS: You say in here that even more so than Nixon, they come after their enemies list, the people on their enemies list. I mean we see what's happening to Clarke. What's gonna happen to you again?
JOHN DEAN: You know, they can't hurt me at this point. I'm damaged material already.
BILL MOYERS: The book is WORSE THAN WATERGATE: THE SECRET PRESIDENCY OF GEORGE W. BUSH, by John W. Dean. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Bill.