The complete history of these proceedings cannot be written, for the end is not yet; indeed, such a history probably never will be written…. It was something new to see a knot of adventurers, men of broken fortune, without character and without credit, possess themselves of an artery of commerce … and make levies upon it, not only for their own emolument, but, through it, upon the whole business of a nation.

…No people can afford to glance at these things in the columns of the daily press, and then dismiss them from memory. For Americans they involve many questions;—they touch very nearly the foundations of common truth and honesty without which that healthy public opinion cannot exist which is the life’s breath of our whole political system.

—Charles Francis Adams, Jr., “A Chapter of Erie” (1871)


When too many scandals have gone on for too long, uninterrupted and inadequately investigated, they tend to merge. What began as isolated instances of corruption grow toward each other and finally interlock. The nursing home operators, and private garbage collectors, and parking lot owners, and film industry executives, and cable television interests, and vending machine distributors, and recording companies, and casino operators, the teamsters, the Mafia, and defense contractors, and finally the investigative agencies of government and elected officials up to the highest level begin to have in common not just a general corruption but joint ventures and even personnel.

That is an extremely dangerous moment in public life. It is almost impossible to understand. People with an abstract turn of mind adopt conspiracy theories—when the problem is not a conspiracy but some other link. Investigative reporters, meanwhile, find sources, gather facts. There is a lot of news. But the meaning, the most obvious inferences, in a time of high scandal, are lost in a deluge of trivially depressing information.

The “artery of commerce” to which Charles Francis Adams referred was, of course, the Erie Railway. The reason he and his brother Henry could set forth so convincingly, in Chapters of Erie, the threat which the railroad and gold scandals of the 1860s posed to “our whole political system” was that they understood, perhaps more clearly than any other muckrakers in our history, what the particular high scandal of their time meant. It was not a matter of daily facts and revelations, the sums of money, the ranks of the corrupted; or even of dimension, the size of illegal transactions, the buying of judges to declare them legal and then of legislators to procure the law itself.

What the Adams brothers had, at the end of their investigation, was both a scoop (or, rather, a grand accumulation of scoops) and an intellectual perception of its meaning: the system was threatened by that new entity, the corporation—not just trivially, in that officials could be bought, but fundamentally, in that the general public, “the delight and prey of Wall Street,” was tempted by and even implicated in the new corruption. The ordinary citizen, the voter, in his capacity as small investor, could delude himself that “his” corporation was being managed in his interest. Drawn, a bit guiltily, by “the fascination of amassing wealth without labour,” he was at best numbed by evidence of apparently universal scandal (with investigators either incompetent or, in their turn, corrupted) to the point where he wanted to hear no more about it; at worst, he thought he had part of the action.

What the Adams brothers feared never quite happened; the republic survived its corporate threat. But that threat had all the elements—in particular, the collaboration of the morally and intellectually disoriented victim—which we have recognized, since Hannah Arendt,1 as pre-totalitarian. The threat recurs, in other times, in other forms. How close, after all, is the analogy between the present member of any notoriously corrupt union and the Adams brothers’ small investor. Every teamster has for decades had reason to know that his leaders are not only, in some way remote from his own interest, criminal. They are stealing his pension. Still, it is “his” union—in precisely the sense in which the robber barons’ rail-roads were the small investor’s corporation.

We were singularly unprepared for these times. From World War II until 1959, most of us were taught and accustomed to believe that our public officials, and our neighbors for that matter, were honest—if not in the minutest transactions of their daily lives, at least in general. Certainly, we believed that they lived within the law. Most ideologues, of course, never believed it. They believed the contrary—but ideologues do not really figure in this discussion. They “knew” that the entire system was corrupt. Although it could be argued that events have proved them “right,” they were not right in any sense that has to do with investigated and reported fact. What they “knew” was ideology. One result of the division between those who knew doctrinally and those who took their information from the study of events has been an odd division in the expository writing of our time—between professional reporters, uncoverers of news, almost professionally disinclined to think; and generalizers, writers of think pieces, who rarely do investigative reporting of their own and who are often precluded, by an ideological commitment, from doing much real thinking either. The result is a general erosion of the capacity to understand what’s going on.


In 1959, we had Charles Van Doren. What Sputnik had done to the country’s confidence in its know-how, the quiz show scandals seemed to do to its sense that the world was an honest place. The absurdity of the shock was an indication not only of how unprepared we were to gauge the importance of scandal of any kind but also of a peculiarly complicated hypocrisy. It was of no conceivable significance that a television program based on a proposition as disgusting as that which underlay “The $64,000 Question” should turn out to be fake. But the disillusion was intense and it was national. The “fascination of amassing wealth without labour” was succeeded by a pious recoil out of all proportion to the triviality of its source.2

In our own time, it is particularly difficult to distinguish between proliferating, demoralizing hanky-panky, no matter how widespread and apparently outrageous, and high scandal in which the entire system is at stake. It is news, but it probably does not much matter, if a lot of people, at taxpayers’ expense, take illegal free rides on airplanes. It may not even matter much if Alexander Haig (as he did in 1975) sends for his dog with the taxpayers’ airplane. What does matter is that Alexander Haig is still, or that he ever was, commander of NATO. The mass of trivially depressing information (and, in this case, the remarkable ability of the man to ingratiate himself with, among others, reporters) has obscured a truth of some significance.3 The end, as the Adams brothers would say, is not yet.

When there exist what appear to be high, endlessly interlocking scandals, you try to find a self-evident proposition and begin. To an early question: Who is behind it?, there is always a likely answer: Whoever had most to gain. By that standard, or with that approach, it has been clear since shortly after President Nixon’s resignation that there had to be two major scandals, which threatened, and which still threaten, the system as a whole. The first one is in origin foreign. It consists in the bribing of American officials by governments of other nations—routinely, but most dangerously in matters of defense.

The little, newsworthy scandal, of the sort we are used to, involves the reverse: an American, perhaps a CIA officer, buying a Japanese politician or an Italian Social Democrat. But there can no longer be any question that, while we were preoccupied with our own interventions abroad, a tide had long started to run the other way. The Koreans have been buying our presence, the Taiwanese our backing, the Iranians (and, in all probability, any other nations that can afford it) our training and weapons—not just outright, but with bribes and kickbacks to defense contractors and officials of government.

This phenomenon has several, by no means minor, confusing consequences. One is the situation which arises when a legislator is bribed to do what he would have done in good conscience anyway. The backlash which results when such a bribe has been discovered can actually prevent the execution of sound policy. If, for example, we ought to be in South Korea, it is now quite possible that we will get out of there, not because we should, but because we have been bribed to stay. That is when the “foundations of truth and honesty” have been shaken almost beyond repair.4

A second confusing consequence is this: when we speak of “other nations that can afford” bribery, we must now include poor nations which we subsidize. The result is that bribes and kickbacks to American contractors and officials are now, inevitably, drawn from the huge sums of American taxpayers’ money that this country spends abroad for other purposes. It is news, but it does not much matter if Lockheed, and each of the other companies that did so, bribes foreign officials, routinely, to buy equipment in preference to a competitor’s. The laws now under consideration to prevent this, if there is any way to enforce them, will just make selling abroad a bit cheaper and straighter—and, incidentally, prevent employees from stealing the untraceable cash set aside for these bribes. What does matter is again the reversal of the pattern to which we are accustomed. The money now flows toward us. It is a variation on an old isolationist theme. The threat is not subversion by foreign doctrines, or being overrun by foreign populations, but being bought by foreign governments with money paid illegally to our officials—money which is frequently, in origin, our own.


And it has been apparent, since shortly after Nixon’s resignation, that the high scandal that really underlay his administration, and required his removal from office, was the existence of precisely this pattern in Vietnam. That is: the South Vietnamese for a time were using part of the huge sums we spent there to buy our presence, our backing, our training, our weapons, and also, since it was war—and this has been the worst of it so far—our soldiers’ (and, of course, their own compatriots’) lives.

By any inductive route that is where you come out—and the evidence is everywhere: in the tapes, particularly in the February 28, 1973, reference to Johnson’s suspicions, in 1968, that his opponents were using Anna Chennault to remind the South Vietnamese what they stood to gain by a Republican victory of that year;5 in the relative inattention, on those tapes, to Watergate itself except for protecting the ultimate sources of the cash (some of which, it turned out, in an appendix to the volumes of the Ervin Committee, had to be returned to an Asian “foreign national” by, as it happens, Mrs. Chennault);6 in the derailing of the Patman Committee (which had traced kickbacks, by South Vietnamese to Americans, through foreign banks, as early as 1968).7

When it became clear to what extent the scandal of the 1972 campaign was huge, secret, and illegal cash contributions, it should have stood to reason that the most likely illegal contributor to Nixon and his re-election would have been the one with the most to gain.8 Just before the election of 1972, and right after Henry Kissinger first negotiated a peace which was “at hand,”9 the South Vietnamese goverment paid the Nixon administration (with what was after all American tax-payers’ money) to have American tax-payers’ sons fight on a few months, while the officials made their last deals, and stole their last money, and got out. And the only difference between this pattern in Vietnam and in all the other nations where its existence has, previously and subsequently, been disclosed is that no other country has paid kickbacks to have Americans kill and die abroad, in war. It may be that Nixon would have stayed on in Vietnam in good conscience anyway,10 but if his administration was paid to do it (and it was) that would be high scandal. It would also be, except by the strictest definition, treason and bribery. And it is the foreign scandal, of which the end is not yet.


The second major scandal, the domestic one, linked in not entirely peripheral ways with the first, has to do with drugs. The “artery of commerce” with which Edward Jay Epstein deals, in Agency of Fear, is the illegal narcotics trade. In the Adams tradition, Epstein uncovers facts and draws inferences. The ways in which he approaches his subject are basically two: the first, historical, an account of this domestic scandal and the part it played in bringing the Nixon administration down; the other, in some ways more important, methodological—it consists simultaneously of an account of the way Epstein proceeded and an attack on many of the assumptions which underlie what there is of investigative reporting in our time.

Epstein’s historical thesis is this: that the Nixon administration was engaged in trying to centralize its power, in what was essentially a coup d’état; that bureaucracies are, by nature, resistant to such centralization; that Nixon, having tried and failed to take over the investigative agencies (the FBI, the CIA, the investigative arms of the IRS, the Justice Department, Treasury, et al.), tried to create a new agency, under White House control, with personnel drawn from all the agencies he had failed to take over; that the pretext and the cover for what would be, in effect, Nixon’s own secret police, was, under various names and acronyms, a unit nominally dedicated to the eradication of illegal traffic in narcotic drugs.

Epstein concludes further that the plan was at least twice interrupted, by sheer historic chance. The publication of the Pentagon Papers, for example, not only usurped coverage of one day’s important public relations announcement in the anti-drug campaign. It also diverted the attention of members of the new secret unit to Daniel Ellsberg, and to the general problem of keeping the secrets, no matter how trivial, of government. The second historic chance was the discovery of the break-in at the Watergate. The regular Washington bureaucrats, Epstein says, having noticed that the burglars were members of the new force so threatening to their separate fiefdoms, saw their opportunity. In what was essentially a coup of their own, the agencies, in particular the CIA, systematically made sure that the link between the break-in and the White House would become known to the press.

In an earlier piece, Epstein had written of Mark Felt as one of the many informants within the FBI who passed information to reporters—with the limited aim of getting the White House to fire L. Patrick Gray (for not being able to keep the Bureau under control). In this book he says that Robert Foster Bennett, of Mullen and Company, was a major source for Woodward, in directing his attention away from the CIA and toward Charles Colson, who began to plant stories in return. There followed the battle, or the symphony of disclosures, with perhaps the most dangerous to Nixon being the release, by IRS officials to a Rhode Island newspaper, of the President’s tax returns. While others have mentioned these sources, Epstein discerns a pattern and a plan: the bureaucrats thereby, with the willing but not fully conscious collaboration of the press, foiled Nixon’s coup d’état and brought him down.

There are many arguable elements in this theory and, as is almost inevitable when a journalist is investigating idiosyncratically and virtually alone, there are certain factual inaccuracies as well. But in its main features—the drug unit as a cover for a new secret police, and the determination of the established agencies, through judicious use of the press, to reverse the coup—the theory is right; it is partly through the integrity with which Epstein discloses his own journalistic method that certain inaccuracies along the way are not only revealed but also (and this is the strength of the method) accounted for. Epstein, as a matter of professional and ethical policy, reveals who his sources are. The reasons for this, and the result, are of immeasurable importance to anyone who takes a serious interest in investigative reporting, or in the recent scandals themselves.

To stay, for a moment, however, with the secret unit and the problem of drugs. It would take an ideologist of the wildest sort to come up with an anticapitalist satire which would reflect, quite accurately, the present situation of narcotics and the law. Take a substance which is, in nature, cheap, abundant, and addictive. Its addictive properties make it a seller’s dream; its only drawback is its easy availability. There is no profit in it. Pass against the selling, production, cultivation, consumption, or possession of that substance the most stringent laws. Instantly, by virtue of being illegal, the substance becomes rare and expensive. The law itself has created a situation in which there is an enormous, in fact incalculable, profit to be made from getting people, children for example, who would otherwise have no reason even to consider narcotics, hooked.

Even the cigarette manufacturers, anomalous as their situation is—namely, that they make their profit from a substance which is addictive, with the drawback that it kills—are in a very different position. It is incidental to the production of cigarettes that they are lethal; manufacturers, preferring longer-lived addicted customers, would presumably prefer that the product were safe. It is of the essence of the narcotics traffic that it be criminal—or there would be no profit in it. There is no point in enumerating the interests—some vicious, some self-serving, some misguided, some cowardly, some imbecile—which coincide (not conspire) to perpetuate this unique travesty. But there it is. And the profits are such that as soon as you put someone in the business of suppressing narcotics traffic, you can be almost certain that he will engage in it. As soon as the CIA, for instance, somehow got international drug enforcement as part of its mandate, it became a major runner of drugs.11 The most unlikely and unholy alliances in this country have been created by the narcotics laws.

To keep the substance illegal, it is necessary to exacerbate, from time to time, the public’s fear of it. On the history of the drug laws in this country, and on the subsequent history of their enforcement and public relations, Epstein goes a little off. His focus is on fear of the addict. He links this fear to Prohibition, when specters of a vampire alcoholic were succeeded, in the mind of an obscure fanatic called Richmond Hobson, by specters of a vampire dope fiend. He traces the Nixon administration’s exploitation of drugs as a law-and-order issue to a panic, artificially and deviously generated for political reasons by Governor Rockefeller in New York.

But the drug laws arose, not out of Prohibition or from fear of addicts, but independently, in reaction to unscrupulous manufacturers of nostrums and patent medicines, who resisted truth in labeling. Many babies died when the nostrums their mothers gave them for colic turned out to be opium; women who took nostrums for a variety of feminine complaints became addicts in due course. By 1906, the law did require that nostrums containing opiates say so on the label; prescriptions for narcotic drugs were required by 1914. While the forces behind this legislation were mixed, the only thing they had in common with the sponsors of Prohibition was a battle with the whiskey interests—not over whiskey itself, however, but again over truth in labeling. Distillers were mixing dyes with cheap alcohol and calling the product whiskey. The pure food and drug people wanted the labels right.12

As for the fear of addiction and addicts, Nixon did not need to learn from Rockefeller how to exploit it—and Rockefeller himself did not contrive to create it. By the 1960s, the improbable alliance of drug interests,13 and the number of young already alienated by the law itself, made fears for one’s children, for example, well grounded and real. But the statistics regarding narcotics were neither well grounded nor real. And this is where Epstein’s particular genius as a reporter takes over. He finds that initial, self-evident proposition, and follows it through to the truth at the end.

I first became interested in the credibility of the crime estimates reported in the press when William Whitworth, an editor at The New Yorker magazine, suggested that exaddicts in treatment centers had a strong incentive to exaggerate the size of their habit, and that the operators of these treatment centers had no incentive to dispute their claims. [Italics added]

Of course, the minute you see that, you see it is true. From there, Epstein went on to the realization that narcotics investigators had a strong incentive to exaggerate the street value of drugs recovered in any given raid, and that newspaper police reporters had no incentive to dispute their claims. Epstein discovered that if estimates of how much the population of addicts had to steal to support their habit were accurate, they would have to be stealing a great part of the gross national product. And finally, from his own research, and from studies by groups with no institutional interest in exaggerating the dimensions of the problem, Epstein found that nearly all statistics having to do with the number of addicts in this country, and the size of their habits, and their propensity to commit crimes, and whether that propensity grew out of their habit or preceded it, and whether that propensity was decreased, increased, or modified by any known form of treatment; and even whether the rates of crime or drug addiction were in any way affected by any incident or program in the history of law enforcement—in short, nearly every statistic having to do with drug addiction and the law—proved, upon examination, false.

That’s quite a scoop. Epstein documents it well. In effect, the drug problem, with the law as it is, is insoluble—although not increasing, as other fabricated statistics would indicate. Nearly everyone who has anything to do with the problem, or the attempted solutions of it, lies, profits and lies. One would not have expected, for example, a public relations firm in the employ of New York methadone treatment centers to try to discredit a disinterested investigator, exactly as General Motors had once tried to discredit Ralph Nader. One would not have expected the facts to be that methadone is not, as claimed, incompatible with heroin; that it does not, as claimed, reduce crime but rather increases all crimes—with the exception (as might be expected) of such non-violent crimes as prostitution directly related to supporting a habit in heroin. One would not expect methadone interests, when confronted with these propositions, to concede that they are true, but to add (in retreating to what Epstein calls the “soft argument”) that the claims, though false, were valuable—in “calling attention to the problem,” and in drawing the addict into a “social context,” namely the treatment center.

Doubtless, Agency of Fear exaggerates, although I don’t know exactly where. The book presents a problem which, while it is not uniquely posed by Epstein’s writing, occurs there with exceptional force. It is the problem of the writer on subjects about which nearly everyone already has a strong opinion—who, almost by virtue of these subjects, either enlists or antagonizes people to the point where they are incapable of reading what he says. Epstein’s first book, Inquest, was a study of the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy. It was solid and meticulous, and it drew the only conclusion it was possible to draw: that the Warren Commission had been insufficiently diligent and thorough in its work. The book was at pains responsibly to ward off what was sure to be a herd of conspiracy sensationalists, charlatans, and profiteers. What we got was a best-seller by Mark Lane.

Epstein’s second major piece of reporting concerned “genocide” being committed against the Black Panthers by the police.14 What Epstein showed was that, of the twenty-eight Panthers reported by the Panthers’ lawyer (and uncritically accepted by the press) as having been victims of this campaign, eighteen were either not killed or not Panthers, six of the remaining ten were killed by seriously wounded policemen who had no way of knowing their targets were Panthers, and only two (Fred Hampton and Mark Clark) were unarguably killed in the course of a deliberate anti-Panther raid by the police. Now, while two, or even four, such killings are serious, two or four is neither twenty-eight nor genocide; Epstein’s report, moderate in tone, said no more than that. It created, however, an enormous animus—professional, among reporters who felt themselves (in view of deadlines, and so forth) unfairly criticized; and political, among people who seemed to regard the piece as an attack upon the Panthers, or upon the Left. Just to mention the piece was to set off an ideological player piano of beliefs—which would play its program to the end, invulnerable to an actual reading of the piece itself, and assuming that you were just another player piano. There seemed, during the late Sixties, few people inclined toward mixed or moderate views.

The trouble with having written such a piece, or with being the sort of writer who would write one (not a crotchety Mencken type, or a humorist or stylist; not a Safire or Buchanan, whose talentless sarcasms have their own allies and claques, or a polemicist in any recognized tradition), is that the writer may begin to go a little wild himself, stating his own propositions in the most extreme form, generating new animus, in a kind of reciprocated baiting. For the first time, the writer starts unnecessarily to undermine his argument, by making errors. To take but one example: in trying to show that it is prosecutors, with their subpoena power, and not reporters who unravel cases, Epstein writes as follows:

The revelations of the operations of the Plumbers and the break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office did not come from enterprising newsmen (although this is commonly misstated in the press); they came from John Dean,…who provided this information to federal prosecutors in 1973 in return for a promise of lenient treatment. The prosecutors provided this information to Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who transmitted it to Judge Matt Byrne,…who in turn revealed it to the press.

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with that passage and its underlying propositions. The key inaccuracy, however, which looks so small it could be anybody’s oversight, is that the attorney general in question was not Elliot Richardson, but Richard Kleindienst. And with this point, the sentence, the passage, the thought, and a section of the book unravel. Because the federal prosecutors “provided this information” not to Richardson, but to Henry Petersen, who relayed it to both the president and the attorney general. And none of these three men did anything so simple as what is implied by “who transmitted it to Judge Matt Byrne.” They held it up, for weeks. They would have held it up forever, had it not been for the certainty that John Dean was going to reveal it, at the Ervin Committee hearings, on national television,

Nor was Judge Byrne’s role in the matter as simple as “who in turn revealed it to the press” implies. It was the press, a reporter for the Washington Star in fact, who, in talking with a gardener at San Clemente, discovered the recent visit there of Judge Byrne. That discovery led in turn to disclosure of the improper offer to Judge Byrne, in the middle of the Ellsberg trial, of the FBI directorship. (The disclosure also, incidentally, revealed the judge’s own improper failure to refuse to entertain such an offer, or to mention earlier in the trial that the offer had been made.) And the federal prosecutors—well, the prosecutors did not, as Epstein implies, elicit the information from Dean in return for an offer of leniency. They did not elicit the information at all. Dean’s attorney, Charles Shaffer, had practically to spell out for them that they would be taking part in an obstruction of justice themselves if they did not pass the information on.

These prosecutors, like everyone else high up at the Justice Department (and not unlike the recent inspectors, from the comptroller’s office, of Bert Lance’s financial history), had careers to think about. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst had, after all, been told by Gordon Liddy, at Burning Tree golf course, on the morning after the Watergate break-in, whose men the Watergate burglars were. The attorney general (whose portrait now hangs on the wall of the Justice Department, while he explains his close friendships with teamsters and his most recent deals with their pension fund) turned Liddy away.

That was the pattern. Almost without exception, everyone in the Nixon administration charged with investigation was concerned, not with the primary event (e.g., a break-in), which they preferred not to know about, or else already knew about too well, but with the secondary problem—namely who else knew, and how to conceal or distort the information to keep it from reaching the public or the press.

Unlike their counterparts in the Lance affair (in which teamsters were also entwined), the Watergate federal prosecutors got their promotions. But not on account of any information they elicited from John Dean. And in this matter of the government’s own role in the investigation of itself, in errors of detail and in his determination to point out the limitations of the press, Epstein is led again and again unnecessarily to oversimplify his broader argument. Because if the press did not “solve” the Watergate, neither did the agencies—which were not nearly as resistant to Nixon’s takeover as Epstein believes. Two attorney generals, after all, were directly involved in the burglary, Mitchell in planning it, Kleindienst (at least from that early moment at Burning Tree) in covering it up. The head of the CIA and the acting head of the FBI were in it thoroughly—Richard Helms in helping to cause a crucial delay in the FBI’s tracing of the foreign checks; L. Patrick Gray in agreeing to “deep six” evidence, which he then held on to for several months—on account, he says, of moral doubts, but more probably to have something with which to put pressure on the administration to continue to support him for the permanent directorship.15

As for the Treasury Department and the IRS, they were neither so pure and intransigent, or even so sluggish, in yielding to the White House as they have managed to appear. Edward Morgan, a lawyer who was an assistant to Egil Krogh of the secret police/drug unit, went on to prepare Nixon’s fraudulent tax returns, and ultimately went to jail—but not before he had been appointed Assistant Secretary for Enforcement at Treasury.

As for the IRS, and President Nixon’s tax returns, this may be the moment to introduce the question of a contemporary hypocrisy: a pervasive, partly deliberate misunderstanding of the presidency, and of the nature of sycophancy, so profound that it is becoming a kind of national scandal in itself. What it means to be president of the United States, what it means to work for such a man, how his wishes are carried out and are expressed—all this has been romantically obscured by the fact that one recent president was an apparently benign and fatherly returning war hero, another an attractive and promising figure tragically assassinated in the prime of life. The place occupied in the imagination by these two has obscured not just any realistic view of what they were and did but a blunt, prosaic fact: that to be president of the United States is, at the very least, to be obeyed more readily than most men in the carrying out of tawdry schemes—grand schemes, but tawdry schemes as well—by which others might be tempted, but which they are not equipped, by the merest intimation of a wish, to get subordinates to execute.

The whole search for “the smoking pistol,” in the Watergate scandal, then, was necessarily a sanctimonious charade—as is the search for any “link” between a modern president and the major acts of his subordinates. The “link,” whether to a plan to assassinate a dictator, or to a break-in into political offices, or to the cover-up of such a break-in, or to the drawing up of fraudulent tax returns, lies in the nature of the presidency. The “smoking pistol” (since nobody sits down, writes “We’re going to commit an obstruction of justice now,” and signs his name) is presumptively, in every case, the president’s will. To return, then, to the IRS. While it would have been, under these circumstances, if not unreasonable, at least too harsh, to expect the IRS to inspect to any depth at all the tax returns of an incumbent president, the IRS has been auditing, for example, mine, for several years. It would not seem as clear as it does that the end is not quite yet if the former president’s tax returns had been audited since his return to private life.

The point is that the agencies did yield to President Nixon, as of course they must, up to a point. And while it may have been their leaks that ultimately brought him down, it was also their red wigs, their cameras, their pocket litter, and their personnel that for so long helped him out. What we had for a time at the heart of government was not what Ron Ziegler, in the tapes, so memorably called a Rashomon situation, but a scenario from an earlier work. In Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the hero is a man who has been recruited as a police agent in a group of seven anarchists, each of whom has adopted the name of a day of the week. At meeting after meeting, a member of the group is exposed as such an agent. As Friday, Wednesday, and several others are discovered, Thursday fears each time that it is he who has been found out. By the end of the book, it turns out that every single anarchist was really a police agent in disguise. It is, in real life, normal for police and outlaws to be mutually dependent and to share an interest—as prison guards require, for their continued employment, the continued existence of prisoners, and therefore, of crimes. But when they share an identity, when the enforcers of narcotics laws are the sellers of narcotics, when the cops are the robbers, and the investigators the coverers-up, the foundations of common truth and honesty are shattered altogether, and society requires a subtle (and lucky) combination of forces to dig itself out.


Oddly enough, or, rather, not at all oddly, Epstein’s journalistic method and his argument for that method provide the corrective for any errors of fact or impression he may make along the way. The reason the heads of the agencies appear to him to have been the over-turners of the Nixon coup, the reason Kleindienst, Petersen, Silbert, Acree, Krogh, Rossides, and others appear to him men alternately of naïveté and rectitude, is that these were the men who talked to him. They were his sources; and Epstein is meticulous and bold enough to name them, so that we can allow for (and sometimes discount) what he says and what they say. The reason Rockefeller is cast as the demon behind Nixon’s law-and-order rhetoric is that Patrick Buchanan, Nixon’s speechwriter, persuaded Epstein that he was. The reason Epstein traces to that obscure fanatic, Captain Hobson, and to Prohibition, a contemporary fear of drug addicts is that a colleague, an “off-beat sociologist” at the Drug Abuse Council (from which Epstein subsequently received a fellowship), had collected Hobson’s papers and assured Epstein that he “could trace any and all present associations about drug abuse” back to him.

Now, Epstein may be faulted for having accepted these assurances uncritically, or for having fallen under the charm and influence of his sources—but that is precisely why his methodology is right, and as important as it is. Because it is impossible to read Epstein’s book, and to give serious consideration to contemporary journalism and recent history (in particular, the Watergate), without coming to the conclusion that it should, with the rarest and most well defined exceptions, be the custom—a point of professionalism and of honor—for a journalist to name his source.

Before addressing this conclusion directly, however, and simply for the sake of calling things by their proper names, we might as well get rid anyway of the journalistic use of that word “source.” What is in question are not “sources”—with the whole range of scholarly and scientific associations the word brings to mind. What is meant are now simply unnamed informers—and the kinship is, of course, with spies. The reason this point matters is that, with all the valid and legitimate uses of confidentiality by major reporters in recent years, there has been an erosion of the vocabulary on which journalism itself is based. A whole lexicon of euphemisms, metaphors, and misnomers has slipped into investigative reporting from, of all places, the espionage or—in just such a euphemism—the “intelligence” agencies of government.

The strange uses of “source,” “leak,” “sensitive,” “conduit,” “intelligence,” “intelligence community,” and so on actually blur what the subject of investigation is. Unconscious, outright misnamings—KCIA, for example, for what is simply an instrumentality for passing bribes—begin to blur backward, changing the sense, for example, of what the main purpose of our own CIA is meant to be. When code words are added, as in “highly placed source,” to indicate who the source is, the professional lapse is compounded; the technique resembles, and is perhaps derived from, the gossip column—where the unnamed characters in, for example, Earl Wilson’s Secret Stuff, tease the ordinary good-faith reader while they signal only to the cognoscenti in a debased, knowing complicity.

To return, then, to the problem of the naming of informants. Since at least Watergate, it has been evident that in any serious scandal, to the questions Who is behind it, and Who has the most to gain, we must add another, Who wanted it known. This question posed itself, more or less insistently, when, from all directions, we learned that the myths we had been brought up on, concerning detectives, prosecutors, G-men, reporters, political investigators of any kind—tirelessly pounding the pavements, badgering witnesses, finding clues, telephoning, nagging the way to a last clue, inference, and resolution of the case—had almost no basis in reality. Facts under investigation normally become known because somebody wants them known or has some reason to tell. From the Manson case, moreover, as described in Helter Skelter, as well as from Watergate, and even from the case of Son of Sam, we find that, far from inexorably closing in, compiling clues and information, investigators not only require informers, they often resist, with the most incredible obtuseness, what has been told, brought, confessed, and virtually proved to them. Time and again, the detectives in the Manson case, in their eagerness to solve it, turned away the most crucial testimony and evidence—a confession to a roommate, for example, and the murder weapon.

Kleindienst, in rebuffing Liddy, and all the Watergate figures turning away information were a special case, in that the higher up the investigator the deeper his involvement in the crimes. But in investigations of all kinds, criminal and political, there is a tendency actively to resist what the investigator is being told. This may result from simple bungling, lack of diligence, or quite often, since the same names—the same teamsters, crooks, attorneys, interests, gangsters, crooners—the same names appear so often on every side, from simple fear that the investigation will lead to oneself or to a friend. At the same time, the mystique of “clues,” of real evidence, and of expert testimony has been crumbling. Handwriting experts managed to authenticate as the signature of Howard Hughes the scrawl of Mrs. Clifford Irving. A lie detector showed clearly and wrongly that Peter Reilly had murdered his mother; the police resolutely refused to notice, or to draw any inference from, somebody else’s bloody fingerprint at the murder scene. The police composite sketches of Son of Sam resembled him in no respect whatever. From the corner burglary to political scandals examined by commissions at the highest level, this has been an era of failed investigations.

As for witnesses—test after test establishes that they are unreliable in describing, fundamentally and in detail, what they saw moments ago; their accuracy declines with time. Yet an investigative reporter’s primary resource is the informing witness. This informant may be honorably concerned with truth; or he may have a less than honorable stake in whatever version of the facts he passes on; or he may, like some advertiser, be testing as fact what is the trial run of a plan or he may be lying. Whichever it is, the unattributed statement, or the unnamed source, or the blind quote, has spread through journalism. It has begun to lose its value altogether and to become a positive, almost insuperable obstacle to investigation of all kinds.

The situation is now as follows: something is news, and may be reported as such, if somebody told it to a reporter; the bit of news is regarded as more solid if someone else confirms it—that is, if two people told it to a reporter. These people may be anonymous, and they may be liars, but if their story is not decisively controverted, the newspaper will stand by its reporter, who stands by his sources. There is, of course, no way to check an unattributed story at its source. Certainly, in stories where attribution would cause harm—for example a serious reprisal—a reporter may justifiably conceal who told it to him. Some of the major stories of recent times, including the status of the war in Vietnam, were stories of this sort. But if the harm is merely embarrassment to the source, or the risk to the reporter that this particular informant, or other informants, will refuse in the future to confide in him, then the predicament is very delicate. Because we, the reporters, are suddenly in clandestine collusion with our informants. We are to that degree in each other’s pockets; there is an element of corruption. And the Man Who Was Thursday situation comes to include the press.

Apart from this problem of, as it were, conspiring with unnamed informers,16 apart from the problem of the uncheckable word of the unnamable source, the reliance on such sources is turning journalists away from far more important, though less romanticized, sources of inquiry and of fact. The richest such source, with which the fewest reporters seem to bother, are documents already published—in particular documents published by the government itself. They are long, repetitious, unorganized, muddled by the investigators and compilers of them, but they (the Church committee documents, or the House subcommittee hearings on “Reporting Requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act” come readily to mind) are full of scoop after scoop, practically untouched by the press—except for a superficial, rushed scrutiny on the day they appeared.

The obstacle to a constant and systematic study of such documents is no longer a matter of deadlines, either. The relative utility of informants, as opposed to documents, quite apart from questions of time or diligence, is reflected in three kinds of stories by the distinguished reporter, Seymour Hersh. The first kind of story was the My Lai massacre—the tireless pursuit of the human source produced the optimal result. (In the end, in any case, the “sources” were named.) As successful, not in their content but in their political effect, were three long stories, again based on informants, about the CIA. The substance, though thin, triggered the Pike and Church committee investigations. One of the main objects of investigative journalism, to trigger further investigation, was fulfilled.

Then, as diligently, Hersh spent months applying the same technique to get stories on Stanley Korshak and on Charles Bluhdorn—stories that said, at great length and in essence, that some people had, anonymously, compromising things to say about these men, and that both men had, at some time in their lives, and perhaps still, associated with disreputable people, or people said to be disreputable. It is a case in which “source” journalism could not really work.

A successful, completed piece of investigative reporting usually has one or more of the following effects. It results in 1) a change of personnel; 2) a change of program; 3) an indictment; 4) a saving of money; 5) an allocation of money; 6) a further investigation by the appropriate body (prosecutors, grand juries, legislators, Hersh’s Church and Pike committees) where journalism’s resources end. Until, with “leaks” from the further investigation, they begin again. Under the rarest circumstances, however, is the understanding of a public situation much enhanced by what anonymous sources say.

Apart from those embedded in public documents—I.F. Stone, as far as I know, was the pioneer at wading through them, followed by too few others, including, however, of late, various reporters of The New York Times17—the other stories that go uninvestigated, on account of the detective/source mystique, are the ones so obvious that you cannot fail to see them if you are not preoccupied with finding someone to tell you something and somebody else to confirm. Such a story was instantly apparent in something as trivial or significant as the publication of Roots. From the first, it was as obvious as the numbers of Americans who go abroad each year in search of some ancestral village, or even heraldic crest, that Roots could not, simply could not, be accurate. Practically everyone who thought about it knew it. The cultural phenomenon was that people wanted to believe—that a nation of immigrants, who often cannot with any certainty name their great-grandparents, should want so earnestly to think that this “oral history” was history at all.

This was “source” journalism, at its nadir and its apogee. If there was someone (even, paradoxically, somebody nameless) to whom to attribute a story deemed newsworthy, the newspapers would run it. Countless, endless stories about Roots were run. But if there was a truth nearly as obvious as an equation, newsworthy as it might be, if it was not in the source convention, the newspapers would deem it speculation and pass it by. So it took another “source,” a foreign journalist, to investigate and prove the obvious in detail—whereupon Alex Haley and his adherents retreated to what Epstein would call the “soft” position, namely that the book, though a fabrication, called attention to the problem, and thereby revealed a deeper “truth.”

So there are two major kinds of stories that reporters under the spell of the source mystique may miss: the treasures buried in public documents, and the truths so obvious that no one could miss them who was not diverted by some disorientation or misapprehension in the process of investigation itself. There is a third kind of story, derived from the other two, which is most clearly vulnerable to Epstein’s reasoning and attack: this is what might be called the Daniel Schorr phenomenon, in which the journalist, unwittingly and in fact contrary to his intention, is induced by the cleverness of his “sources” to close off a subject of investigation for good. In such a case, the journalism itself, in the most confusing way, becomes part of the story. In the Schorr case, it was in the obvious interest of only one party that the Pike committee report on the CIA should be, prematurely and in its entirety, disclosed. That party was the CIA. The agency’s likely object, which was reached to perfection, was to demonstrate that a congressional committee cannot keep a secret—and thereby assure that there would not be created any genuine committee of oversight into the activities of the CIA. And so it went. Congress lost itself in investigating where its own “leak” had come from, and the oversight committee was lost as well.18

The gist of the report, moreover, was lost somehow in the controversy over its publication. And the gist of the report was that the failings of the CIA were basically two: not predominantly violations of the rights of American citizens, or even unjustified intervention in the affairs of foreign nations, but incompetence as an espionage agency and financial impropriety as well. Those were two solid and basic scandals, and Schorr inadvertently became the reporter to obscure them. In his refusal to disclose his sources, in his insistence on his right and responsibility to make the report public, in short, in his journalistic piety, he was thoroughly had. The productive line of inquiry came to an end.

A similar gambit was tried with Hersh, in the matter of the Glomar Explorer. Most reporters took the story from an odd side—namely, that when Hersh and the Times were asked, on grounds of national security, to suppress the story, they agreed to do so. But the more ominous transaction occurred much later on—when the CIA, as recently reported in the Times, decided publication of the story was in its interest—again to demonstrate the inability of Congress to keep secrets and the irresponsibility of the working press. Suddenly, the relentless discoverer of the agency’s secrets became the inadvertent agent of its propaganda.19 It is this variant of the Schorr phenomenon (revealed in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act) which Epstein’s method of disclosing and discussing his sources avoids.

Of course, the question of whether to divulge an informant’s name will always be a matter of the reporter’s judgment. Some reporters are best at inquiring of people; others at study and reflection. In the range of evidence, from rumor and intuition through document and tape, there is a lot of room. But, at present, the use of the blind quote and the unnamed source has become an unprofessional cover for various journalistic cut corners and evasions. There are the feature writers who return from abroad with a statement from an unnamed high foreign official—when the statement is, in reality, just the writer’s own view, an act of ventriloquism attributed in space. There are respected reporters attributing statements to, say, a liberal senator from a New England state—either because they can’t remember quite who said it, or can’t remember exactly what he did say, or simply because they think he might prefer not to be quoted as having said it in that way. And then, of course, there exists in the weekly magazines, in their articles on “trends,” a form of attribution, with a real name, which is so meaningless as to constitute a blind quote. That is, Mrs. Blue in Denver said, and Mrs. Gray in Portland said, and Mrs. Green in Billings said—and there appears to be, all over America, a trend. So there ought to be a rule, I think, not a legal rule obviously, but a matter of professional practice, that sources will be named, unless 1) to name them would cause a considerable harm, or 2) to name them would be, as in the case of Mrs. Green or Blue, a meaningless attribution.

Which returns us to the questions raised by Epstein’s book. Because if one takes it, as I think one must, that Epstein’s ratio of right (insight, scoop, whatever) to wrong (bias, error) is neither better nor worse than such a ratio for any investigative reporter of stature, then one of the most important elements of his story (and the element one requires to make the critical distinctions) is where he got it, and from whom. He is right that a drug unit was formed, into which vast sums, never properly accounted for, were sunk; and that that unit became, in effect, a private police force under the direct control of the Nixon White House.20 He is right that what became known about Watergate could not have become known without disaffected and self-serving bureaucrats cooperating with the press—although he seems, rather in his baiting frame of mind, deliberately to underrate what the role of the key journalists was. He overrates, on the other hand, the quality of honor in the former high officials who talked to him—as other journalists, in their turn, and in line with his theory, were taken in by the men (Haig, Hugh Sloan, and Fred Buzhardt to name but three at various levels) who talked to them.

But the end is not yet. With every book about the series of events called Watergate, it becomes clearer that the break-in, and its cover-up, though reprehensible, as a crime of state was trivial; and that nothing was or will be added to the story—except bits of color, solving nothing. We are left with our failures of investigation. The railroad scandals of the nineteenth century just somehow subsided. There is a vast new railroad scandal now, of course, in the liquidation of the Penn Central—but it’s like the City University of New York scandal, and the Medicare scandal, and all the many other scandals. Nobody has the time or the way to begin to get to the bottom of them. For a minute, by coincidence, in the Watergate, two immense scandals came together. The burglars who were caught there happened to have in their possession cash which could be traced, by way of foreign banks, to an Asian foreign national—which would have raised an immediate question of what was the nexus between the election, the money, and the war. And the burglars happened to be members of a new unit nominally dedicated to the enforcement of the narcotics laws, but actually involved in espionage of various sorts; the burglars were also quite closely connected with the CIA, which had its own involvement in narcotics, and its own questionable foreign bank transactions—which might have raised an immediate question what the nexus was between the money, narcotics, and espionage. For a minute, everything stopped at the Watergate.

Then, everyone started covering his tracks in the direction most dangerous to him. A war of great covers and petty disclosures was waged in the press; the high scandals never quite made it into print. The casualty was Richard Nixon, with the silliest smoking pistol in the world: a tape he hadn’t really even lied about, exactly. In every respect a bizarre and unsatisfying story. One underlying human thread, though, is greed—for weapons, drugs, money. Perhaps the most important public documents, in the next few years, and the real locus for investigative reporting, will be the reports of any government committee of financial oversight, as covered—for the first time in depth—in the business pages of newspapers.

This Issue

December 8, 1977