Reasonable people might agree or disagree with Nixon's domestic and foreign policies, and in most respects these policies were pragmatic and reasoned responses to the problems facing the nation. The expansive interpretation of constitutional prerogatives was not without precedent either; great presidents—Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Truman—had also expanded their powers and minimized legislative authority. Such constitutional trench warfare was part of the political game and could be refereed by the courts and the voters.
But the Nixon presidency had a darker side, a cancer eating away at its legitimacy and the bonds of trust and faith between rulers and ruled. Nixon did not play politics; he practiced war.
What President Ford later referred to as "our long national nightmare" was not a few isolated incidents relating to the 1972 reelection campaign. Rather it was an integral part of the White House political operation from the very first days of Nixon's presidency. The White House in 1969 compiled an "enemies list" containing the names of two hundred people it viewed as political opponents, including politicians, actors, university presidents, and other well-known figures. There was a "shortlist" targeted for immediate political retribution. Background investigations were conducted by White House operatives to find "dirt" that could be leaked to newspapers. Targets of these investigations included Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert. At a meeting of White House staffers on 7 September 1972, Nixon went so far as to order one or two "spies" to be included in the Secret Service detail assigned to Edward Kennedy, believing that if they got lucky and could catch him with a woman companion, it would "ruin him for '76." (There is no evidence that the order was ever carried out.)
The White House used government agencies to harass its opponents. The special services staff of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was ordered to conduct audits of organizations opposed to Nixon's policies, and did so until the practice was discontinued by Treasury Secretary George Shultz. The CIA's Special Operations Group conducted "Operation Chaos," which involved spying on New Left and black militant organizations. The Secret Service files on persons who are threats to the president ordinarily include deranged people who threaten the president's life, but during the Nixon administration the files ballooned to forty-seven thousand names, including political opponents. On 28 May 1971, Nixon ordered chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to use wiretaps against leading Democrats, including Kennedy, Edmund S. Muskie, and Hubert Humphrey. "Keep after 'em," he told Haldeman. "Maybe we can get a scandal on any, any of the leading Democrats."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), acting on presidential orders, wiretapped people without obtaining judicial warrants, including people in sensitive government positions. Kissinger himself ordered taps placed on staffers he thought were leaking classified information to the press. Then other officials ordered taps on each other, as factions within the White House attempted to discredit others. Attorney General John Mitchell had the FBI tap John Sears, his competitor as campaign adviser to the president. Alexander Haig ordered a tap on speechwriter William Safire. The Joint Chiefs of Staff used a navy ensign assigned to the NSC's communications section to spy on Henry Kissinger, who had his own tap on a defense department official close to Secretary of Defense Laird. Taps placed on Morton Halperin and Anthony Lake were used to gather information on the Muskie candidacy, since these former NSC officials were advisers to his campaign. Altogether seventeen FBI taps on government officials or newsmen were uncovered: seven on NSC staffers, three on White House aides, one on a Defense Department official, two on State Department officials, and four on newsmen.
The White House Special Investigations Unit, directed by Egil Krogh and David Young, hired a group of "Plumbers" to conduct special assignments. Howard Hunt, one of their operatives, conducted an investigation of Edward Kennedy, hoping to obtain damaging information about the accident at Chap-paquiddick in which Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and a young female passenger drowned. Hunt also forged State Department cables to make it appear that President Kennedy had been directly involved in the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam in 1963, and attempted to peddle them to Life magazine.
Hunt also organized an operation, ordered by John Ehrlichman, a presidential aide, to obtain damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, a critic of the Vietnam War. In June 1971, Ellsberg had given the New York Times copies of a history of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by the Pentagon. The "Pentagon Papers" related to the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years, but Kissinger persuaded Nixon that the credibility of American statecraft was at stake; other nations would not trust the United States to keep its secrets or protect its allies. He argued that publication of the papers must be stopped. The government won a temporary injunction in federal district court against the Times, barring further publication—the first time such an order had been issued in American history—but other papers then printed their copies. The ban was lifted and in the Pentagon Papers case the Supreme Court rejected the use of a preliminary injunction as a violation of the First Amendment.
Ellsberg was targeted for retribution. The Plumb-ers believed, on the basis of a wiretap of his conversations with Morton Halperin, that Ellsberg used drugs and had an unorthodox sex life. They then burglarized the offices of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, to obtain confidential transcripts or notes of their conversations. Ehrlichman decided that no more of these operations would be conducted, and shortly thereafter the Plumbers unit was disbanded, although other operations continued.