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HISTORY, POLITICAL THEORY, INTERNET

Conspiracies, Cover-ups and Cock-ups: Watergate Edition

This entry was posted in Complexity on 7 November 2013 by

In David’s talk at the recent Festival of Ideas he criticised the false dichotomy between a “conspiracy theory” of government and a “cock-up” theory of government. Conspiracies in democratic governments, he suggested, seem most often to be cover-ups of cock-ups. Thus they often look more like retrospective blame avoidance than a conscious and effective direction of future events.

A variation on this theme came to mind while, in preparation for a recent talk, I was reading Irving Janis’s “Groupthink”, so I thought I’d post some of my notes on the blog. Janis’s book is essentially a set of case studies of policy fiascos. Janis used the term “groupthink” to describe the deterioration in critical thinking and moral judgment that can result when a small, cohesive group unwittingly strives for unanimity. This “concurrence-seeking tendency”, he suggested, leads groups to insulate themselves from external critics and to act in ways that discourage internal dissent, leading to bad decisions. In the 1982 edition, ten years after the original publication of “Victims of Groupthink”, Janis added a chapter on Watergate.

Watergate is in many ways an archetypal modern government conspiracy. Both the decision to burgle the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate building and the decision to embark on a cover-up once the burglars were arrested clearly fit our definitions of conspiracy. Janis focuses on the cover-up, but he takes it to be not only an exemplary conspiracy, but also an exemplary cock-up. The puzzle was “why the President allowed himself to become involved in a series of ill-conceived obstructions of justice and why he failed to realise until it was too late that he would be unable to withhold the incriminating evidence in his White House tapes” (Janis 1982: 203). One commonly noted factor was Nixon’s character, another was the structure of the governmental bureaucracy, and yet another the corrupting influence of power. But Janis emphasises the effect of group dynamics, the “situational conditions that foster concurrence-seeking even among hard-headed presidential advisors” (Janis 1982: 203).

There was clearly a small, cohesive group of conspirators. The core group responsible for the cover-up policy consisted of President Nixon, his Chief of Staff, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, and his chief advisor on domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman. The group also included John Dean, the President’s Counsel, and Charles Colson, a White House aide. Dean and Colson were junior members of the group, but they shared in the sense of loyalty and shared norms of the core group, at least until March 1973, when Dean defected, with disastrous results for the rest of the group. Furthermore, they clearly knew they were doing something wrong, and they knew that they had all agreed to it.

But at the same time Janis tells a story of a succession of poorly considered blunders arising from poorly structured group decision processes. The group was insulated from outside information. They also harboured illusions of invulnerability, suppressed potential disagreements, and engaged in collective rationalizations. They used no rigorous method for evaluating decisions. Janis observes that  “throughout February and March 1973, the group comes back time and again to the same unresolved problems they had superficially been discussion earlier, without any attempt to organize their planning. When one member starts to lay out a plan, it is either uncritically accepted or derailed by someone else who switches to a different issue. In the recorded deliberations bearing on the cover-up policy, neither Nixon nor anyone else in the group structured the conversation so that the main alternatives would be examined” (Janis 1982: 235).

And the core conspirators looked a lot like conspiracy theorists, or at least nurtured their own conspiratorial suspicions. “When discussing how to deal with the recently established Senate Watergate Committee…, Dean took the lead in labelling it a conspiracy by their political enemies and asserting that Senator Ervin, the chairman, and Sam Dash, the chief counsel for the Committee, were mere puppets of Edward Kennedy. Nixon agreed. ‘Yeah. I guess the Kennedy crowd is just laying in the bushes waiting to make their move’. … In using such stereotypes, Nixon and his aides appear to be attributing the criticisms levelled against them by the press and the demands for congressional investigations entirely to the machinations of their enemies, and not at all to their own misjudgments or misdeeds” (Janis 1982: 229). That is, Janis suggests that the conspiracy was a cock-up in part because the conspiracists were themselves conspiracy theorists!

Now we could just say that any governmental conspiracy that we find out about is by definition a cock-up. But Janis’s close look at the inner workings of an archetypal conspiracy shows a group plotting in secret to malevolent ends, yet in the absence of a grand design. What we have is a succession of badly considered decisions in response to short term pressures.

One irony in this account of Watergate is that precisely the sort of group polarization and “crippled epistemology” that Sunstein and Vermeule take as a defining feature of conspiracy theorists are found in the group at the heart of an emblematic governmental conspiracy.