On June 17, 1972, four months before the Presidential election, five men were caught breaking into Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate office building, in Washington D.C. They were Howard Hunt (former CIA officer), G Gordon Liddy (former FBI agent), and 3 Cuban Nationals who had participated in the Bay of Pigs. It was their fourth attempt at penetrating this office. They were caught in the act of planting two listening devices in Lawrence O'Brien office, the chairman of the DNC.

Were they conducting a fishing expedition? Collecting idle conversations, hoping something actionable would fall into their laps? Were they after something more specific? Something only Lawrence Obrien would be discussing?

H. R. Haldeman Nixon's Chief of staff who served 18 months in prison said in a speech at Hofstra University 1987:

“To this day I still don’t know why that was done, and I don’t know anybody who does. Why they would hit the (Democratic) National Headquarters is beyond me, because nobody in that place knows anything anyway.”

Over the years that has been pretty much the standard answer given by senior Nixon administration officials.

The minutes from the Watergate Hearings before Congress conducted between Feb 7, 1973 to Jun 27, 1974 were inconclusive on what the Watergate burglars were after focusing instead on the illegality of the various breakins and illegal actions conducted by Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) as well as who were involved.

The Watergate investigation eventually mushroomed into the broader illegal activities of the Nixon Campaign. It lead to the guilty pleas or convictions of 55 individuals and 20 corporations as well as the resignation of the sitting President Richard Nixon. On Oct 1975 as the 3rd and final Watergate special prosecutor Henry Ruth was leaving office; he stated his investigation had failed to uncover the motivations behind the Watergate break-in which had started and given the name for the entire wave of prosecutions.

It's now forty years since the investigation concluded, my question:

Do we know what the Watergate burglars were after?

  • My impression, from what I have read over the years is "very little". The burglary was most likely conceived as a low-key, inside-information gathering event. What blew it up into the massive cause célebre that it became was the attempted cover-up and the mass of related incidental incriminating evidence against Nixon and his administration that it threw up - including the fact that the burglary had been authorised by the President.
    – WS2
    Jun 25, 2023 at 8:05

3 Answers 3


The break-in on 17 June 1972 was intended to replace a defective microphone that had been planted the previous month. The article about the scandal on the history.com website says:

"In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.

The wiretaps failed to work properly, however, so on June 17 a group of five men returned to the Watergate building. As the prowlers were preparing to break into the office with a new microphone, a security guard noticed someone had taped over several of the building’s door locks. The guard called the police, who arrived just in time to catch the spies red-handed."

  • (my emphasis)

If you are interested, the FBI released the records which:

"... document the FBI’s investigation into the break-in and related issues between 1972 and 1979."

under the US Freedom of Information Act. These records complement those of the Congressional hearings. They are currently available as scans of the original files in a series of 101 PDF files, that can be read or downloaded from the FBI Vault.

Of course, this leaves the question of what it was that the burglars were looking for during the first break-in in May 1972.

A 2009 post on nixontapes.org, states that Nixon's White House Counsel, John Dean, said the break-in was executed following a tip that claimed the Democrats were engaging in potentially-illegal fundraising activities:

"Dean's new revelation is that the origin of the Watergate break-in was a "tip" that Nixon received about an alleged Democratic fundraising kickback scheme and Nixon's subsequent desire for more information. If Dean's revelation is correct, it would change the popular understanding of the origin of the Watergate break-in."

These claims were apparantly made on 17 September 2009, during an appearance on a programme called "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" However, it is worth noting that Dean's role in the alleged tip remains far from clear, as discussed in the nixontapes article.


Do we know what the Watergate burglars were after?

Short Answer

After decades of silence on the Watergate break-ins the main characters have begun speaking; however, the explanations conflict. Beyond this their answer to the motivation behind the break-ins are self serving or vague. The two most creditable conspirators are John Dean and Stuart Magruder and their answers are given be low.

Detailed Answer

Explanations given by the main Watergate conspirators mostly conflict. Beyond that some are self-serving, nonsensical or incomplete. One watergate conspirator (Stuart Magruder) did confirm a explanation which was first proposed by the chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee and which is plausible and elaborates on the answer John Dean gave.

First the Self Serving:
Howard Hunt

Howard Hunt told the Miami Herald in 1997, that they were looking for financial links between Cuba, North Vietnam and the DNC

Ex-Spy Crafted Watergate, Other Schemes
“What we were looking for is the same thing every congressional committee is looking for today, which was evidence of illegal foreign contributions,” he told the Miami Herald in 1997. “That was the rationale for going in there. We’d heard rumors that both the Vietnamese and Fidel Castro were inserting funds illegally into the Democratic National Committee. And the idea was to look at the books, photograph them, in and out, and that’s it. It didn’t seem like such a deal to me. You know, I’d been doing that stuff for years, a ‘black-bag job’ into other embassies. But you know, I didn’t have skilled people.”

This is not plausible because if such treasonous activity were occurring it would have been the CIA and FBI who were conducting court ordered search and sezures and not the white house plumbers illegally breaking in. That Howard Hunt would propose this explanation is self serving because it means he was actually working on behalf of America's security rather than subverting it as part of rigging the 1972 election.

In 2001 G Gordon Liddy testified in court, the Watergate Breakin's were conducted to retrieve evidence of Prostitution at the DNC.

G. Gordon Liddy Gives First Testimony on Watergate Break-In
(Watergate) burglars were not seeking political intelligence but photographs linking the future wife of President Richard M. Nixon's White House counsel, John W. Dean III, to a call-girl ring.


G. Gordon Liddy
"Maxie" Wells, a former DNC headquarters secretary who sued Liddy for saying that the her desk was targeted in a search for pictures of prositutes by Watergate burglars. The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore after jurors could not reach a verdict. Wells appealed that decision.

The reason this is self serving is because Liddy and John Dean have had a long and bitter feud based on their different approaches to the Watergate scandal. Liddy remained silent and for this received the harshest jail sentence of any of the conspirator (20 year sentence, served 8 with a Presidential commutation), John Dean cooperated with the prosecutors and was given a more lenient 4 month jail sentence and has been pilloried by Liddy ever since.

The Incomplete

As previously mentioned in another answer John Dean in 2009 said the Watergate plumbers were seeking evidence the Democrats were engaging in potentially-illegal fundraising activities.

This is incomplete because he doesn't mention who the Democrats were suspected of receiving these funds from. How Nixon heard of these activities, and of coarse after years of investigations by congress no such "illegal" activities were uncovered.

Beyond that this explanation does dovetail into the last explanation which fills in the missing details.

The Plausible:..
Jeb Stuart Magruder
A Key White house aid, who later was appointed deputy Attorney General, who during the break in served as a middleman between the politicians (Haldeman, Mitchell, Nixon) and the plumbers (Liddy, Hunt) supports the most popular explanation. Magruder served 7 months in prison for his watergate actives, and in 1996 he confirmed an explanation first proposed by Terry Lenzner chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.

Why the Watergate Break-In? The Nixon forces were trying to determine what Lawrence F. O'Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, knew about some shady dealings between Nixon and Howard Hughes, particularly $100,000 passed from the multimillionaire to the President's friend Charles (Bebe) Rebozo, part of which was apparently later spent on furnishings and jewelry for the President and his family. Secondarily, the White House may have been trying to dig up some dirt with which to persuade the Democrats to withhold, during the 1972 campaign, what they knew about the Nixon-Hughes relationship.

This makes sense because the target of the break-in was Lawrence O'Brien; who had previously worked for Howard Hughes and continued to have a good relationship with the Hughes organization. This relationship was a key point of paranoia for President Nixon who feared both evidence of Nixon's relationship with Hughes, and a possible Hughes financial relationship with the DNC.

Hughes money had helped resurrect Nixon's career after his first loss to Kennedy in 1960 campaign. They had since had a falling out; Nixon was paranoid that Hughes was backing the Democratic Candidate in 1972; and feared details of his previous dealings with Hughes would come out and be damaging.



The best book on the subject is Silent Coup There are quite a number of details as to who of the delegated plumbers actually had the idea and went about doing it as well as the cover-up. Experts have sneered and objected to claims here but never answered them or properly disproved them.

They make the mistake of getting the identity of Deep Throat wrong but justify their claim very thoroughly. The truth came out decades later.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.