The true story of the White House Plumbers

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The early 70s have been a tumultuous period for the United States politics. Many movies and TV shows exposed the events that culminated in the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. White House Plumbers, the limited series released on HBO in 2023, tells the true story of a secret team operating under Nixon’s administration in the years preceding Watergate. What really happened in those years? Let’s find out.

You can watch the official trailer for HBO’s White House Plumbers here on Youtube.

The true story of the White House Plumbers behind the HBO series

The White House Plumbers were a covert group of operatives employed by the Nixon administration during the early 1970s. The group was formed in 1971 in response to the leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. The White House Plumbers were meant to operate as “fixers” for President Nixon: their mission was to prevent further leaks of classified information and to discredit his political opponents.

The event that triggered the creation of the White House Plumbers occurred in June 1971, when The New York Times published on the front page a shocking article about the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The study, officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” was commissioned by the Department of Defense in 1967 and conducted by a team of analysts and historians led by Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. government had engaged in a long-term pattern of deception and misrepresentation of its actions and intentions in Vietnam. The study showed that U.S. government officials had known that the war was unwinnable for years but continued to escalate it anyway. It also revealed that the government had secretly expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos without the knowledge or approval of Congress.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times sparked a major controversy and a legal battle between the government and the press over the freedom of the press and the right of the public to know what the government was doing in their name. The release of the papers was a major embarrassment for the Nixon administration and contributed to the public’s growing disillusionment with the war. That’s the reason why President Nixon formed the group of White House Plumbers, one week after the leaking of the Pentagon Papers.

The first illegal activity carried out by the White House Plumbers was the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding: they broke into his office in an attempt to find information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The Plumbers believed that Ellsberg was part of a broader conspiracy to undermine Nixon and his administration. For his responsibility in the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy, and espionage. However, the case against Ellsberg was eventually dismissed precisely because of the way the government acted, after the illegal activities of the White House Plumbers were discovered.

Between 1971 and 1972, the White House Plumbers continued their secret operations against Nixon’s political opponents, until the event that marked the beginning of the Watergate scandal: on June 17, 1972, the White House Plumbers were involved in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building. The Watergate break-in was carried out by five men, sent to wiretap phones and steal documents from the DNC. The men were arrested, and the scandal triggered an investigation led by two reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which uncovered evidence linking the break-in to Nixon’s campaign and the White House.

The investigation eventually led to the discovery of the wide-ranging series of illegal activities carried out by Nixon’s administration, including the use of government agencies to spy on political opponents, the bribing of witnesses, and the creation of illegal slush funds to finance political campaigns. It was during the years of this investigation that American citizens discovered the existence of the White House Plumbers. You can find here an article about the “Plumbers” from the New York Times, published on June 22, 1973.

The Watergate scandal ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, as he faced impeachment charges for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. The White House Plumbers were of course dismissed, as a symbol of the illegal activities carried out by the government.

Why were they called the “White House Plumbers”?

The origin of the name is well described on Wikipedia: In 1971, David Young, a member of the group, arrived home from his planning at the Special Investigative Unit, when his grandmother asked him, “What do you do at the White House?” He replied, “I am helping the president stop some leaks.” She exclaimed, “Oh, you’re a plumber!”

Inspired by his grandma’s words, David Young then put up a sign on their office with the title “The Plumbers.” The sign was taken down shortly after, as their operations were intended to be top secret, but the name stuck for the group.

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