Terror War Recalls Watergate Era

Monday marked 30 years since the beginning of the Watergate scandal, and with its anniversary come questions about whether the intelligence community reforms that followed are partly responsible for a failure to foresee the Sept. 11 attacks.

After D.C. police arrested five men on June 17, 1972, for breaking into the Democratic National Committee's campaign offices, the White House's attempts to cover up the break-in's origins, and revelations from Nixon's own audiotapes, forced the president to resign two years later.

But Watergate lives on. Some of the principals from the Watergate era are still involved in litigation against each other, fighting out the question of what the purpose of the Watergate break-in really was.

While its mission has never been fully explained, the break-in exposed the systematic abuses by both the CIA and the FBI, which are only now being addressed as the United States tries to beef up its intelligence sharing to fight the war on terrorism through a massive overhaul of domestic security agencies.

"In the early '70s both (the CIA and the FBI) were subject to substantial review by both the executive and the legislative branches and significant changes were made in both fronts," said Paul Rosensweig, Senior Legal Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

One such reform under the Ford administration was the ban on FBI attendance at public gatherings unless they had evidence of wrongdoing.

Rosensweig said that rule change gave latter-day terrorists a big advantage.

"Sheik Abdul Rahman, who was convicted in connection with the World Trade Center bombings, knowing that, actually used the mosques as secure gathering places for him and the people he was recruiting," Rosensweig said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recently reversed the rule, saying the FBI should be allowed the same access to the same information that private citizens can obtain.

Congress is also grappling with another legacy from the days of Watergate and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's unorthodox practices.

"Out of the Watergate era, we broke the bonds between (the CIA and FBI) very stongly and erected a very large wall between the two so that there was no information sharing anymore," Rosensweig said. 

But one scholar argues Watergate provoked next to no significant reforms of the nation's intelligence agencies.

"(President) Carter signed a few orders, but (President) Reagan reversed them," said Katheryn S. Olmsted, a professor at the University of California and author of Challenging the Secret Government:  The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI.

"When I wrote my book, I asked intell officers if the reforms changed things for them. To a man they all said, 'No.'"

Olmsted argued that recent cries from the intelligence community for post-Watergate shackles to be removed amount to little more than blame shifting.

"This is a case of intelligence professionals who don't want to admit their mistakes," she said.

But while mistakes were made both during and after Watergate, a new poll shows Americans may remember Nixon more for his February 1972 trip to China, which opened the Communist nation to cultural exchanges, than for the Watergate bungling. 

According to a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, 52 percent of those polled said opening communications with China was a more important event in history than the lessons from Watergate.  Twenty-one percent said lessons from Watergate were more important.

Fourteen percent couldn't decide and 13 percent said both would be remembered as equally important.