Obituaries of Kenneth Dahlberg, who died at age 94 on Oct. 4th, pointed out that he unwittingly played a key role in the unraveling of Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal coverup. That's an understatement. The "Dahlberg check" story was the single most important contribution the Washington Post made in its two years of Watergate coverage.
For reporters and editors, the Dahlberg story is still relevant; it shows that good reporting by a small group, at not much expense, can change the course of events. For Watergate junkies -- and there still are some -- the Dahlberg check details will forever be juicy.
I was Watergate editor at the Washington Post. I've long felt the Post's role in forcing Nixon out of office to be overblown. We missed out on major aspects of the story. We weren't looking into the coverup, for example, until a Watergate grand juror suggested we should. Massive, illegal campaign contributions, revealed at the Senate Watergate hearings, came as news to us. It wasn't the Post that reported Nixon's horrendous income tax fraud that left him in total public ridicule. (Nixon for two years running paid income taxes at the level of, say, a White House janitor.)
What the Post did do, aside from having a long run of very good, exciting stories, was to set in motion inquiries, including the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, that brought into public view the coverup, the illegal campaign contributions, the tax fraud, and other wrongdoing that forced Nixon out of office.
And it was the Dahlberg check story by itself that set those things in motion.
The story appeared Aug. 1, 1972. Immediately -- the day it appeared -- it sparked three congressional investigations. Without it, there is a strong chance the coverup would have succeeded. There might have been no Senate Watergate committee, no special prosecutor, no overwhelming public outcry, and the perjured testimony that so riled Watergate Judge John Sirica might have prevailed. There's no way to prove these assertions but it still seems to me, after all these years, that it's as likely as not that Nixon would have gotten away with the Watergate coverup if not for the Dahlberg check story.
Dahlberg, of Minneapolis and Boca Raton, was a fund-raiser for Nixon in 1972. He gathered up $25,000 in South Florida in April, turned it into a cashier's check and gave it to the re-election committee in Washington. The check then showed up in a bank account of Bernard Barker's in the Republic National Bank in Miami. Barker was one of five burglars caught in the act on June 17, 1972, with thirteen new $100 bills in their possession drawn from that bank.
The FBI promptly traced the Dahlberg check along with three others, for a total of $114,000, from Creep (as the Committee for the Re-Election of the President was called) into Barker's account. So did Martin Dardis, an investigator at the State's Attorney's office in Miami, where Watergate was being looked at as something of a local crime, what with four of the arrested men having Miami addresses. Dardis later told me he went to the bank on July 6, 1972, to ask whether Barker had an account. The date is important, as it was 25 days before Post reporter Carl Bernstein found out about the Dahlberg check.
Bernstein went to Miami on July 31 because the New York Times had started running stories from there about the $114,000. After some reluctance, Dardis let Bernstein see Barker's bank records, and the Dahlberg check stood out. It was about 8 or 8:30 PM, and back in the Post newsroom Bob Woodward was able to get Dahlberg by phone in Minneapolis. In their first conversation Dahlberg confirmed that he was the person in question but didn't say much more. He then called back to ascertain that Woodward was indeed a Washington Post reporter. I took that call and kept him on the line until Woodward, by then following up with a Nixon campaign official, could get on. (I am aided in this account by my Watergate book, The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, where I described these events in detail.)
Dahlberg told Woodward, "In the process of fund raising I had accumulated some cash, so I recall making a cash deposit and getting a cashier's check made out to myself. I didn't want to carry all that cash into Washington." He said he had no idea how the money got into Barker's account, and that the FBI had interviewed him about three weeks earlier, around the same time Martin Dardis got on the case.
(I have written elsewhere that Deep Throat/Mark Felt was more myth than reality as a useful Watergate source. The Dahlberg check story is important evidence for that; the FBI and presumably Felt had known about the Dahlberg check for almost a month but the Post learned about it not from him but from Dardis, the local Miami investigator. If Deep Throat was such a helpful source, why didn't he tell Woodward about the connection between the re-election committee and the burglars? Deep Throat helped confirm stories from time to time but it would be hard to find any he suggested.)
The investigations that began as a result of the Aug. 1 story were one by the General Accounting Office, which became the first body to find illegalities in the Nixon re-election campaign; the House Banking and Currency Committee, led by Wright Patman who had a clear view of the scandal and called key Watergate scandal figures to testify but was thwarted, at Nixon's direction, by the Justice Department and his own committee; and a three-month formal but quiet investigation by James Flug on behalf of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Patman was blocked as six Democrats, for questionable reasons, joined fourteen Republicans to vote against holding hearings. That was only one instance among several showing extensive bipartisan congressional defense of Nixon at the time. In fact, hardly any political leaders in Congress or elsewhere spoke out about the Watergate crimes; probably they could be counted on one hand. But the comradery wasn't total: Flug's findings for Kennedy led directly to creation of the Senate Watergate Committee, also known as the Ervin Committee.
There were of course other important revelations unrelated to the Dahlberg letter. The strange, self-incriminating testimony of acting FBI director Patrick Gray; the news that some of the Watergate burglars had earlier broken into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in California; the cracking of James McCord in a letter to Sirica; testimony at closed Congressional committee hearings before the Ervin Committee got started. All were important and amazing stories, really.
As for the Washington Post's contribution, however, the high water mark was the Dahlberg check story. The rest is history. How different it would have been without it is something we can ponder but never really know.
This story also ran on NiemanWatchdog.org.