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Z-Gate and the Sanctity of the Grand Jury

Z-Gate and the Sanctity of the Grand Jury

By Geoff Shepard - May 17, 2012

Jeff Himmelman’s revelation in his April 29th New York Magazine article (http://nymag.com/news/features/ben-bradlee-2012-5/) -- that Carl Bernstein really had interviewed a Watergate grand juror -- is breath-taking in its implications. It’s not just that Woodward and Bernstein have lied about this for 40 years, it's that interference with a grand jury threatens the integrity of our judicial system.

Himmelman was researching Ben Bradlee’s papers for his authorized biography of the flamboyant Washington Post editor ("Yours in Truth, a Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee"), when he found seven pages of interview notes with what was clearly a Watergate grand juror. This is the source that Woodward and Bernstein had falsely described as “Z”, supposedly a secretary at Nixon’s re-election committee, in "All the President’s Men."

As we were told, sources were scarce following the September indictments of the Watergate burglars, so the two reporters attempted to interview several Watergate grand jurors, whose names Woodward had obtained from the District Court clerk’s office. One juror complained to Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert, who informed Judge John Sirica. The eminent Edward Bennett Williams, counsel to the Washington Post, was dispatched to meet privately with the judge. Assured that their attempts were unsuccessful, Sirica did not jail the duo for criminal contempt of court -- a traditional response -- but settled instead for a generic admonition to all reporters to avoid any grand juror contact.

It now develops that at least one juror had agreed to be interviewed. According to Himmelman, Woodward and Bernstein each have confirmed this, while making light of their acts at the same time.

The secrecy of grand jury proceedings lies at the heart of our judicial system. Obtaining their names certainly violated the court’s confidentiality procedures. Actually leaking grand jury information could constitute a direct violation by Z, to be sure, but Woodward and Bernstein could well be seen as aiding and abetting.

But a far more serious issue is potential jury tampering: The very act of interviewing this juror, and asking about the relative importance of specific individuals, certainly influenced her thinking, and therefore her conduct. Bernstein’s notes reflect Z’s comments more than his own, but she’s clearly thrilled to be talking with him.

That would have been a serious breach: While Bernstein’s notes quote Z as saying “I was on the grand jury” [emphasis added], it is far more likely she remained an active juror—and continued to serve until its expiration. Her grand jury was empaneled just before the Watergate break-in, but devoted its full time and attention solely to Watergate matters. While Federal grand juries normally last for 18 months, this one was extended by Congress through December 4, 1974 -- two full years after the admitted interview occurred.

Himmelman’s dramatic disclosure raises a host of questions going to the veracity and credibility of the two reporters: Their notes reflect an initial interview with a willing and enthusiastic juror, whose panel then proceeded to consider criminal conduct of the Watergate cover-up, including naming President Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator.

We may never know the full extent of their interaction, but Woodward told Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Select Committee investigating Watergate that Z’s information ranked on the same level as Deep Throat’s. Why, then, should we believe this was their only interview? Since it’s now clear that they lied about their conduct and the nature of this source—to their lawyer, to Judge Sirica, and to the reading public—why should we believe their descriptions of conduct and interactions with other sources, particularly Deep Throat?

One can only hope that a free and vigorous press will pursue this. After all, if we but knew her name, a better understanding of grand jury interactions might emerge—including whether there were subsequent interviews. They certainly know her name—but the fear of such disclosure may be why Woodward and Bernstein seem committed to a continuing cover-up of “Z-gate.”

Shepard served on President Nixon's White House staff and his legal defense team. His 2008 book, "The Secret Plot," explored the politics behind the successful exploitation of the Watergate scandal.

Geoff Shepard

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