Last month, the director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the US press division wrote a letter to a US newspaper defending President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The letter was not published, but he did subsequently leave comments on the paper’s Web site, in which he said the surveillance and data collection on Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) is not comparable to the US’ Watergate scandal.
He was right, of course, but not in the way he implied. He should have qualified the sentiment by saying that the controversy in Taiwan is far more serious than Watergate was.
There were two aspects to the Watergate scandal: the original burglaries and then-US president Richard Nixon’s involvement. It came about when Nixon’s re-election campaign, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), resorted to underhand methods to gain intelligence on the Democratic presidential candidate. The CRP hired a team, including former CIA operatives, to sneak into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building to install bugging equipment and photograph documents. On the second outing, some of the members were caught and arrested.
The operatives admitted the crime, but declined to divulge the reason for the break-ins. Later investigators discovered that the CRP had made payments into the accused’s bank accounts and a former FBI agent who had been involved in the plan to bug the Watergate premises admitted conspiring to provide intelligence to the CRP and agreed to turn state’s witness.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, evidence emerged to link then-White House counsel John Dean to the Watergate intelligence-gathering plan. Reluctant to take the fall for the scandal, Dean implicated Nixon and indicated that the president had discussed hush money for the defendants.
The White House wanted to distance itself from the CRP’s involvement, but the wife of one of the CRP members, then-attorney general John Mitchell, revealed that Mitchell was protecting Nixon. This led to suspicions that Nixon was involved in trying to cover up the Watergate burglaries, which resulted in his impeachment.
The investigation centered on what exactly Nixon knew and at what point he become aware of it. Although crucial parts of White House recorded conversations were “accidentally” destroyed by one of his aides, Nixon was eventually forced to resign his presidency. He was later granted a full pardon by his successor, then-US president Gerald Ford.
With Watergate, the perpetrators were hired thugs. Nixon wanted to bury the case and sweep his subordinates’ illegal actions under the rug. With the scandal currently unfolding in Taiwan, Ma violated the law by receiving a report on an ongoing case from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Special Investigation Division (SID), containing intelligence that itself had been illegally obtained through surveillance. He then overstepped his constitutional powers, using intelligence — which the SID had already acknowledged did not prove illegal behavior on the part of the intended object of the surveillance — against the legislative speaker.
When the US Congress sought to impeach Nixon, he neither dared nor was able to claim the moral high ground and attempt to deal with the speaker of the house. Ma, on the other hand, has had the audacity to use intelligence illegally obtained by the state to attempt a political conquest. What he has done makes Nixon’s sins pale in comparison.
James Wang is a media commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper