In 1973, Bud Krogh, formerly Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy. He accepted full responsibility for his role in authorizing a break-in without a warrant into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, to find incriminating information. The break-in deprived Dr. Fielding of his civil rights, specifically his right to be free from an unwarranted search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
Why did Bud break the law? Ellsberg had leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” a Defense Department document containing Top Secret information on the Vietnam War to “The New York Times.” President Nixon emphasized to Bud (whose boss, John Ehrlichman, had chosen him for this job) that national security was at stake. Nixon wanted to know how and why the leak had happened and told Bud that such leaks “would not be allowed.” John Ehrlichman then specifically approved a “covert operation” that authorized the break-in and wrote “under your assurance it is not traceable.”
The group of operatives who worked for Bud, known as the “Plumbers,” found nothing in their search which took place in 1971. But the next year, 1972, the same group broke into the office of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Bud had no knowledge of the Watergate break-in which led to the end of Nixon’s presidency. When Bud saw in the newspaper that there was a break-in at Watergate, he was actually taking some time off from work to study, pray, and get to know God better. His prayer eventually led him in 1973 to take responsibility for his actions and turn his life around -- with integrity at the center of it.
During our interview, Bud shares why he broke the law, how prayer helped him to plead guilty, how he dealt with fear, how Bible stories comforted him in prison, how he went about making amends, and more.
What do you love about the law?
I think what drew me to it (I first considered becoming a lawyer when I was in the Navy) was the central idea that there’s a divine Principle that underlies everything -- the universe and how it works. So the natural progression was thinking about the application of the divine Principle in law and how it works in human institutions, in the legal system. I was very attracted to the idea that law is fundamental and paramount to ordering a society so that human affairs can be carried out peacefully and with fairness and justice. So I read about people who taught law and learned what was going to be expected of me. My law school career was very interesting to me. Law was pretty much in harmony with my own interests, with what I believed was important, and I hoped I could make a contribution.
So you have the concept of divine Principle as your foundation, and then you end up apparently violating this principle through criminal conspiracy. How did that happen?
There’s a great statement from Francis Biddle, the Attorney General for President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II: “The Constitution has not greatly bothered any wartime President.” There’s a whole history in America, going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, of presidents who have set aside a portion of the law when they felt a great sense of urgency that national security was threatened and that the country was in a state of emergency.
President Nixon had a very broad sense of what he could do when he felt national security was at stake. I bought into this broad notion of the President’s powers under national security when I was given the responsibility to stop the leaks of classified information. I believed I was helping prevent a serious threat to our national security. I felt I was doing my duty to carry out the covert operation because I felt we were honoring what the President wanted done to end the Vietnam War. President Nixon stated this philosophy very starkly to David Frost in an interview in 1977 when he said, “When the President does it that means that it is not illegal.”
But now I think that this philosophy can be extremely dangerous in terms of where you draw the line. You have to be particularly sensitive to abuses of power when under threat, when in a state of emergency, or in war, as these are the times when the temptation to break the law can be almost overwhelming. I’ve come to realize how critical respect for and obedience to law is in our system of government. The government is not above all institutions; rather, it’s duty-bound to adhere to the law, and when it doesn’t, it can undermine the civil society.
How did the Bible affect your thinking and guide your actions after the break-in?
There’s a line in the Bible -- “I will walk in mine integrity” (Ps 26:11) -- that really prompts the question, “Well, what is your integrity, your innate sense of what is right, good, and lawful?” I wanted to be consistent with my own sense of integrity. And integrity is a divine quality. It’s not just being honest or truthful; it’s deeper than that. It means getting in touch with and living out from your deepest spiritual selfhood. By doing that, I felt that I would be led to make the right decisions.
I realized that my job was more than just being a lawyer on the President’s staff. There was a broader sense of responsibility -- to the President, to the country, and to our Constitution. This sense of integrity was extremely important when I was facing indictment for committing a crime which I didn’t feel was wrong when I did it in 1971.
Getting in touch with my higher ethical and spiritual loyalties and duties helped me walk in my own integrity. I had to realize that my role was not just as a player in the White House, an agent of the President. I was also an individual who was sworn to uphold the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic, so help me God.” Specifically, I had a higher loyalty to the principles behind the Constitution and to the underlying values that must be demonstrated by those who live in a constitutional republic. Some of these values are respect, honesty, responsibility, fairness, and compassion -- the values that the Institute for Global Ethics points out as central to ethics.
In 1971, I basically ignored this higher loyalty and these underlying values. Because of pressure, “groupthink,” and a sense that the stakes are high, you can get yourself into a mindset where you think you’re doing the right thing. But you’re not. I had not shown respect to Dr. Fielding, whose office I authorized to enter so we could photograph files. Finally realizing that what I had done was wrong and illegal, I pleaded guilty to depriving him of his civil rights in 1973.
So how did you arrive at the conclusion to plead guilty?
I was in Williamsburg with my family for Thanksgiving in 1973, when I had an epiphany. I was out behind the House of Burgesses, and came to a realization that what I had done struck at the heart of what our system of laws under the founding document was established to protect against -- and that was the unwarranted, unreasonable intrusion into the private lives of one of its citizens. The founding fathers added the Bill of Rights for a reason: they felt they needed foundational ideas to protect us from government abuses and excesses. So what do you do when you realize you’ve done something outside of the law? You plead guilty. I had someone praying for me throughout the whole experience to help me keep my thought anchored to the highest truth. And of course, I was praying constantly.
Do you remember what stood out to you in your prayers?
One prayer was the great idea that came to Jesus when he was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, not too sure he really wants to go through with everything, but knowing what’s going to come: “… nevertheless, not my will, but Thine, be done” (Luke22:42). And then everything moved quickly for him. As Christians, we use this as one of our main prayers. My concept of the prayer was, “Lead me to do, Father, the right thing, whatever that is.” Then it came clearly to plead guilty, and things happened very quickly. That was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and on the following Tuesday, I was back in Washington, D.C. in the office of the special prosecuting attorney, Leon Jaworski, telling him I was there to plead guilty.
Were you ever afraid?
I was afraid all through October and most of November 1973, when the legal case was being prepared. I couldn’t even sleep. This was before I pleaded guilty. I was afraid of all the things that might happen: I might be convicted; I might be stabbed or raped in prison; I might lose ability to make a living. But when I understood what had gone wrong and decided to take the consequences, when I decided to plead guilty, I was never afraid again. I wasn’t afraid to go to court or to go to prison. Once I was able to see the right course, the fear of the consequences dropped away because I knew I’d be taken care of. And I was in many seemingly miraculous ways.
That’s a very helpful thought: when you get a sense of what’s right and commit to doing right, you get a sense of peace.
Yes, almost a sense of comfort. You can breathe again. What a wonderful outcome! Before, there was nothing scarier than to be mired in a wrong idea and a sense of guilt. Once you face it, you’ve been cleansed, and there’s a sense of release. I knew what I did was wrong, and I wouldn’t do it again today. But it wasn’t easy by any means. I tried my best to let the authorities and the people know what had happened -- all the things that I thought they should know, including my motives. Most of the media didn’t seem to care; they thought we were all just a bunch of crooks. There were exceptions, of course, with “The New York Times” and “The Christian Science Monitor.” These papers ran stories and editorials that showed they understood what I was trying to do. I’m grateful for that.
And yet, you were the only one who pleaded guilty. You had obviously undergone a major shift in thought.
Yes. I had finally looked directly at the kind of thinking that led me to commit the crime. The judge who sentenced me to prison explained that I did what I did out of loyalty … but what type of loyalty? My loyalty was to Nixon, not to the Constitution. And I had to deal with vanity. I was almost 30, and I thought I could do just about anything. But I hadn’t thought through the consequences of my actions. None of us had. We just went forward to carry out the operation without thinking of the effects on innocent people.
I had to think clearly and realize that there’s a criminal law that prohibits conspiracy conduct. Did I violate that law? Yes, I did. So what’s the right thing? To plead guilty. Once you plead guilty, there are consequences. I welcomed the consequences once I saw where my thinking had gone wrong. I wanted to pay the price that pleading guilty meant. I wasn’t going to accept a pardon, even though I knew for a fact that Nixon wanted to pardon me. But a pardon would’ve been a catastrophe because it would’ve precluded me from paying the price.
So then I wanted to do my sentence in prison as honorably as I could and not think, “I don’t belong here.” It actually seemed as if I were the only guilty guy there, as so many of the prisoners had been set up, pressured, etc. But I knew why I was in prison, and that knowledge helped me get through the term. I’m not saying that going to jail is a great thing.
How did you use the Bible to help you get through the trial and the time in prison?
The story of Daniel inspired me a lot. Daniel never succumbed to pressure; he did what was right and didn’t deviate. As a result, he was protected. When I finally recognized I had done something wrong, owned up to it, and tried to do the right thing I was protected, too. In both Daniel’s experience in the lions’ den and my experience in maximum security prison, the lions’ mouths were closed. Not a single person threatened me or showed any animosity to me while I was in there.
I also studied the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego while I was preparing myself for prison. They knew they would be protected and they were. And when I was in prison, I studied closely the story of Joseph. He stayed true to himself and used his talents in reading dreams (which is partly what got him in trouble in the first place). It’s probably not the best thing to tell your older brothers that you’re going to be first above them. There was some pride on his part, and having the coat of many colors probably didn’t help, either. But when Joseph was in prison for something he didn’t do, he didn’t just sit back, whine, and complain. He was active.
These stories have tremendous power for people facing a prison experience. There are lots of wonderful New Testament people who faced prison, too. The Bible showed me the importance of staying true to my own sense of right no matter what. And Shakespeare agrees: “This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (Hamlet I.3).
I’m writing a new book called Freedom in Prison (and Elsewhere): “Doing Time” the Bible Way. Just “doing time” is really not the best way to use that experience. You have to be active, to see what’s right.
In your book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House, you talk about going to see Fielding and Nixon after you got out of prison. Why was that so important to you?
I needed to apologize and make amends. I needed to speak directly to the people I had specifically harmed -- Dr. Fielding and Nixon. I personally talked to both of them. Fielding was shocked when I arrived at his door, but our conversation was a healing experience for both of us. While Nixon didn’t feel guilty, he did feel responsible for what happened to me. Bill Dwyer, the lawyer who helped reinstate me into the Washington State bar and enable me to practice law again, helped me understand what needed to be done. Before he took my case, before I was sentenced, he had told me I probably would be sentenced to prison and should serve my sentence with honor. He advised me to refrain from immediately writing a book about what had happened in order to make money, and to make amends for what I had done wrong.
And once I had done all that, I couldn’t just sit back and sell cars. I had learned some things through this struggle. So I taught grad school; I came back to the practice of law; I gave talks to junior high and high school students, to Rotary clubs, to people living in senior centers; and I recently wrote the book you mentioned, Integrity (2007), with my son Matt. The book’s dedication states why we wrote it. “To those who deserved better, this book is offered as an apology, an explanation, and a way to keep integrity in the forefront of decision-making.”
So you’re making a difference and helping people learn how to make wiser decisions. Are there any last thoughts you’d like to share with us?
In my current career of speaking and teaching these ideas here in America and other countries, I often close my remarks with a statement from Heraclitus, the 6th century B.C.E. Greek poet and philosopher. It’s a quote that I’ve found people want afterwards, so it’s at the top of my website (www.budkrogh.com). It is, “The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the full light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.”
Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Bud also explains how to make sure we make good, ethical, and safe decisions. All we have to do is ask three very easy, but powerful, questions. Answering them will give us guidance. Learn more about these questions, about why it was so important to him that he take public responsibility for his actions, and about what he’d like to see in place legally to protect us all in Making a Difference.