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October 22-28, 1972: Washington Post Prints Incorrect Story Asserting Haldeman’s Involvement with Watergate

H. R. Haldeman.H. R. Haldeman. [Source: Southern Methodist University]Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward runs into difficulty with his FBI source, W. Mark Felt, the infamous “Deep Throat” (see May 31, 2005). Woodward wants information connecting Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to the Nixon campaign “slush fund” (see Early 1970), but Felt, apparently afraid of crossing Haldeman (see October 19, 1972), refuses to provide anything specific.
Origin of Error - Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, attempt to secure confirmation of Haldeman’s role in Watergate through the treasurer of the Nixon campaign’s secret fund (see September 29, 1972), Hugh Sloan. The reporters misinterpret Sloan’s cautious statements as indirect confirmation that Sloan had testified to the FBI of Haldeman’s involvement. Additionally, they misinterpret guarded “confirmations” from two other sources. On October 25, the Post publishes a story about Sloan’s supposed assertions.
'All Hell Broke Lose' - Sloan’s attorney denies that his client ever made such an assertion in his testimony (Sloan will later confirm that Haldeman was indeed in charge of the secret fund, but he never testified to that fact). As Woodward later writes, “All hell broke loose.” Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein, both clearly upset, offer to resign from the Post, an offer that is refused. The White House celebrates the error, calling into question every story Bernstein and Woodward wrote for the Post; Republican supporters such as Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) join in. Post executive editor Ben Bradlee—who stands by the story—will later say that the erroneous story is his personal low point in the history of the entire Watergate coverage.
Repercussions - Felt is furious with Woodward for the erroneous story. They may have lost Haldeman, Felt says, and worse, have spooked other sources that might otherwise have come forward. “You’ve got people feeling sorry for Haldeman. I didn’t think that was possible.… You put the investigation back months. It puts everyone on the defensive—editors, FBI agents, everybody has to go into a crouch after this.” The reporters write another story admitting the error about Sloan’s testimony, but saying that Haldeman did indeed control the secret campaign fund. Woodward even quotes Felt, identifying him as “one source,” an unprecedented breach of the procedures they have established in using Felt as a “deep background” source. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 173-196; Woodward, 2005, pp. 88-92]

Entity Tags: W. Mark Felt, Washington Post, Hugh Sloan, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ben Bradlee, H.R. Haldeman, Bob Woodward, Committee to Re-elect the President, Carl Bernstein, Robert J. (“Bob”) Dole

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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