Egil Krogh died this week. By the time of his death he was all but forgotten, but during the fevered days of the Watergate scandal’s unraveling, he was the Nixon henchman whose name nobody could pronounce. (It’s Ed-gel Crow-G) He was an original member of the infamous group known as “The Plumbers,” the secret White House unit that broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and later into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex. By the time of the latter operation, Krogh had withdrawn from the Plumbers because he decided its mission—make sure Nixon won the election by any means necessary–was improper, but it was too late. He became the first member of the Nixon team to go to jail, then was disbarred. His fall was a lesson to all lawyers, indeed all human beings, about the insidious ways and unethical culture can corrupt the best of us.
In November of 1973, “Bud” Krogh pleaded guilty to “conspiracy against rights of citizens” for his role in the September 1971 break-in at the Beverley Hills office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
The goal had been to get information about Ellsberg’s mental state that would discredit him; it had been Ellsberg who stole the Pentagon papers, and Nixon felt it was critical that Ellsberg be seen as a renegade extremist, not a patriot.
Before joining the white House, Krogh had been as admirable and ethics a professional as it was possible to be, and saw himself as such. A lawyer, Navy veteran, and before that, a passionate Eagle Scout, Krogh thought of himself as incorruptible, “the White House Mr. Clean,” as he was called in “All the President’s Men.” That was his fatal flaw.
Believing that we are incorruptible is called “Restraint Bias,” and sets us up to be corrupted before we realize it. Nobody is immune to corruption, and working in a corrupt culture—the Nixon White House, Enron, politics—is far more likely to change and indoctrinate the naive member of it than the other way around.
The White House believed that that Ellsburg’s leaks constituted a national security crisis and needed to be dealt with at all costs, Krogh told ethics seminars and conferences after his release from prison. He was persuaded by the prestige of the Presidency to slowly weaken his own ethics alarms, and to begin thinking that even breaking the law was ethical, that the ends justified the means. He wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons From the White House,” “We were wrong, and the price paid by the country was too high.”
Krogh served four and a half months in prison, then set out to rebuild his life and reputation, getting his law license restored and speaking and writing about ethics. He held himself responsible for embedding the mind-set that led to Watergate, writing,
“The premise of our action was the strongly held view within certain precincts of the White House that the president and those functioning on his behalf could carry out illegal acts with impunity if they were convinced that the nation’s security demanded it,. As President Nixon himself said to David Frost during an interview six years later, ‘When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.’ To this day the implications of this statement are staggering.”
Egil Krogh was willing to use his own derailed career to teach others how they could be in danger of corruption without realizing it. Even after his death, it’s a story worth remembering.