Problem solving and decision making


“You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the President. I’m innocent. You’ve got to believe I’m innocent. If you don’t, take my job.” (Richard. M. Nixon) (2009)

On June 16th 1972, seven men prepared to break in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee, based in the Watergate Office Complex in Washington D.C.

Through various mishaps, and bad decisions, five of these men would be arrested. This would be the first event in a series of scandals that would lead to indictments and convictions of several key staff members and advisors, and the resignation of the President of the United States; Richard. M. Nixon.

The arrests of the five individuals that had broken into the Democratic National Committee, based in the Watergate Hotel complex, would lead to Investigations by the FBI, The Senate Watergate Committee, The House Judiciary Committee and the press, which would reveal that the break in was only one of many illegal activities that were authorized and carried out by Nixon’s staff.

This report will delve into the decision making process that surrounded President Nixon and the Watergate Scandal, and ascertain, with references why he made the choices that he did.

The organisation

Nixon and the Presidency

In 1952, Richard Nixon was selected by General Eisenhower to become the Vice President. Throughout Eisenhower’s Presidency, Nixon took on major duties within the administration until 1960, when he was nominated to run for the Presidency, which he lost to John F. Kennedy.

After Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968 Nixon again ran for the Presidency, this time winning against Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and third-party candidate George C. Wallace.

As President, Nixon achieved a great deal of success; indeed his bid to end fighting in Vietnam was one of the issues that he had stated he would end, for which came to fruition. Other successes included anti crime laws and environmental programs.

“His accomplishments while in office included revenue sharing, the end of the draft, new anticrime laws, and a broad environmental program. As he had promised, he appointed Justices of conservative philosophy to the Supreme Court. One of the most dramatic events of his first term occurred in 1969, when American astronauts made the first moon landing.

Some of his most acclaimed achievements came in his quest for world stability. During visits in 1972 to Beijing and Moscow, he reduced tensions with China and the U.S.S.R. His summit meetings with Russian leader Leonid I. Brezhnev produced a treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons. In January 1973, he announced an accord with North Viet Nam to end American involvement in Indochina. In 1974, his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, negotiated disengagement agreements between Israel and its opponents, Egypt and Syria.” (, N.D)

In 1972, Nixon again bid for the office of President, this time defeating Democratic hopeful George McGovern by a very large margin. Within months of the re – election, his Committee to Re – elect the President, and key members of his administration would be found to have involvement with and would link the President to the Watergate Scandal.


The Citizens Committee to re – elect the President, (originally called CRP, then renamed CREEP for the Committee for the re – election of the President), was established in 1970 by members of Nixon’s administration for the planning of Nixon’s campaign.

“Attorney General John Mitchell, who had headed Nixon’s 1968 campaign, was to head up the committee as its campaign director. Jeb Magruder would be appointed as acting director until Mitchell resigned as Attorney General in 1972. During that time Magruder would begin planning of a national campaign, which was independent of the Republican National Committee. Francis Dale was named as the campaign chairman and his committee comprised of eight co – chairmen. Maurice Stans was appointed as the finance chairman.” (Pollick, M. 2009)

Prior to Campaign Laws, organisations such as CREEP could raise as much money as they liked, and also spend it anyway they saw fit. The purpose of CREEP, on the surface would be seen as a legal committee to re – elect the President, however, underneath prominent members would carry out illicit activities; of which the orders came from Nixon himself. Money that was laundered through CREEP would be used to support these illicit activities and a number of CREEPs’ operatives were known as ‘plumbers’, called so because they were used to fix any ‘leaks’ to the media.

These illegal activities would not have been known and only came to light because of the burglary at Watergate, solely because the burglars that were apprehended were key members of CREEP. These key members were not just every day burglars or criminals, they were key members of organisations such as the CIA; a fact we can see from the following excerpt, which clearly shows the calibre of people that were involved in the burglary:

“These men were not common thieves. One of the leaders, G. Gordon Liddy, was a former agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The other leader, E. Howard Hunt, was retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their accomplices included James McCord, who carried bugs for telephones. Bernard Baker brought cameras to take photos of DNC documents. Virgilio Gonzalez had tools to pick locks. Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis served as guards.” (Anderson, D. 2007)

The Aftermath

The Cover Up

It was directly following the Watergate burglaries that Nixon, and his administration, tried to cover it up. Even though it was found that some of the burglars had links to the Whitehouse, and to CREEP, Nixon during a media conference, denied all association and continued to deny any allegations of any wrongdoing. Indeed the American Encyclopaedia of Journalism states that “During a news conference on June 22nd, President Nixon denied Whitehouse involvement in the burglary.” (Vaughn, S. 2008, pg 580)

One of the main concerns that Nixon had was that news would get out about the Whitehouse ‘Plumbers’ and how they were used to not only plug leaks but were also used for criminal activities, such as the sabotaging of operations of any political enemy, illegal break ins and illegal wire tapping.

On June 23rd, Nixon had a conversation with the Whitehouse Chief of staff H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, in which he requested that the CIA be used to obstruct the FBI, and their investigation of the Watergate burglaries. In a bid to also silence the burglars, Nixon organised so called ‘hush money’ to be used to ensure that all of them remained silent regarding their involvements and links to the Whitehouse. This ‘hush money’ coincidentally came directly from CREEP funding.

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The Senate Watergate Committee

In February 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee was created to begin investigations into not only the burglaries, but also the abuses of power that were associated with Nixon’s 1972 election campaign. The committee was formed after a 77 – 0 vote from the Senate and was formed after the FBI’s initial investigation showed that Watergate went beyond that of simple burglary.

“When it became clear that Watergate was more than a break – in, the special prosecutor’s staff formed five task forces: Watergate, Political Espionage, Plumbers Campaign Contributions, and International Telephone and Telegraph.” (Samples, J. 2006)

The Committee itself would play a pivotal role in the gathering of evidence surrounding Watergate, and its investigations would lead to the indictments of over forty key administrators and the convictions of several of Nixon’s key staff.

The Evidence

The hearings of the Senate Committee held were highly publicised affairs and ran on public broadcast from May to August 1973.

During these hearings, one of the most significant questions to be asked was what exactly did the President know. It was one of the Committee members, Howard Baker, who happened to be a friend of Nixon that would ask this question repeatedly. Baker believed the President to be innocent, but soon changed his mind when the evidence mounted against him.

“During the nationally televised Watergate hearings Baker became best known for his repeated question “what did thePresident know and when did he know it?” Initially Baker believed Nixon to be innocent of wrongdoing, but as evidence to the contrary mounted Baker changed his mind.” (Howard H Baker Jr. Centre for Public Policy, 2009)

One of Nixon’s key members, John Wesley Dean III, would testify against Nixon and implement him in the attempted cover up of the burglaries. Although Dean would become one of the committee’s key witnesses, it was another of Nixon’s staff that would reveal the biggest secret that Nixon had kept. The following excerpt explains these revelations:

“Although the key witness was John Dean, who implicated Nixon in the cover up, Whitehouse aide Alexander Butterfield made the major revelation. Butterfield reluctantly disclosed that Nixon had taped almost all Whitehouse conversations since February 1971, meaning that a record of Watergate related conversations must exist.” (Knight, P. 2003. Pg 726)

On July 23rd 1973, Nixon was ordered to hand over the tapes, but refused, and began taking court action to retain control over them. On July 26th 1973, Nixon sent a letter to the Senate Watergate Committee refusing to release the tapes. On August 29th Nixon was ordered to hand over any tapes that had links to Watergate, by Judge John Sirica.

Of the tapes that had been subpoenaed, it was found that an 18½ minute gap was missing, and unexplained. Again this was a testimony to the way Nixon operated, in that it was suggested that ‘sinister forces’ were at work and the tapes had been erased. Although throughout the investigations Nixon still declared his innocence.

On April 30, 1974, The Whitehouse released edited transcripts of 1200 pages of Nixon’s, although the Senate Watergate Committee still required that he hand over the tapes. This in turn leads to the Supreme Court ruling on July 24th 1974 that Nixon must turn over the tape recordings of all of the White House conversations, and therefore rejecting any claims Nixon has of executive privilege.

On July 27th 1974 the House Judiciary Committee passes the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice.

On August 8th 1974, Richard M Nixon resigns from the Presidency, one of the first in US history to do so. The Vice President at the time, Gerald Ford, assumes the role of Presidency. In what could only be described as very controversial, Gerald Ford, will later pardon Nixon of all crimes relating to Watergate.

Judgemental Heuristics

The overconfidence trap

In the overconfidence trap people will tend to be overconfident about what they are doing and will not accept any knowledge that will say anything to the contrary. Overconfidence may lead to bad decisions and bad judgements.

“Overconfidence is a bias that refers to an individual tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities, knowledge and skills as well as to be overly optimistic about one’s future” (Alexander, Vermeulen & Curseu (2008) pg 52)

We can link Nixon to this judgmental heuristics in his belief that as President, he was overly confident that what he was doing was right. In the opening quote given in this report, Nixon stated; “You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the President. I’m innocent. You’ve got to believe I’m innocent. If you don’t, take my job.” (2009)

Nixon’s believed that he was innocent, and this led him to be so overconfident that he need not even question whether his job was on the line; he was indeed, extremely optimistic about his future.

Reducing the overconfidence trap

There was not a great deal Nixon could have done to reduce his overconfidence; he believed that as the President he was above any wrongdoing. His constant claim of innocence led him to not accept anything that said anything to the contrary.

Nixon may have been able to avoid the overconfidence trap if he had been able to forecast different possible outcomes of the future, this may have led him to select a different path than the one he had chosen.

The status quo trap

In the status quo trap people will tend to stick with the status quo, in other words, they will tend to avoid making any changes that affect the current state of affairs. Again this trap will cause bad decision making, as whilst keeping with the way things have always been done, any bad decisions that have occurred previously are followed through and integrated into the normal operations.

“In a decision making context, the status quo refers to the existing state of affairs. In business settings, it refers to existing goals or objectives and the existing plans, strategies, and tactics for attaining those goals. Research has consistently shown that decision makers prefer to continue with existing goals and plans instead of other, better alternatives. As a result, organisations avoid making changes or breaking with the status quo despite the opportunity to those resources to more effective use.” (Rickles, Wertheimer & Smith, 2009, pg 133)

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This heuristic can be linked to Nixon by looking at what occurred after the burglaries. Nixon and CREEP had been involved in criminal and underhanded dealings in the past, and those same activities were used to try to cover up the burglaries, in fact Nixon even used funds from CREEP for in an attempt to bribe the burglars. Instead of looking at new ways of approaching the events of the burglary, Nixon decided to use similar, criminal activities that had been used previously. His attempt to stall the FBI investigation and his attempt to bribe the Watergate burglars could only be described as sticking with the status quo.

This heuristic can also be used in regards to Nixon’s taping of conversations; Nixon believed that Presidents were allowed to tape conversations, and had rightly done so in the past, and therefore was doing nothing more than what had been done previously.

Reducing the status quo trap

Instead of continuing with the status quo, Nixon may have been able to change the outcome of Watergate, by making changes to the way he approached it. That he continued with the same criminal activities caused him to dig himself a bigger hole. The following questions may suggest ways that Nixon may have avoided, or reduced the status quo trap:

  • What were Nixon’s objectives, and how were they served by sticking with the status quo?
  • What other options were available to Nixon, and how did they sit against the status-quo?
  • Would Nixon have stuck with the status quo if it wasn’t the status quo?
  • Would it have cost Nixon less in the long run if he had changed the way he had done things?
  • If Nixon could have seen the future, would he have selected other alternatives?
  • Did Nixon stick with the status quo because the alternatives were placed in the too hard basket?

(Clark, J. 2009. Slide 22)

Six thinking hats

Edward De Bono’s six hats

Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats is a way of looking at the different types of thinking within a person’s brain. Each ‘hat’ represents looking at important decisions from a number of different perspectives.

The six hats that are as follows:

  • White Hat: For pure facts, figures and information
  • Red Hat: For feelings, emotions, hunches and intuition
  • Black Hat: For the Devil’s Advocate, negative judgement, ‘why won’t it work’
  • Yellow Hat: For brightness, optimism, positive and constructive ideas, ‘why will it work’
  • Green Hat: For creative, provocative, lateral thoughts
  • Blue Hat: For thinking about the overview, summarising for action, process control

(Hunt & Buzan, 1999 pg 105)

Linking this to Nixon, we can apply the following hats to his decision making surrounding Watergate:

  • Yellow hat – Nixon’s overconfidence lead him to be optimistic about his future. He also thought positively that what he was doing was right.
  • Blue hat – Nixon believed in his power as President. He had ultimate control over the country, even though that power led to abuses of power.
  • Green hat – Some of Nixon’s decisions could well be stated as being creative. His bribing of the burglars and his using the CIA to thwart the FBI investigation was certainly creative.
  • Black hat – this can be applied to Nixon’s approach to the Senate Watergate Committee, and in relation to the recorded tapes. Nixon’s approach to the Watergate affair could well be described as; ‘It won’t work’, simply because he was the President and he was innocent.


If we think about the events surrounding Watergate, we need to consider what the implications would have been if the burglars had not been caught. Would anything change? Based upon the status quo trap, the same tactics Nixon used could possibly still occur today, and there would be no restrictions on Mafia style electoral campaigns.

When we look at Watergate and Nixon, we can see that his overconfidence and his belief that he was doing what he thought was right, led to the decisions that he made. They may have been perceived as being wrong decisions, but Nixon truly believed that as the President he was above any suspicion and always claimed his innocence throughout the scandal.

After the events of Watergate in an interview with a certain Game Show host, David Frost, Nixon shocked the world in his belief that as President he was above the law.

“Frost: So what in a sense, you’re saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them, where the President can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation or something, and do something illegal.

Nixon: Well when the President does it that means that it is not illegal.

Frost: By definition

Nixon: Exactly. Exactly. If the President, for example, approves of something because of the National Security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the President’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law.” (Gross & Aoláin, 2006. Pgs 52/53)

It would be in these same interviews that Nixon would admit his failures and his wrong doings. He would also apologize to the American people.

Will Nixon’s legacy be remembered for all the good he may have achieved for the people of America? Or will it be for Watergate? Before Watergate, Nixon had been popular and successful, all it took was one burglary, to bring that all crashing down.

Richard Milhous Nixon died on April 22, 1994 at 9:08pm.


Appendix A: Brief Timeline of Events

November 1968:

Richard Milhous Nixon, the 55-year-old former vice President who lost the Presidency for the Republicans in 1960, reclaims it by defeating Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

July 23, 1970:

Nixon approves a plan for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. He has second thoughts a few days later and rescinds his approval.

June 13, 1971:

The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers — the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post will begin publishing the papers later in the week.

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September 9, 1971:

The White House “plumbers” unit – named for their orders to plug leaks in the administration – burglarizes a psychiatrist’s office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

June 17, 1972:

Five men, one of whom says he used to work for the CIA, are arrested at 2:30 a.m. trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and office complex.

June 19, 1972:

A GOP security aide is among the Watergate burglars, The Washington Post reports. Former attorney general John Mitchell, head of the Nixon reelection campaign, denies any link to the operation.

August 1, 1972:

A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for the Nixon campaign, wound up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar, The Washington Post reports.

September 29, 1972:

John Mitchell, while serving as attorney general, controlled a secret Republican fund used to finance widespread intelligence-gathering operations against the Democrats, The Post reports.

October 10, 1972:

FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in stems from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort, The Post reports.

November 11, 1972:

Nixon is reelected in one of the largest landslides in American political history, taking more than 60 percent of the vote and crushing the Democratic nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

January 30, 1973:

Former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. are convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men plead guilty, but mysteries remain.

April 30, 1973:

Nixon’s top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resign over the scandal. White House counsel John Dean is fired.

May 18, 1973:

The Senate Watergate committee begins its nationally televised hearings. Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson taps former solicitor general Archibald Cox as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for Watergate.

June 3, 1973:

John Dean has told Watergate investigators that he discussed the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon at least 35 times, The Post reports.

June 13, 1973:

Watergate prosecutors find a memo addressed to John Ehrlichman describing in detail the plans to burglarize the office of Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, The Post reports.

July 13, 1973:

Alexander Butterfield, former Presidential appointments secretary, reveals in congressional testimony that since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his offices.

July 18, 1973:

Nixon reportedly orders the White House taping system disconnected.

July 23, 1973:

Nixon refuses to turn over the Presidential tape recordings to the Senate Watergate committee or the special prosecutor.

October 20, 1973:

Saturday Night Massacre: Nixon fires Archibald Cox and abolishes the office of the special prosecutor. Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resign. Pressure for impeachment mounts in Congress.

November 17, 1973:

Nixon declares, “I’m not a crook,” maintaining his innocence in the Watergate case.

December 7, 1973:

The White House can’t explain an 18 1/2 -minute gap in one of the subpoenaed tapes. Chief of staff Alexander Haig says one theory is that “some sinister force” erased the segment.

April 30, 1974:

The White House releases more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, but the committee insists that the tapes themselves must be turned over.

July 24, 1974:

The Supreme Court rules unanimously that Nixon must turn over the tape recordings of 64 White House conversations, rejecting the President’s claims of executive privilege.

July 27, 1974:

House Judiciary Committee passes the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice.

August 8, 1974:

Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. President to resign. Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumes the country’s highest office. He will later pardon Nixon of all charges related to the Watergate case.

References & Bibliography


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