WASHINGTON — To paraphrase John Mitchell, Nixon attorney general and a Watergate figure, "When the going gets tough, the tough get to shredding."
Shredding goes beyond stonewalling about administration relations with Enron Corp. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has been talking of suing Vice President Dick Cheney to force disclosure of his contacts with Enron in the White House Energy Task Force last year.
Then we heard that masses of electronic and paper files were being deleted and shredded by Arthur Andersen Co., the accountants for Enron. Next, that Enron employees were destroying records as late as last week.
Immediately, I caught a whiff of Watergate. This took me back to June 1972, and the break-in into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building. The next morning, as we later learned, the manager of the burglary and bugging enterprise, G. Gordon Liddy, drove to his office at the Committee to Re-Elect the President and started shredding everything connected with the project, even $100 bills from illegal campaign funds.
A week later, L. Patrick Gray, acting FBI director, was called to the White House and told by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman to "deep six" the contents of the safe of Howard Hunt, the Watergate operative. He chose to take the material home and burn it.
The prime coverup, of course, was the mysterious erasure of 18-1/2 minutes from a subpoenaed White House tape in which Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman discussed who had ordered the break-in and why.
Fast forward to 1986 and the explosive revelation that the Reagan administration was dealing with Iran, selling antitank missiles in return for help in recovering Americans held hostage in Lebanon. As Congress prepared to investigate, National Security Council staffer Oliver North started shredding huge piles of documents. When the machine jammed, he ran down the hall, looking for another secure shredder.
Mr. North's secretary, Fawn Hall, spirited some particularly sensitive documents out of the White House in her clothing.
Watergate, Irangate, and now Enrongate? As a senior "-gate" keeper, I say when you hear the shredder at work, you can hear the gate swinging.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.