Page last updated at 10:29 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 11:29 UK

US paper missed Watergate scoop

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in a newspaper office
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had one of the greatest scoops of all time.

Two former New York Times journalists have admitted that they let slip one of the biggest stories of all time - the Watergate scandal.

They knew first that senior government figures - including President Richard Nixon - were involved.

Robert Smith told his editor, Robert Phelps, but the story was dropped.

The scoop was left to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, whose investigation was made into the film All the President's Men.

The story began on 17 June, 1972, when a group of men were caught breaking into the Watergate complex in Washington DC. They were attempting to plant listening devices in the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

Robert Smith says that two months later - on his last day at the New York Times - he had lunch with the acting director of the FBI, L Patrick Gray.

He just looked me in the eyes, I looked him in the eyes, and in my world of journalism, that was confirmation
Robert M Smith
Former New York Times reporter

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Smith recounts how Mr Gray began divulging details of the Watergate break-in, a range of other illegal political activity, and the Nixon administration's attempts to cover it up.

Mr Gray said that those involved included the former Attorney General John Mitchell and Donald Segretti, who were helping to run President Nixon's re-election campaign. Both were eventually sent to jail.

But Mr Smith wanted more.

"I said: 'Does it go higher?' And he looked and me, and I said: 'Well, the President?,' in some disbelief.

"And he just looked me in the eyes, I looked him in the eyes, and in my world of journalism, that was confirmation."

He rushed back to the New York Times' Washington bureau, and told all to his editor, Robert Phelps.

Search for meaning

The next day Mr Smith left the newspaper for a course at Yale Law School.

"I continued to read the newspaper and I did not see the story. I could only assume that the Times had found the story not to be true," he said.

Mr Phelps confirms Mr Smith's account of events in his newly-published memoirs God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times.

Now aged 89, he says he cannot remember why the hot tip was not followed up. A week after his conversation with Mr Smith in 1972, he went away on a month's holiday.

It was left to Mr Woodward and Mr Bernstein, at the rival Washington Post, to win fame and fortune with their Watergate investigation. Their source, "Deep Throat", was later revealed to be Mark Felt, Patrick Gray's deputy at the FBI.

Their dogged determination traced the scandal right up to the White House. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974.

Mr Smith, now a lawyer in San Francisco, is sanguine about Mr Woodward and Mr Bernstein's success.

"They completely deserve it. They are entirely entitled to the wonderful fruits of their excellent efforts," he said.

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