Bernstein warns against "witch hunt" on leaks inquiry

(CBS News) As the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal approaches, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward appeared on "Face the Nation," where they not only discussed the Watergate break-in but also the current outrage in Congress over national security leaks.

"Let's be really careful before we start a witch hunt here," said Bernstein, who was one of the reporters at the Washington Post who spent months investigating Richard Nixon and his administration for the 1972 break-in of the Democratic Party's campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

"You've got to be very careful about creating a witch hunt for sources, and a witch hunt in which you go after reporters, because now more than ever we need real reporting on this presidency, on national security, on all of these areas," Bernstein said. He also said "the press is not the problem here" because of laws governing classified information. "The record of the press is really quite good in protecting real, genuine national security secrets, which we often know about," he added.

Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal with Bernstein, agreed. "This is an area that needs to be handled with great delicacy, and I'm not sure we have a political system that knows how to do anything with great delicacy."

Woodward and Bernstein, who released a new e-book, also reflected on their reporting on the Nixon administration in an article in The Washington Post and during their appearance on "Face the Nation."

"Well, we were just trying to find out what had happened," Woodward said, noting that they didn't have an agenda despite harsh criticism at the time from the Nixon administration and even some in the public.

"People didn't really believe what we were writing - most people, including our colleagues," Bernstein said, until CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported on their story. "We had written a big story saying, 'Hey, it's not just a burglary; this is part of a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage directed from the White House,' and Walter Cronkite put it on the air - half of his broadcast two nights in a row," said Bernstein.

Woodward said the most telling part of their investigation was the taped recordings: "Nixon believed that you use the presidency as an instrument of personal avenge or reward."

Woodward added that Nixon "immediately launched the campaign of 'Let's spy on people, let's do something dirty,' and there was never that sense of 'Let's harmonize and solve the big problems.' It was always 'Let's screw somebody, let's get the IRS on them, let's get the FBI on them.'"

The two veteran journalists called President Gerald Ford "courageous" for pardoning Nixon. They said that decision probably lost him the 1976 election.

Woodward said he'd spent time talking to Ford about the pardon, asking him, "Why did you do this?' And he finally said, 'I didn't do it for Nixon, I didn't do it for myself, I did it for the country.'"

Woodward said the decision was "remarkably courageous," and Bernstein agreed, saying it was "a great act of courage."

Woodward and Bernstein are participating in a web stream on Monday.

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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