On June 17, 1972, a bungled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters exposed one of the most notorious abuses of presidential power and led to a wave of reforms of U.S. laws and institutions.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, many of those changes have been rolled back or eliminated. Court rulings scrapped limits on campaign contributions. Congress has returned the function of special prosecutors to the Justice Department. Executive orders issued by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks claimed power for the Oval Office to ignore U.S. laws and international treaties.
President Barack Obama has retained some of those extraordinary wartime powers, and his use of drones to attack terrorist suspects has drawn accusations of international law violations.
"I don't think Richard Nixon, in his darkest hour, would have authorized torture," said John Dean, the White House lawyer whose testimony at the Watergate hearings linked the break-in to the attorney general and the White House. He has been raising the alarm about rollbacks on the political reforms spurred by the Watergate crisis.
Within a year of Nixon's 1974 resignation, Congress made it a crime to destroy presidential materials. It also amended federal election campaign laws to make contributions and spending transparent, and to better expose government behavior to public scrutiny through amendments to the Freedom of
Campaign finance reform is largely regarded as having been reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision two years ago in the Citizens United case, which threw out the decades-old ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns.
In 1999, the Office of Independent Counsel was abolished and the job restored to the Justice Department.