While parallels with the Nixon Administration naturally come to mind, calling Poland's recent surveillance scandal the "Polish Watergate" completely misses the point. President Nixon ultimately failed at spying on his political rivals, unlike PiS.
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What links the two political scandals, separated by half a century, is the fact that decision-makers in both countries - the administration of the Republican President Richard Nixon and the alliance of secret services and public media operating under the total control of the Law and Justice party - planned to spy on the opposition. In this way, those in power in the United States and Poland intended to find out about the plans of their political rivals and obtain damaging materials, which would help them win the upcoming elections. However, there is a fundamental difference between the Polish Pegasus scandal and Watergate. Even though Nixon's people did not shy away from launching a full-fledged campaign of slander and disinformation, their plan of spying on top members of the Democratic Party has ultimately failed.

Spying on the opposition’s campaign manager

On the night of June 17, 1972, five people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C.  Watergate office building to photograph sensitive documents and wiretap the phones. They failed to enter the building unnoticed, however, and were arrested by the police.

Those operating at the behest of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party were not stopped by anyone. The Associated Press reported that the phones of Senator Krzysztof Brejza who was managing the campaign of the oppositional Civic Coalition party, and Roman Giertych, a high-profile lawyer and Donald Tusk’s former attorney, were tapped during the unusually heated 2019 election year when Poles cast their voters for members of the European Parliament in May and elected their parliamentary representatives and senators in October.

Apart from Mr Brejza's text messages, which were shamelessly manipulated and exploited by the public broadcaster in a political smear campaign, we don’t know what else was stolen from the hacked phones. However, we can safely assume that the intelligence services controlled by the Law and Justice party achieved what the burglars at Watergate and their political masters could only have dreamed of: they managed to tap into the secrets of their political rivals and use the information against them. It is a gigantic and multi-layered scandal involving many top politicians, secret services, and the media that obediently served the government. What’s more, as of now we only know about three names on the list of people who were attacked using the Pegasus spyware (apart from Senator Brejza and Mr Giertych, there is also Ewa Wrzosek, a prominent prosecutor critical of the government). However, it would be hard to imagine that the list ends there.

That is why I would avoid calling it the Polish Watergate. At least for now.

If it weren’t for critical journalists, Nixon would have gotten away with Watergate

The Watergate scandal was also about the gigantic abuses of power committed by the Nixon Administration to hide its links to the burglars who tried to install wiretaps in the Democratic National Committee headquarters and cover up the whole affair. Thanks to an undercover operative, American journalists managed to obtain evidence incriminating people from the president's inner circle.

In May of 1973, the US Senate appointed a special investigative committee, the proceedings of which were broadcast on television, revealing to millions of Americans the level of corruption of the ruling elite. Eventually, impeachment proceedings were initiated against Nixon. To avoid impeachment and removal from office, the Republican president resigned on August 9, 1974. His successor and former Vice President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon a month later.

In Poland, the very creation of a special investigative committee is up in the air. Will it be possible, as it was half a century ago in the US, to explain thoroughly the background of this gigantic surveillance scandal?  The ruling camp is surely preparing a counter-attack. Given that PiS didn’t hesitate to use manipulated information stolen from Senator Brejza's phone to tilt the 2019 election in its favor, it’s safe to say it will stop at nothing.

We should also keep in mind the ongoing attempts of the ruling Law and Justice party to silence independent media outlets- its recent efforts to shut down the American-owned broadcast network TVN being just one example.

After all, the Watergate scandal would never have come to the public’s attention if it weren’t for critical journalists and a free press...


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