Charles W. Colson, a top aide in the Nixon White House, said in videotaped testimony that the conventional theory that the Watergate burglars were sent in to Democratic headquarters to gather political information never made sense to him.
More plausible, Colson said in testimony played yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, is an alternate theory that holds the burglars were looking for information about a Capitol Hill call-girl ring with alleged ties to Democrats and to the Republican White House.
"I never thought the received wisdom, that they were breaking in to get political intelligence, made any sense at all," said Colson, who was special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon.
His testimony, taped in 1996, was played for the federal jury hearing a $5 million defamation case brought by Ida "Maxie" Wells, a former Democratic National Committee secretary, against Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy.
Wells, a community college dean in Baton Rouge, La., claims that Liddy harmed her reputation by wrongly telling audiences that photographs of call girls were kept in her desk and used to arrange liaisons for Democratic officials. Her case has been dismissed twice by a federal judge. A jury hearing the case last year deadlocked.
In the retrial, which continues next week before Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, Liddy's attorneys again have tried to show that the "call-girl theory" of Watergate has been discussed and researched for years. They say Liddy did not act negligently in repeating the idea that former White House counsel John W. Dean III directed the burglars to recover photos that could have linked his then-fiancee, Maureen Biner, to the call-girl operation.
Dean has denounced the theory, discussed in two books since the mid-1980s as well as in news accounts. Colson's taped testimony comes from an earlier lawsuit brought by Dean.
Colson, who pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, said the long-accepted notion of the Watergate break-in as a political espionage mission did not make sense because little strategizing was done at the national committee headquarters. "After all these years, after all the investigations, after all the people involved, we still really don't know why they broke in," he said.
Yesterday, jurors were shown a television report about the call-girl theory by Geraldo Rivera, who said: "It's wild. It's scandalous. And it just might be true."
They also watched the videotape deposition of a former federal prosecutor who investigated a prostitution ring at the Columbia Plaza Apartments, across the street from the Watergate complex. The investigation occurred at about the same time as the burglary.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John "Jack" Rudy told about being summoned unexpectedly to meet with Dean about the prostitution case before the Watergate break-in. Rudy said Dean was interested in the names in a seized address book and had his secretary copy the pages.
Rudy said he had planned to investigate any links between the Columbia Plaza ring and Democratic headquarters. But after the Watergate burglary in June 1972, supervisors deemed the investigation too politically sensitive and told him to "ice it."