Watergate, the mother of all scandals branded something gate, may be America's most famous conspiracy. Most of us are familiar with at least the outlines of the scandal: a "third-rate burglary"; Richard Nixon's attempts to cover up that crime and countless others; the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes; Nixon's manipulation of the CIA and FBI in the furtherance of said coverup; "I am not a crook," yet, inexorably, Nixon's near-impeachment and resignation.

But stop and think for a moment about how little we actually know about the specific conspiracy that got the whole dirty snowball rolling. For starters, who ordered the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate office complex, and why? Just whose phone was bugged? And when the coverup began, exactly who was covering up for whom?

Ah, into that yawning gap of knowledge leap the Watergate revisionists. Armed to the teeth with explosive counter-theories and ostensible smoking guns, some are diehard soldiers in the struggle to rehabilitate Richard Nixon. Others really have unearthed compelling evidence that casts doubt on conventional assumptions about the scandal.

Regardless of the angle, all interpretations of the Watergate saga inevitably begin during the shifty hours of June 17, 1972. Responding to an early-morning call by a Watergate complex security guard, plainclothes cops stumbled upon five overdressed burglars cowering behind furniture in the Democratic National Committee's sixth-floor offices. The second-story men included CIA-trained Cuban exiles and "ex"-CIA wire man James McCord. They were carrying cameras, bugging devices, and lock-picking tools. Running the "black-bag" job from a nearby hotel room were "former" CIA operative E. Howard Hunt and White House "Plumber" G. Gordon Liddy. Hunt had recruited the anti-Castro Cubans, loyal to the super-spook since their nostalgic Bay of Pigs days. Hunt, Liddy, and McCord were the hands-on henchmen in Nixon's dirty tricks squad.

As conventional history tells it, the burglars were either attempting to plant an electronic bug in a telephone belonging to the liberal Democrats, or they were trying to remove/replace a malfunctioning bug positioned during an earlier break-in.

Yet there have always been problems with this theory - and despite its popularity, it remains just that: and unproven "theory." For starters, the burglars have told conflicting stories about what they were after: Was it dirt that DNC Chairman Larry O'Brien kept on Nixon, as Liddy earnestly suggested, or was it intelligence from another area of the office, as Hunt and two of the Cubans later claimed? If so, why risk so much for apparently so little? As Nixon's director of congressional relations later noted, "You take some damn chances if they're worthwhile, but that was crap."

Not surprisingly, the "unindicted co-conspirator" himself wholeheartedly agreed: "The whole thing was so senseless and bungles that it almost looked like some kind of a setup," Nixon announced in his memoir, typically giving himself the benefit of the doubt and flipping the story upside down to cast himself as the victim. The actual culprits? His supernumerary enemies, of course. Shortly before he was crowbarred from office, Nixon discovered "new information that the Democrats had prior knowledge and that the [Howard] Hughes organization might be involved…. And there were stories of strange alliances."

Which brings us to the Democratic Trap theory, popular among diehard Nixon loyalists. Trap-gate has a factual anchor in seven volumes of executive-session testimony taken during the Senate Watergate investigation. The Senate testimony reveals that in April 1972, a New York private eye named A. J. Wollsten-Smith tipped off Larry O'Brien's deputy and also journalist Jack Anderson to a brewing spy operation against the DNC. Wollsten-Smith described the inchoate operation in some detail, from the Watergate office target to the Cuban personnel on the GOP team.

Armed with this information, Nixon-friendly theorists use twisted Nixonian logic to deflect blame for the resulting scandal: The donkey party knew the Republican burglars were going to break into the Watergate building, so the Dems set us up!

Theorists as disparate as the late H. R. Haldeman (Nixon's chief of staff) and left-wing critic Carl Oglesby have endorsed another version of the Trap theory. They suggest that Carl Shoffler, the police officer who made the Watergate arrests, was tipped off to the burglary in advance - either by the Democrats or by one of the burglars.

The evidence aligned "against" Shoffler? He had already finished his shift, but signed up for an additional eight hours of late-night work - on his birthday. When the call from the dispatcher came, Shoffler and his fellow officers were only a few blocks away from the Watergate, as if "awaiting the dispatcher's summons." And not least, an acquaintance of Shoffler, Edmund Chung, testified that in a subsequent dinner conversation, he got the "impression that Shoffler had advance knowledge of the break-in."

Shoffler denied making that statement and claimed that Chung had attempted to "bribe" him with a $50,000 "loan" if only Shoffler would "confess" to prior knowledge. Shoffler also suggested to the Senate that maybe Chung was a CIA agent, although that was never proven, nor did it even seem likely. Shoffler denied having any foreknowledge of the break-in and said of his decision to work overtime, "I just felt like it." And there the Cop Trap theory dead-ends.

Other entrapment theories posit a constellation of alternative villains, including those ubiquitous Howard Hughes operatives, Jack Anderson, and the CIA. The late Cary Allen, the cabal-sniffing John Birch Society author, titled a chapter in his book on the Rockefellers, "Was Nixon Watergated?" After all, Allen noted, the rise of Gerald Ford also brought zillionaire Nelson Rockefeller a proverbial heartbeat away from his much-coveted Oval Office.

The strongest revisionist theories arrived relatively late in the post-Watergate era, to a hissy fit of media disapproval. Finally, a critical mass of new evidence had coalesced to challenge the official story, the tale that had lionized a generation of aging journalists.

Secret Agenda, by Jim Hougan, and Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, make a compelling case for the theory that Watergate didn't necessarily proceed from the top of the organization chart down.

According to Silent Coup, the key to the Watergate mystery was presidential counsel John Dean, a sort of conspiracy of one. This is a controversial recasting of Dean, whom history records as a peripheral player who turned whistle-blower and fingered the ostensible ringmasters in the scandal: ex-attorney general John Mitchell, chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Erlichman and, of course, Nixon.

So what was Dean's agenda? Nothing so dull as tapping phones or scouring files for political dirt. For, according to Silent Coup and Secret Agenda, the Holy Grail of Watergate was sex! In Secret Agenda, Hougan suggests that the real target of the break-ins was a secret file featuring names, phone numbers, and perhaps even glossy pictures of prostitutes. At the time of the break-ins, a high-priced call-girl ring had been operating out of the posh Columbia Plaza apartment building a few blocks away from the Watergate complex.

According to Phillip Bailley, a young lawyer-pimp connected to that prostitution ring, a staffer at DNC headquarters had been arranging liaisons between the prostitutes and Democratic bigwigs. Apparently, at the DNC offices there was a file containing pictures and vital stats of the prostitutes, for marketing purposes.

It may have been Bailley's arrest for sexual pandering that triggered the fateful second Watergate break-in. as Colodny and Gettlin reveal, John Dean took a special interest in Bailley's well-publicized arrest. In a highly irregular and apparently unauthorized move, the presidential counsel took it upon himself to summon the federal prosecutor on the Bailley case to his office for a personal debriefing. It was then that Dean got a peek at important evidence: Bailley's address books.

According to Colodny and Gettlin, who build on Hougan's case, Dean's then-fiancée, Maureen Biner, was a friend and roommate of the prostitution ring's madam. What's more, Colodny and Gellin confirmed that Maurren "Mo" Biner's name, phone number, and nickname, "Clout" (after all, she was about to marry the president's counsel), appeared in Bailley's confiscated address books. But Bailley's little black books also listed the girls from the Columbia Plaza ring.

Silent Coup's hypothesis? That with the press and FBI sniffing at the exposed call-girl ring, Dean had his own embarrassing, albeit tangential, connection to the D.C. strumpets. Consequently, he took it upon himself to dispatch the burglars to the Watergate on a fishing expedition. (Silent Coup is oddly silent on whether or not the DNC kept a dossier on "Clout.")

According to Colodny and Gettlin, then, the real motive behind the Watergate break-ins was considerably less conspiratorial (but a lot more steamy) than presidentially authorized blackmail or political counterintelligence. Dean wanted to know what was in the DNC's secret hooker files.

In detail too complicated to go into here, Silent Coup presents compelling evidence to suggest that Dean micro-managed a coverup immediately following the Watergate arrests - not to shield Nixon, but to cover his own exposed posterior. In this theory, Nixon really is a bit of a dupe, certainly responsible for many other high crimes and misdemeanors, but genuinely bewildered by news of the "third-rate burglary" (yet, being Nixon, reflexively jumping in to cover up a specific crime he knew next to nothing about).

But Dean's agenda (or Nixon's, if you prefer the traditional top-down theory) may not have been the only one operating in the murky waters of Watergate.

As investigative author Jim Hougan proferred on the twentieth anniversary of the break-in, "If one tries to understand Watergate in terms of a single monolithic operation conducted by a team of spooks with a unified goal, it will defy understanding."

Secret Agenda lays out fascinating evidence that suggests the burglars, themselves, may have had competing motives. Hougan singles out Bible-thumping wireman James McCord, an "ex"-CIA officer who ran Nixon's campaign security and joined Liddy's team of White House Plumbers. McCord's activities during the two break-ins were peculiar, to say that least, and perhaps even counterproductive.

An early attempt to penetrate the Watergate building was scuttled when McCord informed his fellow burglars that an alarm system prevented entry - an alarm that, Hougan discovered, didn't exist. Moreover, McCord made himself scarce at key moments during the break-ins and handled the job so sloppily that he must have been the most incompetent CIA officer since the guy who dreamed up the plot to make Castro's hair fall out. Unless, that is, McCord had designs of his own.

Was McCord trying to sabotage the operation? Hougan theorized that McCord was keeping tabs on the White House operation for his erstwhile employer, the CIA. Perhaps, Hougan suggests, McCord was protecting a CIA operation that snooping White House operatives were about to expose: DNC Chairman O'Brien, a Howard Hughes asset, may have had knowledge of the Agency's top-secret joint venture with the Hughes organization to raise a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific. Or, speculates Hougan, perhaps the call-girl ring was part or parcel of an illegal CIA operation. The Agency's illegal experimentation with mind control and drugs often involved prostitutes. Another possibility is that the CIA was spying on the prostitutes' clients - Democratic apparatchicks - for sexual blackmail purposes.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Deep Throat. If McCord was under deep cover, and Dean was in deep doodoo, who was Deep Throat, the mysterious government source who fed Washington Post scribe Bob Woodward a steady stream of Watergate information?

In the Deep Throat wing of Watergate theory, there are enough candidates to fill an underground parking garage. High on the list is Robert Bennett, who was Howard Hughes's public relation flack and E. Howard Hunt's boss at a D.C. public relations firm that routinely provided cover for CIA operatives. (Bennett is currently a U.S. senator from Utah.) What really set alarms off about being a key source to Woodward and said that Woodward was "suitably grateful."

Other suspects on the Throat short list include Mark Felt, then-deputy FBI directore; Ken Clawson, onetime-Post-reporter-turned-White-House-aide (author Ron Rosenbaum's fave candidate); David Gergen (John Dean's onetime choice, and now doing quite nicely as an aide to President Bill Clinton); and in Hougan's book, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, the intelligence veteran and multidiscipline conspiracist (UFOlogists claim he's confessed to government knowledge of alien saucers, and Inman - himself no slouch as a conspiracy theorist - recently denounced a supposed cabal involving New York Times columnist Bill Safire, Senator Bob Dole, and the Israel lobby, which was out to submarine his short-lived nomination as Bill Clinton's defense secretary).

Silent Coup's nominee for Deep Throat is the most popular choice of all, however: General Alexander Haig. It was Hougan who first uncovered Bob Woodward's little-known connections to the Pentagon and, yes, to Al Haig. Before becoming a reporter, Hougan revealed, Woodward was a naval officer with a high-level assignment as military briefer to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer. Moorer and other military have acknowledged that Woodward regularly briefed Henry Kissinger aide Al Haig in the White House basement.

Woodward admitted to Hougan that he had, in fact, been a military briefer, but denied having briefed Haig. However, several years later, when Colodny and Gettlin followed up on Hougan's reporting, Woodward denied that he had ever been a military briefer - period. As Colodny and Gettlin see it, Woodward has sought to obscure his naval career in an effort to cover his relationship with Deep Throat/Al Haig.

According to Silent Coup, Haig had his own secret agenda - and again the hapless Nixon comes off as a victim of his underlings' perfidy. Colodny and Gettlin allege that Haig fed Woodward a stream of self-serving information and disinformation, in an effort to keep the Watergate spotlight on Nixon.

Why? According to Silent Coup, the Watergate scandal threatened to expose skeletons in Haig's own closet: In the early days of Nixon's administration, before the Watergate burglaries, write Colodny and Gettlin, Haig had been involved in a Pentagon spy ring thatpurloined secret foreign policy documents from National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Hardliners at the Pentagon, including Admiral Moorer, had worried that Nixon was too dovish on Vietnam and Communist China. According to Silent Coup, Hiag was a ringer for the hawks.

The ambitious Haig had managed to cover his own tracks in that affair, allege Colodny and Gettlin. That is, until Watergate began to expose other crimes and misdemeanors revolving around the Nixon administration. It was then, argue Colodny and Gettlin, that the president's new chief of staff began to manipulate the Watergate coverup in an effort to keep investigators from learning about the Pentagon spy ring. Consequently, Haig made Nixon look even more guilty - perhaps intentionally forcing the purported peacenick out of office. Hence the "silent coup."

Obviously Watergate is the conspiracy that keeps on giving. In fact, that scandal and the JFK assassination comprise the two foci in modern American conspiracy theory. There were even connections made between the Dallas hit and Watergate, an apparent nexus that opened the eyes of many budding conspiratologists to the possibility that a black web of corruption lay just beneath the glossy surface of American politics. For starters, CIA-trained Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis had played a suspicious role as disinformationist in the wake of the Kennedy slaying, in an effort to pin the blame on Fidel Castro. Hunt and the Cubans had also been key players in the CIA's anti-Castro operations of the early 1960s, a touchstone of Cuban enmity for JFK. And according to some conspiracy theorists, Hunt and Sturgis bear an uncanny resemblance to two of the well-groomed "three tramps" arrested in Dealey Plaza and later released.

Nixon, himself, the man who gained so much from the death of his rival, just happened to be in Dallas on the day of the assassination, as a lawyer working for Pepsi. Much later when he began to flounder in the currents of Watergate, Nixon would issue bizarre, frantic warnings to CIA director Richard Helms that if the Agnecy didn't hop on the coverup bandwagon, Watergate would expose "the whole Bay of Pigs thing." This prompted H. R. Haldeman to write in his book, The Ends of Power, "It seems that in all of those Nixon references to the Bay of Pigs, he was actually referring to he Kennedy assassination…. In a chilling parallel to their coverup at Watergate, the CIA literally erased any connection between Kennedy's assassination and the CIA."

An entire tributary in Watergate speculation sluices around Haldeman's vague, evocative comment. Was Bay of Pigs Nixon's code phrase for a CIA role in the Kennedy assassination, and was he attempting to blackmail Helms into cooperating? Or was Nixon referring to the CIA's then-unexposed plots to bump off Castro - using Cubans trained by the CIA at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cubans who later resurfaced as Watergate burglars?

Helms, "the man who kept the secrets," isn't talking. And Nixon, publicly rehabilitated in his death, took the secret to his grave, where "strange alliances" of enemies will have a difficult time setting him up to spill the beans.