The Shady Side of Power: Illegal Government Actions that Shocked the Nation


Governments are meant to protect their citizens and uphold the rule of law. However, throughout history, there have been instances where those in power have abused their authority and engaged in illegal actions that shocked the nation. These actions not only erode public trust but also undermine the very foundations of democracy. In this article, we will explore some of the most notorious illegal government actions that have occurred and examine their long-lasting impacts.

1. Watergate Scandal

The Watergate Scandal is perhaps one of the most infamous examples of illegal government actions. In the early 1970s, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. It was later revealed that the break-in was orchestrated by members of President Richard Nixon’s administration.

The scandal unfolded as investigations uncovered a web of illegal activities, including wiretapping political opponents, destroying evidence, and obstructing justice. The subsequent cover-up attempts by the Nixon administration ultimately led to the president’s resignation in 1974, marking a dark chapter in American history.


COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was a series of covert and illegal operations conducted by the FBI from the 1950s to the 1970s. The program aimed to infiltrate and disrupt various political organizations, including civil rights and anti-war groups, with the goal of suppressing dissent.

Under COINTELPRO, the FBI engaged in activities such as illegal surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of individuals deemed as subversive. The program targeted prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther Party, often using methods that violated constitutional rights. COINTELPRO was only exposed and officially ended in 1971, raising serious concerns about government overreach and abuse of power.

3. Iran-Contra Affair

The Iran-Contra Affair, which unfolded in the 1980s, involved a secret operation conducted by the Reagan administration. The scandal revealed that government officials had facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, despite an arms embargo, in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.

While the operation was illegal, it gained further notoriety when it was discovered that the profits from the arms sales were used to fund the Contras, a rebel group fighting the Nicaraguan government. This raised serious ethical and legal concerns, as Congress had explicitly prohibited financial support for the Contras due to their human rights abuses. The Iran-Contra Affair led to multiple convictions and damaged public trust in the government’s ability to uphold the law.

4. PRISM Surveillance Program

The PRISM surveillance program, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, exposed the extent of mass surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). The program allowed the government to collect vast amounts of personal data from individuals, including phone calls, emails, and social media interactions, without their knowledge or consent.

PRISM raised significant concerns about privacy rights and government intrusion into the lives of citizens. The revelations sparked a global debate on the balance between national security and individual liberties, leading to calls for greater transparency and accountability in intelligence gathering practices.

5. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972, is a haunting example of illegal and unethical government actions. The study involved withholding proper treatment for syphilis from African American men, even after the discovery of penicillin as an effective cure.

Shockingly, the men were misled and told they were receiving treatment when, in fact, they were simply being observed to document the progression of the disease. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment violated basic ethical principles and highlighted the systemic racism within the medical community.


Q: How were these illegal government actions exposed?

A: The exposure of these illegal government actions varied. In the case of Watergate, it was investigative journalism that uncovered the truth. The COINTELPRO program was exposed when a group of activists stole documents from an FBI office and leaked them to the media. The Iran-Contra Affair came to light through investigations by Congress and the media. Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to journalists, revealing the PRISM surveillance program. Lastly, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was exposed by a whistleblower who leaked information to the press.

Q: What were the consequences of these illegal actions?

A: The consequences varied for each case. The Watergate Scandal led to President Nixon’s resignation and a loss of public trust in the government. COINTELPRO was officially ended, and the revelations sparked discussions on the need for greater oversight of intelligence agencies. The Iran-Contra Affair resulted in convictions and damaged the Reagan administration’s reputation. The PRISM surveillance program led to increased scrutiny of government surveillance practices and calls for reforms. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment led to a public apology, monetary compensation, and changes in research ethics guidelines.

Q: What measures have been taken to prevent such illegal actions in the future?

A: In response to these illegal government actions, various measures have been implemented. The Watergate scandal led to reforms in campaign financing and increased checks and balances on executive power. The exposure of COINTELPRO led to restrictions on domestic surveillance and the establishment of guidelines for FBI investigations. The Iran-Contra Affair prompted Congress to strengthen oversight of intelligence activities. The PRISM revelations prompted debates on privacy rights and led to reforms in surveillance practices. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment resulted in the establishment of stringent ethical guidelines for human experimentation.


The examples mentioned above serve as a reminder that even governments, tasked with upholding the law, are not immune to engaging in illegal actions. These instances of abuse of power are not only shocking but also highlight the need for constant vigilance and accountability. Through exposing these illegal government actions, we create an informed citizenry that can demand transparency, uphold democratic values, and prevent future abuses of power.