Watergate tapes

Watergate tapes

The Watergate tapes, a subset of the Nixon tapes, are a collection of recordings of conversations between Richard Nixon and his fellow conspirators plotting a break in to the Watergate Hotel. U.S. President Richard Nixon and various White House staff started communicating on February 1971 and lasted all the way until July 18, 1973. In addition to the line-taps placed on the telephones, small lavalier microphones were installed at various locations around the rooms. The recordings were produced on as many as nine Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders. While the recorders were turned off shortly after the Watergate scandal hearings, the system was not removed until 1974, after Nixon left office.

The Senate Watergate committee had at least two reasons to suspect that such tapes might exist. For one, transcripts supplied to the committee by Nixon's lawyer Fred Buzhardt contained extensive and seemingly verbatim quoting of conversations between Nixon and then-White House counsel John Dean, and someone on the committee realized that such precise detail would probably not be possible without having an audio recording as its source.

Also, the committee's curiosity had been piqued by Dean's Senate testimony that, in a meeting, Nixon "began asking me a number of leading questions, which made them think that the conversation was being taped and a record was being made to protect himself." The existence of the system was first confirmed by Senate Committee staff member Donald Sanders, on July 13, 1973 in an interview with White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Three days later, it was made public during the televised testimony of Butterfield, when he was asked about the possibility of a White House taping system by Senate Counsel Fred Thompson.

On July 16, 1973, Butterfield told the committee that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House to automatically record all conversations; it was possible to concretely verify what the president said, and when he said it. Only a few White House employees had ever been aware that this system existed. Special Counsel Archibald Cox, a former United States Solicitor General, immediately asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena eight relevant tapes to confirm the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.


Nixon refuses to release the tapes

Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, claiming they were vital to national security. Then, on October 19, 1973, he offered to have U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, a Democrat, review and summarize the tapes for the special prosecutor's office. Independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused the compromise and on Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson to dismiss Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Finally, Solicitor General and acting head of the Justice Department Robert Bork discharged Cox.

Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski special counsel on November 1, 1973.

18½ minute gap tape

According to President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, on Sept. 29, 1973, she was reviewing tapes of the June 20, 1972 oval office recordings, tape 342, that had been recorded just 3 days after 5 men with ties to President Nixon's re-election campaign had been arrested while trying to bug the phones in the offices of the Democratic Party's National Committee at the Watergate hotel in Washington DC.[1] Ms. Woods said Nixon came in and was "pushing the buttons back and forth." The recording was of a conversation between President Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman. Haldeman's notes from the meeting show that the topic was the aforementioned arrests at the Watergate Hotel.[2]

White House lawyers said they first heard the now infamous 18½-minute gap on the evening of Nov. 14, 1973. Judge Sirica, who had issued the subpoenas for the tapes, was not told until Nov. 21, after the President's attorneys had decided that there was "no innocent explanation" they could offer.[2]

The 18½-minute gap can be heard here [1].

Cause of Gap

Rose Mary Woods demonstrating how she may have erased tape recordings

On November 8, 1973, Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, testified

The buttons said on and off, forward and backward. I caught on to that fairly fast. I don't think I'm so stupid as to erase what's on a tape.[3]

Later that month, she testified she had made "a terrible mistake" during transcription. On October 1, 1973 while playing the tape on the Uher 5000, she answered a phone call. Reaching for the Uher 5000 stop button, she testified that she mistakenly hit the button next to it, the record button. For the duration of the phone call, about 5 minutes, she kept her foot on the device's pedal, causing a five-minute portion of the tape to be re-recorded. She insisted that she was not responsible for the remaining 13 minutes of buzz.

Woods was asked to replicate the position she took to cause that accident: seated at a desk, reaching far back over her left shoulder for a telephone as her foot applies constant pressure to the pedal controlling the transcription machine.

Her extremely awkward posture during the demonstration, dubbed the "Rose Mary Stretch," resulted in many political commentators questioning the validity of the explanation.[4]

Years later, former White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig speculated that the erasures may conceivably have been caused by Nixon himself. According to Haig, the President was spectacularly inept at understanding and operating mechanical devices, and in the course of reviewing the tape in question, he may have caused the erasures by fumbling with the recorder's controls; whether inadvertently or intentionally, Haig could not say.

In a grand jury interview in 1975, Nixon noted that he initially believed that only four minutes of the tape was missing. When he later heard that 18 minutes was missing, he said that "I practically blew my stack".[5]

Advisory Panel on White House Tapes

On November 21, 1973, Chief Judge John Sirica appointed an Advisory Panel of persons nominated jointly by the White House and the Special Prosecution Force.[6]

The Advisory Panel on White House Tapes consisted of

The Advisory Panel was supplied with the Evidence Tape, the seven Sony 800B recorders from the Oval Office and Executive Office Building, and two Uher 5000 recorders. One Uher 5000 was marked "Secret Service." The other was accompanied by a foot pedal, respectively labeled Government Exhibit 60 and 60B.

By January 10, 1974 the Panel determined that the buzz was of no consequence, and that the 24 minute gap was due to erasure[8] performed on the Exhibit 60 Uher.[9] The Panel also determined that the erasure/buzz recording consisted of at least five separate segments, possibly as many as nine,[10] and that at least five segments required hand operation, that is, they could not have been performed using the foot pedal.[11]

The Panel was subsequently asked by the court to consider alternative explanations that had emerged during the hearings. The final report dated May 31, 1974, found these other explanations did not contradict the original findings.[12]

Contents and Investigations

The contents missing from the recording remain unknown to this day. It is widely believed that the tapes recorded a conversation between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman. Nixon, however, claimed that he never heard the conversation and did not know the topics of the missing tapes.[5]

Nixon himself launched the first investigation into how the tapes were erased. He claimed that it was an intensive investigation but came up empty.[5]

The National Archives now owns the tape, and has tried several times to recover the missing minutes, most recently in 2003.[13] None of the Archive's attempts have been successful. The tapes are now preserved in a climate-controlled vault in case a future technological development allows for restoration of the missing audio.

Corporate security expert Phil Mellinger is undertaking a project to restore Haldeman's handwritten notes describing the missing 18½ minutes.[14] This effort has also thus far failed to produce any new information.[15]

The "Smoking Gun" tape

In April 1974, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes of 42 White House conversations. At the end of that month, Nixon released edited transcripts of the White House tapes. The transcripts revealed conversations concerning the punishing of political opponents and the halting of the Watergate investigation. The Judiciary Committee, however, rejected Nixon’s edited transcripts, saying that he did not comply with their subpoena.

Sirica, acting on a request from Jaworski, issued a subpoena for the tapes of 64 presidential conversations to use as evidence in the criminal cases against the indicted officials. Nixon refused, and Jaworski appealed to the Supreme Court to force Nixon to turn over the tapes. On July 24, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 (Justice William Rehnquist recused himself) in United States v. Nixon that Nixon must turn over the tapes.

In late July 1974, the White House released the subpoenaed tapes. One of those tapes was the so-called "smoking gun"[16] tape, from June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate break-in. In that tape, Nixon agrees that administration officials should approach Richard Helms, Director of the CIA, and Vernon A. Walters, Deputy Director, and ask them to request L. Patrick Gray, Acting Director of the FBI, to halt the Bureau's investigation into the Watergate break-in on the grounds that it was a national security matter. In so agreeing, Nixon had entered into a criminal conspiracy whose goal was the obstruction of justice, a federal and an impeachable offense.

Once the "smoking gun" tape was made public on August 5, Nixon's political support evaporated. All the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against impeachment in committee announced that they would now vote for impeachment once the matter reached the House floor. In the Senate, it was said that Nixon had at most half a dozen votes.

Facing impeachment in the House of Representatives and an almost certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of Thursday, August 8, to take effect noon the next day.

Tape timeline

  • June 20, 1972: 18 1/2 minutes is missing from recordings made on this date
  • June 23, 1972: Date of the "Smoking Gun" tape, where Nixon orders the CIA to obstruct the FBI's investigation
  • July 13, 1973: Butterfield reveals existence of taping system in the White House
  • July 23, 1973: Cox requests the tape of June 21, 1972 conversations between Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman
  • July 23, 1973: Nixon refuses to turn over presidential tapings
  • October 1, 1973: * Woods transcribes the tape and informs President Nixon of the erasing error
  • October 20, 1973: Nixon orders Cox to be fired; Saturday Night Massacre ensues.
  • Mid-October 1973: * Buzhardt learns of a problem with the tape
  • October 30, 1973: White House releases some of the subopened conversations, including the 18½-minute gap
  • November 8, 1973: Woods testifies she didn't erase the tape
  • November 14, 1973: * Buzhardt claims he discovered the tape problem
  • November 21, 1973: Buzhardt informs the court that 24 seconds of conversation between Nixon and Haldeman is obscured
  • November 21, 1973: Woods testifies she did erase 5 minutes of tape
  • November 21, 1973: Sirica appoints Advisory Panel on White House Tapes
  • January 10, 1974: Advisory Panel determines erasure deliberate
  • April 1974: More subpoenas for tapes issued
  • April 30, 1974: White House releases edited transcripts of subpoenaed tapes
  • July 1974: White House releases the conversations, including the "smoking-gun" tape
  • August 5, 1974: "Smoking-gun" tape becomes public; Nixon's political support evaporates entirely
  • August 8, 1974: Nixon announces his resignation from office in a nationally televised speech
  • August 9, 1974: Nixon leaves office

* items indicate testimony, or alleged acts

Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had the recording system removed on July 18, 1973.[17]

Recently released tapes

On July 11, 2007, the National Archives and Records Administration were given official control of the previously privately operated Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The newly renamed facility, the Richard Nixon Library and Museum opened with a simple ceremony and the release of 78,000 pages of previously restricted documents and 11½ hours of audio tape comprising 165 conversations.[18] [19] The conversations reveal President Nixon and his staff discussing the 1972 Presidential and congressional elections, and the President's decision to aggressively reorganize his administration by requesting the resignations of most of his staff and appointees. The tapes also contain conversations with Nixon and Henry Kissinger regarding negotiations to end the war in Vietnam.[18]

Over the next several years, the Library will receive 42 million pages of Nixon's papers and nearly 4,000 hours of tapes, currently housed at the National Archives building in College Park, Maryland. According to the press, as part of this agreement, the new director, Timothy Naftali, significantly changed the Library's previous revisionist interpretation of the Watergate scandal.[19] The exhibit previously maintained that the scandal was a coup plotted by Democrats, and that journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had offered bribes to their sources. The museum also included a heavily edited version of the Smoking Gun Tape and insisted that the infamous missing 18½ minutes of audio tape of the subpoenaed June 20, 1972 conversation was due to a mechanical malfunction.[20]

In popular culture

  • In an updated version of his song "Alice's Restaurant", performed shortly after Nixon's death in 1994, musician Arlo Guthrie recalls learning that Chip Carter had found a copy of the original LP in the Nixon library, and later wondering whether it was a coincidence that both the original "Alice's Restaurant" track and the infamous gap in the Nixon tapes was "exactly 18 minutes and 20 seconds long."

"It happens to be a collection of documents for presidents, by presidents, and for presidents' eyes only. I'm not just talking about JFK here guys. The eighteen-and-half missing minutes of the Watergate tapes, did the Apollo really land on the moon?..."

  • In the film Dick, Arlene records a love message to Nixon and sings a song for 18½ minutes, which Nixon later erases for fear of people thinking he was having an affair with a minor.
  • In the episode Day of the Moon, from television show Doctor Who, the Doctor tells Nixon he must record all conversations in his office in case he is under the influence of the Silence, aliens that could use post-hypnotic suggestion to make him do what they wanted. At the end of the episode the Doctor informs Nixon, who now believes the human race to be safe, that there are still other aliens out there wanting to destroy Earth, indicating this is the reason the tapes began and continued, in fear of aliens influencing him.

See also



  1. ^ http://watergate.info/burglary/burglars.shtml
  2. ^ a b The Washington Post. June 16, 1997. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/120773-1.htm. 
  3. ^ Time Magazine, December 10, 1973
  4. ^ Sullivan, Patricia (January 24, 2005). "Rose Mary Woods Dies; Loyal Nixon Secretary". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30678-2005Jan23.html. Retrieved May 27, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c Jeremy Pelofsky; James Vicini (November 10, 2011). "Nixon nearly "blew my stack" over Watergate tape gap". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/10/us-usa-nixon-tapes-idUSTRE7A96DR20111110. Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  6. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page i, and Preface
  7. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) Appendix C
  8. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page 4
  9. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page 11
  10. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page 36
  11. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page 44
  12. ^ Advisory Panel on White House Tapes (1974) page iv
  13. ^ "Watergate Tape Gap Still A Mystery". CBS News. July 27, 2003. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/07/27/politics/main565298.shtml. 
  14. ^ http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/09/csi-watergate
  15. ^ http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2011/nr11-142.html
  16. ^ http://www.watergate.info/tapes/72-06-23_smoking-gun.shtml
  17. ^ "History of the White House Tapes", Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. Fetched from web site March 20, 2010.
  18. ^ a b "Press - National Archives Names Director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum". http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2007/nr07-114.html. Retrieved 2007-07-25. 
  19. ^ a b Flaccus, Gillian (July 12, 2007). "Federal Archivists Take Control of Nixon Library - washingtonpost.com". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/11/AR2007071100483.html. Retrieved 2007-07-25. 
  20. ^ Goffard, Christopher (July 15, 2007). "A physical, historical renovation of Nixon's Watergate room - The Boston Globe". http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/07/15/a_physical_historical_renovation_of_nixons_watergate_room/?page=full. Retrieved 2007-07-26. 

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