Nixon White House tapes
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The Nixon White House tapes are audio recordings of the communications of U.S. President Richard Nixon and various Nixon administration officials and White House staff, ordered by the President for personal records. The taping system was installed in selected rooms in the White House in February 1971 and was voice activated. The records come from line-taps placed on the telephones and small lavalier microphones in various locations around the rooms. The recordings were produced on up to nine Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders. The recorders were turned off on July 18, 1973, shortly after they became public knowledge as a result of the Watergate hearings.
Nixon was not the first president to record his White House conversations; the tradition began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and continued under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. What differentiated the Nixon system from the others, however, is the fact that the Nixon system was automatically activated by voice as opposed to being manually activated by a switch. The Watergate tapes are interspersed among the Nixon White House tapes. The tapes gained fame during the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 1974 when the system was made public during the televised testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Only a few White House employees had ever been aware that this system existed. Special Counsel Archibald Cox, a former United States Solicitor General under President John F. Kennedy, asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena eight relevant tapes to confirm the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.
History of the Nixon White House taping system
On February 16, 1971, the taping system was installed in two rooms in the White House: the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Three months later, microphones were added to President Nixon's private office in the Old Executive Office Building, and the following year microphones were installed in the presidential lodge at Camp David. The system was installed and monitored by the Secret Service, and tapes were kept in a room in the White House basement. Significant phone lines were tapped as well, including those in the Oval Office and the Lincoln Sitting Room, which was Nixon's favorite room in the White House.
Only a select few individuals knew of the existence of the taping system. The recordings were produced on as many as nine Sony TC-800B machines using very thin 0.5 mil tape at the extremely slow speed of 15/16 inches per second.
The tapes contain over 3,500 hours of conversation. Hundreds of hours are of discussions on foreign policy, including planning for the 1972 Nixon visit to China and subsequent visit to the Soviet Union. Only 200 hours of the 3500 contain references to Watergate.
Revelation of the taping system
The existence of the White House taping 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 under President John F. Kennedy, asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena eight relevant tapes to confirm the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.
The Saturday Night Massacre
President Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, for two reasons: first, that the Constitutional principle of executive privilege extends to the tapes and citing the separation of powers and checks and balances within the Constitution, and second, claiming they were vital to national security. On October 19, 1973, he offered a compromise; Nixon proposed that U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, a Democrat who was hard of hearing, to review and summarize the tapes for accuracy and report his findings to the special prosecutor's office. 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. Solicitor General and acting head of the Justice Department Robert Bork discharged Cox.
Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski special counsel on November 1, 1973.
The 18½ minute gap
According to President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, on September 29, 1973 she was reviewing a tape of the June 20, 1972, recordings when she said she had made "a terrible mistake" during transcription. While playing the tape on a Uher 5000, she answered a phone call. Reaching for the Uher 5000 stop button, she said 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. When she listened to the tape, the gap had grown to 18½ minutes and later insisted that she was not responsible for the remaining 13 minutes of buzz.
The contents missing from the recording remain unknown to this day. It is widely believed that the tapes recorded a conversation between Nixon and Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. Nixon said that he never heard the conversation and did not know the topics of the missing tapes. Haldeman's notes from the meeting show that among the topics of discussion were the arrests at the Watergate Hotel. White House lawyers first heard the now infamous 18½ minute gap on the evening of November 14, 1973, and Judge Sirica, who had issued the subpoenas for the tapes, was not told until November 21, after the President's attorneys had decided that there was "no innocent explanation" they could offer.
Woods was asked to replicate the position she took to cause that accident. Seated at a desk, she reached far back over her left shoulder for a telephone as her foot applied pressure to the pedal controlling the transcription machine. Her posture during the demonstration, dubbed the "Rose Mary Stretch", resulted in many political commentators questioning the validity of the explanation.
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 1973, Haig had speculated aloud that the erasure was caused by an unidentified "sinister force".
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, "I practically blew my stack".
Nixon himself launched the first investigation into how the tapes were erased. He claimed that it was an intensive investigation but came up empty.
On November 21, 1973, Sirica appointed a panel of persons nominated jointly by the White House and the Special Prosecution Force. The 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. The panel determined that the buzz was of no consequence, and that the gap was due to erasure performed on the Exhibit 60 Uher. The panel also determined that the erasure/buzz recording consisted of at least five separate segments, possibly as many as nine, and that at least five segments required hand operation; that is, they could not have been performed using the foot pedal. 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.
The National Archives now owns the tape, and has tried several times to recover the missing minutes, most recently in 2003. None of the Archives' 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 undertook a project to restore Haldeman's handwritten notes describing the missing 18½ minutes, though that effort also failed to produce any new information.
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, again citing executive privilege and national security; the Judiciary Committee, however, rejected Nixon’s edited transcripts, saying that they did not comply with the 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 indicted former Nixon administration 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" 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. The special prosecutor felt that Nixon, in so agreeing, had entered into a criminal conspiracy whose goal was the obstruction of justice.
Once the "smoking gun" tape was made public on August 5, Nixon's political support practically vanished. The ten 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. He lacked substantial support in the Senate as well; Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott estimated no more than 15 Senators were willing to even consider acquittal. Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of Thursday, August 8, to take effect noon the next day.
After Nixon's resignation, the federal government took control of all of his presidential records, including the tapes, in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. From the time that the federal government seized his records until his death, Nixon was locked in frequent legal battles over control of the tapes; Nixon argued that the act was unconstitutional in that it violated the Constitutional principles of separation of powers and executive privilege, and infringed on his personal privacy rights and First Amendment right of association.
The legal squabbling would continue for 25 years, past Nixon's death. He initially lost several cases, but the courts ruled in 1998 that some 820 hours and 42 million papers and documents were his personal private property and had to be returned to his estate.
On July 11, 2007, the National Archives were given official control of the previously privately operated Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The newly renamed facility, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, now houses the tapes and releases additional tapes to the public periodically.
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."
- Joe Strummer references the Watergate Tapes in the lyrics of the song "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." by the Clash
- In the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets, protagonist Riley Poole mentions the missing segment of the tapes in his conspiracy theory novel.
- 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 "Day of the Moon" episode from the 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.
- In "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown", an episode of the ABC Family series The Middleman, a previous Middleman is at a high-stakes card game where the only items in the pot are priceless objects; he stakes an old-fashioned tape recorder, claiming that it holds "the missing eighteen minutes".
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