Former President Richard Nixon told a grand jury investigating the Watergate scandal that the 18 1/2-minute gap on a tape of his White House conversations was an “accident,” according to transcripts released yesterday.
Nixon, who had resigned his office under threat of impeachment 10 months before testifying in June 1975, offered no explanation for how the accident occurred.
The gap occurred on an audiotape of a conversation between Nixon and White House aide H.R. Haldeman that was subpoenaed as part of an investigation into the June 17, 1972, break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
The transcripts were made public by the National Archives in Washington. In them, Nixon also defends his administration’s reaction to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which contained classified information about the Vietnam War, and mentions political dirty tricks he believed had been used against him.
The tape gap spurred suspicions that incriminating conversations about the break-in and subsequent cover-up among administration members had been intentionally erased. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, said at the time that as she was transcribing the conversation she accidentally erased a few minutes by hitting the wrong button on the tape recorder when she answered the phone.
Woods “always denied that the buzz that she heard” after her mistake “was no more than four-and-a-half to five minutes, and she cannot explain how 18 minutes could have occurred,” Nixon testified under oath. “If you are interested in my view as to what happened, it is very simple. It is that it was an accident.”
He said an investigation led by White House aide Alexander Haig, who later served as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, found no one purposely erased the tapes. “As far as some third person, another person getting to it and erasing it, I, first, I know of no such person, I haven’t heard of any person, and, second, I know of no motive,” Nixon said.
Lawyer Richard Davis, who as an assistant special prosecutor helped question Nixon, said he believes the entire story of the tape gap has yet to be told.
“This was not the immaculate disappearance of 18 1/2 minutes,” said Davis, now a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York. “We do not know the whole answer to that question.”
Nixon in his testimony acknowledged talking about paying $200,000 to $300,000 in legal fees for his two top aides, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both of whom went to prison for their roles in the Watergate scandal.
At the time, Nixon said he didn’t want to ask them to resign, and if they had to leave, “I thought I had an obligation and I would like to be able to tell them that I would help out with regard to their fees.”
Two weeks after that conversation, both men resigned.
Nixon defended the actions of his “plumbers” unit, which broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office after he leaked the Pentagon Papers and his administration’s wiretapping practices, which targeted journalists among others.
‘Sources Dried Up’
“A lot of our sources dried up for some time after the Pentagon Papers came out” in 1971 because they feared they could no longer speak in confidence to U.S. officials, Nixon said.
“The ending of a war and the killing of Americans was delayed” because of Ellsberg’s leak, he insisted. He also said that “when confidential information is put out that costs one American life, I think the one that puts it out should go to jail for it.”
Davis said he was surprised by those comments, which he attributed to Nixon’s efforts to show that his administration was about more than just Watergate.
“He was doing important and difficult stuff,” Davis said. “And he was using it to impart a justification to plug leaks.”
Nixon also testified that opponents were able to listen to his conversations during his unsuccessful 1962 gubernatorial campaign in California, and that the FBI was instructed to bug his 1968 presidential campaign plane. Bugging was “common practice by the other side,” he said.
“What I am pointing out here is not that our campaign was pure; what I am pointing out also is not that theirs was all that bad, but what I am saying is that having been in politics for the last 25 years, that politics is a rough game,” he said.
In an opening statement to the grand jury, he asserted that presidents needed to know that their conversations would be confidential.
“It is necessary for his advisers to believe that they can give him their unvarnished opinions without regard and without fear of the possibility that those opinions are going to be spread in the public print,” he said.
Nixon, who was elected president in 1968 and won a second term in a landslide four years later, died in 1994 at age 81. His grand jury testimony occurred nine months after his successor, President Gerald Ford, granted him a “full, free, and absolute pardon” for any potential crimes committed during his presidency.