Nixon Watergate tapes to be made public
By Mike Ahlers/CNN
January 21, 2000
Web posted at: 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On a mid-summer day 27 years ago, a former White House
aide named Alexander Butterfield electrified a Watergate-weary nation with news
that the Nixon Administration had secretly tape-recorded Oval Office
Now, nearly 26 years after those tapes led to Nixon's resignation -- and
almost six years after Nixon's death -- many Americans are about to hear the
Watergate tapes for the first time.
On Friday, the National Archives is releasing 12 and 1/2 hours of tapes,
including the infamous "smoking gun" tape that showed Nixon tried to
derail an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in less than a week after
Still more tapes will follow in the weeks ahead.
Nixon's friends and foes may regret or relish the attention the tapes will bring, but no one is expecting any revelations. The tapes being released Friday were played at the Watergate trials of John Connally and former Attorney General John Mitchell.
Transcripts of the tapes have been available for decades, (they can be
found at the National Archives website), and members of the public have been able to listen to the tapes in recent years in the secure confines of the National Archives.
A few bootleg tapes have even been broadcast in the past. But Friday marks
the first time any of the tapes will legally be available to the public and
the news media.
Any member of the public can purchase a complete set of the 12 and 1/2 hours
for $702 plus tax. So far, most orders have been placed by news organizations
Former White House Counsel and Watergate figure John Dean tells CNN the
privately recorded tapes add a dimension lost on the paper transcripts.
"Richard Nixon has a very distinctive on-stage sound. He also has a very
distinctive off-stage sound. And he's a little bit more angry off-stage.
Surprisingly so," Dean said.
Release of the tapes, while perhaps contributing to the public's
understanding of the era, is not likely to stifle debate. Indeed, officials at
the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace are warning Nixon admirers to brace for
an onslaught of Nixon bashing.
"What's truly fascinating about these 201 hours...is what they really do
reveal about Watergate," John Taylor, executive director of the Nixon
Foundation, wrote for the foundation's website.
"For example, they show... that the president didn't know about the
Watergate break-in, as he always asserted (and) that throughout the second half
of 1972 he repeatedly urged his aides not to cover up Watergate, as he always
Says Dean: "I don't think there is any question there were times he
(Nixon) wanted to get the story out and have it go away. But then every time
you heard the problems (he) realized he couldn't."
In the coming weeks, the Archives will be making available the rest of the
265 hours of conversations relating to Watergate and other abuses of
governmental powers. Transcripts are not available for much of that tape, but
members of the public have been able to play back the tapes for the past few
Altogether, the Nixon White House made 3,700 hours of recordings
containing about 2,800 hours of conversations. Tape recordings that involved
family, private or non-governmental matters were returned to the Nixon estate.
(From the National Archives website and other sources).
The recording system was installed by the Secret Service's Technical
Services Division in February, 1971.
In addition to line-taps placed on telephones, small lavalier microphones
were installed in various locations in various rooms in the White House,
the Executive Office Building and Camp David.
The recording system was sound-activated, meaning that recordings often
shut off and on during pauses in the middle of conversations, creating a
"whipping" sound as the activated recorder came up to speed in the middle of
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
The Watergate break-in occurred June 17, 1972.
Six days later -- June 23, 1972 -- in a conversation with chief of staff
H.R. Haldeman, Nixon discussed plans to derail an FBI investigation into the
In February 1973, the Senate formed the Select Committee on
Presidential Campaign Activities, later to become the Watergate Committee.
In July of 1973, Fred Thompson, then a Republican attorney for the Senate
Watergate committee, (and now a Republican senator from Tennessee), called on
a surprise witness, Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield was a former aide to
White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.
Thompson: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any
listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?"
Butterfield: "I was aware of listening devices, yes sir."
Recording stopped soon afterward.
A year later, the White House released a tape now known as the "smoking
gun" tape. Several days later, on August 8, 1974, Nixon announced he would resign effective the following day.
The recording equipment was moved only after Nixon left office.