Background Information

The 297-page transcript of Nixon’s testimony promised to offer key insight into Nixon’s own role in and knowledge of the infamous Democratic National Committee Headquarters break-in and its subsequent cover up. The testimony focused on four specific points of interest: the 18 ½ minute gap on Tape 342; the extent to which Nixon used the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to harass political enemies; illegal or suspect campaign contributions (including the $100,000 bribe from eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes to Nixon via Nixon’s close friend and associate Charles “Bebe” Rebozo); and the illegal wiretapping conducted by the administration.

The Jury

Throughout the Watergate scandal, there were three separate grand juries, all charged with investigating the Watergate break-in and subsequent uproar within the Nixon Administration. The three grand juries spanned different time periods and served different purposes in contributing to the investigation into the Watergate crimes.

The first grand jury was convened in order to investigate the initial break-in of the Democratic National Committee, headquartered at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. During the break-in, which began as an operation to replace faulty surveillance equipment in the office of DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien, five men (known as the Plumbers) were discovered by a security guard and subsequently arrested. Following an investigation and the presentation of evidence to the grand jury, the five men plus Nixon cronies G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were indicted by the first grand jury on September 15, 1972 on charges of conspiracy, attempted burglary and attempted interception of communication systems [in O’Brien’s office]. The Plumbers were eventually convicted of those charges in January of 1973.

As the Watergate scandal continued to unravel, a Special Prosecutor was appointed by the Justice Department to head up the investigation into the break-in and cover up. During this time, Nixon advisors continued to do everything in their power—legitimate or not—to hinder the prosecution, even going so far as having cronies in the Justice Department fire the first special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in what is now known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

During this time, a second grand jury began to investigate the scandal and attempted cover-up. On March 1, 1974, the second Watergate Grand Jury indicted seven former aides to the president. Known as the Watergate Seven, the former aides indicted were Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon Strachan, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson. The men were charged with conspiracy to impede the investigation into the Watergate scandal. More importantly, the grand jury also secretly named President Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, marking the first time a sitting president had ever been named a conspirator in a criminal investigation. However, Nixon was not formally indicted due to the fact that there was disagreement in the office of the special prosecutor as to whether a sitting president could be indicted while in office, or if such a proceeding could only be initiated by Congress.

Following the indictment of the Watergate Seven, in 1974, the Watergate Special Prosecution team decided that it was necessary to depose former President Richard Nixon, and a third grand jury was convened. Having been pardoned by President Gerald Ford and therefore immune from prosecution for any crimes committed while in office, Nixon agreed to the deposition request. Chief Judge George Hart authorized the sworn deposition of President Nixon be taken in San Mateo, California on June 23 and June 24, 1975. It was the third grand jury that heard the testimony analyzed in this report.

 

U.S. v. Nixon

The U.S. v. Nixon court case marked the climax of the Watergate Scandal and served as the catalyst that spurred the end of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.  In April 1974, Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski subpoenaed the so-called Nixon tapes—conversations recorded by the White House taping system.  The administration resisted and refused to hand over the tapes, arguing that the doctrine of Executive Privilege gave the president sufficient power to keep his personal effects within his control; furthermore, the White House had already released a transcript of the tapes to the prosecutor, it was argued by White Lawyers that no further action on their part would be necessary.

DC circuit court justice Sirica disagreed and ordered the tapes released. The White House and prosecution both appealed to the Supreme Court. On July 24th, 1974 the Court, in a unanimous decision, ordered that the tapes be released. They essentially held that no one is above the law, not even the President; that the tapes had been shown to be “demonstratively relevant in a criminal prosecution” in the investigation of the President’s actions; and that the President cannot use executive privilege to undermine the subpoena power of the prosecution.

The Court’s decision rendered Nixon powerless to stop the prosecution. He knew that the conversations he’d had with his aides would prove catastrophic when unveiled. Under extreme pressure from the investigation, Nixon saw that his days were numbered, and he resigned less than two weeks after the Supreme Court released its decision. The constitutional system of checks and balances had succeeded.

The Nixon Tapes

Perhaps the most riveting and unique aspect of the Watergate scandal was the existence of tape recorded evidence directly implicating the President and his highest-ranking advisors.  Before these tapes were surrendered to the public, a series of transcripts were made in an attempt to satisfy court orders.  In typical Nixon fashion, the President resorted to less-than-legitimate means to salvage his credibility from the information the tapes contained.  Instead of directly releasing the tapes to the public, Nixon put forth a folder containing hundreds of pages of transcripts doctored to obscure his role in the crime and cover up.

The White House tape recording system became public in 1973 when Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed its existence in an interview before the House Judiciary Committee.  The tape recording system had been re-installed by the Nixon administration in 1971, having initially been done away with when the President took office.  Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had maintained similar taping systems in the Oval Office, but Nixon was at first wary of continuing the practice for the obvious risks it involved.  In his testimony, Butterfield revealed Nixon to be a “history-conscious” president, desiring exact records of decisions made during his time in office.  The president himself would later claim that he had the taping system reinstalled to help when it came time to write his memoirs.  At the time, as also revealed by Butterfield, the tapes existed alone with no written or reviewed transcripts.

There was quite a stir once the existence of the tapes was revealed.  The recordings would provide an unequivocal answer to the question of “what did the President know and when did he know it?” at a time when Nixon was trying to distance himself from Watergate as much as possible and keep silent on anything that could lead an investigation deeper.

At first Nixon claimed executive privilege in protecting the tapes for purposes of national security.  Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox refused to back down, however, and continued pressing for the tapes to be released.  In response to this, Nixon ordered the Justice Department to fire Cox, who was technically an appointment of the executive branch.  When several Justice Department officials refused to carry out Nixon’s orders, they too were fired in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Attempting to minimize the damage done, Nixon indicated he would be willing to release summaries and transcripts of the tapes once they had been reviewed for ‘sensitive’ information that could threaten the security of the nation.  Nixon was also curious to see if selectively released transcripts could be used to refute some of the allegations being made against him, particularly those by John Dean.  The summaries and the carefully selected tapes Nixon did release only served to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the prosecutorial staff.  By late March and early April of 1973, Nixon was losing support of key conservatives in Congress and would have to make concessions if he wished to maintain a strong enough bloc to avoid impeachment.  Rather than agree to release all the tapes themselves, Nixon opted to release transcripts.

Nixon’s communications staff carefully monitored the transcription process.  The completed tapes had to be run past several officials, including Rom Ziegler’s then-aide Diane Sawyer who was tasked with finding “non-substantive problems” such as obscenities.  When Nixon announced the release of the transcripts, he appeared on television with a stack of blue notebooks, which were intended solely as props to placate speculation over whether the promised transcripts actually existed.

Upon their release, the transcripts created a firestorm of criticism for Nixon.  They were widely disseminated and quoted, exposing many of the scummier parts of Nixon’s administration, but they did not directly implicate the president in the cover up.  Nixon went to great lengths to delete or edit phrases that made him look too suspicious, eventually giving rise to questions of how authentic the released conversations actually were.  The phrases “expletive deleted” and “material unrelated to Presidential action deleted” were riddled throughout, and threw the legitimacy of the whole set of transcripts into question.  It was not until the Supreme Court compelled Nixon to turn over the tapes themselves that a genuine ‘smoking gun’ came to light and the President was forced to resign.

The Investigation of Richard Nixon

Senate Watergate Committee

The United States Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, commonly known as the Senate Watergate Committee, was a special committee of the United States Senate convened to investigate the break-in to the Democratic National headquarters by the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

The Committee was formed nine months after the June 1972 break-in at the DNC offices. After the trial and conviction of the burglars, the committee was convened to investigate political corruption. Sam Dash, the committee’s chief counsel, assured Republicans on the panel that the committee would be bipartisan and would have a central focus of investigating wrongdoing by both parties in the political system. Although this may have been the initial intent, the primary role of the committee was ultimately to gather evidence that Congress could eventually use for the successful conviction of administration officials responsible for the organization and authorization of the break-in.

Senators Sam Ervin and Howard H. Baker were the chairman and ranking member of the committee. The committee had it first hearing on May 17, 1973 and concluded its formal work with a final report issued on June 27, 1974. During the course of the 13-month senate investigation, the Senate Watergate Committee became the central focus of a national event that included the unfolding of one of the most corrupt presidencies in American history. The broadcast of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings aired on CBS, NBC and ABC networks on almost a daily basis.

 

Illegal Wiretaps

Nixon’s extensive wiretapping schemes began in 1970 after the secret bombing campaign against Cambodia was made public by the New York Times’ publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. The documents, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former defense analyst, detailed the bloody secret history of the Vietnam War. In response to the leak, Nixon’s aides established a secret unit known as the Plumbers “with the sole purpose of gathering political intelligence on perceived enemies and preventing further news leaks.” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pressed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap reporters and even top Nixon aides (though he later denied making the request).

W. Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat—Woodward and Bernstein’s confidential informant—confirmed the wiretappings, saying “In 1969, the first targets of aggressive wiretapping were the reporters and those in the administration who were suspected of disloyalty. Then the emphasis was shifted to the radical political opposition during the [Vietnam] antiwar protests. When it got to election time [1972], it was only natural to tap the Democrats. The arrests in the Watergate sent everybody off the edge because the break-in could uncover the whole program.”

Later, FBI Director William Ruckelshaus (who succeeded Hoover) confirmed that at least seventeen wiretaps (thirteen of government officials and four of reporters) were ordered by the administration between 1969 and 1971. Between May 1969 and May 1970, Kissinger received no less than 37 letters from the FBI regarding the results of these taps. When the Senate Watergate Committee reviewed the surveillance, it found that those being monitored included “Nixon speechwriter and later New York Times columnist William Safire; Anthony Lake, a top Kissinger aide who [would] later resign over the secret bombings of Cambodia; and the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, whom Kissinger regards as a political enemy.”

In June of 1972, five burglars were arrested for breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters, located in the Watergate complex, and planting surveillance devices; these five and two others, including G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel for the Committee to Reelect the President (often referred to by the unfortunate acronym CREEP), were charged with burglary and wiretapping. In January of the next year, the burglars were tried before Judge John Sirica; five pled guilty and two were convicted by a jury. “Sirica’s direct questioning of witnesses revealed details of a coverup by H.R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, and John W. Dean,” who, among others, were later charged as well.

The indictment of Richard Nixon reads, in part, “President Nixon and his co-conspirators… caused wiretaps to be placed on the telephones of seventeen persons without having obtained a court order authorizing the tap, as required by federal law; in violation of sections 241, 371 and 2510-11 of the Criminal Code.”

 

Campaign Contributions

In the early stages of the 1968 presidential campaign, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes remarked,I am determined to elect a president of our choosing this year and one who will be deeply indebted, and who will recognize his indebtedness.”

Richard Nixon became the president of Hughes’s “choosing.” Between September 10, 1969 and July 3, 1970, Hughes gave Nixon two cash contributions of $50,000 taken from the former’s gambling casino in Las Vegas. Delivered by Hughes’s top two lieutenants Robert Maheu and Richard Danner to Nixon’s best friend Charles Gregory “Bebe” Rebozo, the two-installment payment was likely meant “to curry government favor for Hughes’s gambling and airline business.”

Interestingly, Don Fulsom and others speculate that the contribution, which was used to buy diamond earrings for Nixon’s wife and upgrade his Key Biscayne property, was actually the primary catalyst for 1972’s infamous Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Eccentric, drug-addicted billionaire Howard Hughes, who had for a time employed O’Brien, had donated $100,000 to the Nixon campaign as well as providing financial support to democratic candidates. Nixon was afraid that O’Brien, who had worked for Hughes at the time of the contribution, knew of the donation—which was in reality not a donation but a bribe. Howard Hughes believed that anyone could be bought or destroyed, including the President of the United States. Nixon was determined to win the 1968 presidential election. Nixon did not plan on being destroyed. And Nixon could be bought.[1]

Convinced that Hughes’s previous 1957 loan made to Nixon’s brother ostensibly to support his struggling “Nixonburger” chain had partially cost him the 1960 presidential election, the famously paranoid Nixon was unwilling to allow a Hughes contribution to play a role in his demise once again. Therefore, he ordered the Watergate break-in to replace a faulty bug on O’Brien’s phone and search his files for any evidence of knowledge of the $100,000 bribe.

With this in mind, what was expected from Nixon’s unsealed grand jury testimony? Evidence of the bribe first came to light several years later in the midst of the Watergate scandal, when Maheu filed a defamation lawsuit against the Hughes Tool Company after Hughes fired him. In a 1973 deposition given in the course of litigation, then, Maheu mentioned the $100,000 contribution.

Despite this information, however, many questions still remain that could be addressed by the release of Nixon’s formerly secret grand jury testimony. More specifically, in its summary of the Hughes/Nixon/Rebozo connection, the Senate Watergate Committee noted that the following questions still remained: “(1) Why were cash funds furnished to a close friend of the President rather than any campaign official or organization? (2) Why were funds contributed several years prior to the 1972 campaign for which they were originally intended, especially since Howard Hughes ultimately contribute $150,000 in 1972 for the Finance Committee to Re-Elect the President? (3) Did Howard Hughes profit in any way by his contribution to Rebozo on behalf of the President?”

In his actual testimony on the matter, Nixon claims that even after Watergate the Hughes donation had not been used. Instead, Nixon hoped that the donation could be put towards paying Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s legal fees. According to Nixon, campaign contributions could be reappropriated with the permission of the donator, but he had not used leftover campaign money for personal expenses. However, researchers have found evidence suggesting that Nixon had used at least some of the Hughes contribution for personal expenditures, including a putting green and a pool table.


[1] Both the Associated Milk Producers Incorporated and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation received favorable legislation after considerable monetary donations to Nixon and the RNC.

 

IRS Audits

In August 1971, less than two years before President Nixon’s reelection, White House Counsel John Dean prepared a memo advocating for an “enemies list,” which would be used to “maximized the fact of [the administration’s] incumbency” among its political opponents.  At first a modest list of twenty, the list soon grew to 2000 groups and 4000 individuals, including political figures, businessmen, Hollywood actors and journalists.

Nixon Senior Aide H.R. Haldeman directed the IRS to audit certain members of this enemies list.  These audits were used as a way of harassing the administration’s enemies and denying tax-exempt status to liberal-leaning non-profit groups.  President Nixon later admitted to ordering an audit of DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien after learning that John Wayne and Billy Graham, two of Nixon’s supporters, had been audited.

One major target of the administration was Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.  To the administration’s chagrin, IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters was slow to investigate McGovern and his staff and contributors.  Fed up with Walters’ noncompliance, the White House assigned John Caulfield to work within the IRS Inspection department and help speed up the process.  Despite Caulfield’s best efforts to compel the IRS to comply with the president’s will, he felt that the Republican appointees in the IRS lacked “guts” and appeared “afraid and unwilling to do anything that could be politically helpful.”

All told, the IRS compiled information on thousands of Nixon’s enemies, but the audits were not conducted without serious pushback.  Ultimately, the question of the legality of the IRS audits was never resolved in an impeachment trial.  Some members of Congress saw the audits as criminal acts whereas others saw theme merely as “clear acts of misconduct.”  But the controversy surrounding the IRS audits remains one of the most egregious in the Nixon presidency.

18-1/2 Minute Gap

The public, as well as historians and those involved in the Nixon administration, anxiously awaited the release of the grand jury transcript in the hopes that it would reveal what transpired during the infamous gap in the tape of the June 20, 1972 conversation between Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. The 18-½-minute gap was found on Tape 342, which had been recorded just three days after the Watergate break-in. The recording featured a 69-minute conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, 18 ½ minutes of which were obscured by a “long humming noise that drops noticeably in volume after the five-minute mark.”

According to Haldeman’s notes, the topic of the missing conversation was none other than the Watergate break-in and subsequent arrests of the five “Plumbers” (Nixon’s covert team—so named because of its goal to find and eliminate leaks to the media—that conducted multiple illegal operations, including the Watergate break-in), including plumber Egil “Bud” Krogh. The as-of-yet unexplained gap was discovered by White House lawyers on November 14, 1973. One week later, on November 21, 1973, they informed Federal Judge John Sirica, who had originally issued subpoenas for the tapes, of the missing portion. According to then-Chief of Staff Alexander Haig’s testimony, the 18 ½ minute gap was reported to the judge after the determination was made that “some sinister force” had been at work with regards to the missing content.

White House records show that only Secretary Rose Mary Woods and Presidential Assistant Stephen Bull (and, of course, President Nixon himself) had access to the tape in the period between Judge Sirica approving the subpoena of the recordings and the discovery of the gap. The duo received the tape on September 29, 1973, after Nixon ordered Woods to summarize the highlights.

Woods ultimately took responsibility for the erasure, claiming that she hit the wrong button on the recording machine while reaching for the telephone—an unlikely move now known as the “Rose Mary stretch.” However, Woods claimed to have erased only five minutes of the tape (which jives with the change in tone at around the five minute mark). Haig said White House lawyers suggested that “perhaps there had been one tone applied by Miss Woods… and then perhaps some sinister force had come in and applied the other energy source and taken care of the information on that tape.”

Naturally, many assumed Woods was merely taking the blame to protect her boss, but she was quite adamant that the call in question lasted no longer than five minutes, leaving the remaining 13 ½ minutes a mystery. Surprisingly, she also claimed that, as she was reviewing the tape at Camp David, President Nixon entered her room and monitored some of the excerpts, “pushing the buttons back and forth.”

Who, then, is responsible for the erasure? Alexander Haig would later tell reporters that Woods was probably responsible for the entire 18-½-minute gap, but Judge Sirica’s Advisory Panel on White House Tapes came to a significantly different conclusion. The six-person panel, which consisted of speech, acoustics, and electronics experts, was first formed after Judge Sirica learned of the infamous gap on November 21, 1973. On January 10, 1974, the panel conclusively determined that the widely publicized gap had, in fact, been the result of erasure. The group also concluded that the erasures were “done in at least five—and perhaps as many as nine – separate and contiguous segments,” suggesting that several individuals might have been involved or, at the very least, there is more to the story than the isolated “Rose Mary Stretch” incident. Unfortunately, despite great effort, the panel failed to determine what had been erased, and was subsequently disbanded after its final report on May 31, 1974.

Ultimately, the true story behind the 18-½-minute gap in Tape 342 has never been uncovered. While most historians naturally assume President Nixon was the “sinister force” responsible for the erasure, conclusive evidence was never found. Shortly after Nixon’s 1975 testimony, Herbert Miller, the disgraced President’s attorney, stated during an oral argument in federal court that the Nixon “denied under oath ‘responsibility for the 18 ½ minute gap.” Similarly, in his 1977 interview with British television personality David Frost, Nixon claimed that he testified that he had not erased the 18 ½ minute segment on Tape 342. “I testified under oath,” he said, “and I swore both to my own noninvolvement and my belief in [Woods’] nonresponsibility [sic].”