Monday, July 16, 2012

Tape Worm (Watergate Part 6)

For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the revelation of the White House taping system.

Alexander Butterfield never planned to be part of a White House conspiracy, but by accident turned into one of the key figures in the scandal. A former Air Force pilot (he commanded reconnaissance aircraft during Vietnam), he retired from the USAF at the urging of college pal H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, and became Deputy Assistant to the President, responsible for the daily business of the White House ranging from visitor tours to overseeing Nixon's schedule.

In addition, Butterfield was responsible for maintaining Nixon's historical records, and in that role he oversaw a secret taping system that Nixon had installed in the White House. (Nixon, of course, was not the first president to do so. I've read transcripts of secret tapes made by FDR, and have downloaded for my iPod the JFK tapes covering the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eisenhower and Johnson also taped Oval Office conversations, but I haven't heard any of them personally.)

After Nixon's reelection in 1972, Butterfield became administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. In July 1973, members of Sam Ervin's Senate investigation team interviewed Butterfield about his time in the White House. Previously, John Dean had mentioned that he suspected White House conversations were being taped, and so the committee staff routinely asked witnesses whether they knew it was true. Although Butterfield avoided revealing the taping system voluntarily, he had decided to tell the truth if asked directly. Ironically, it was the minority Republican counsel, Donald Sanders, who put the direct question to Butterfield, who replied that "everything was taped ... as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped."

The significance of this was obvious, so the committee quickly scheduled Butterfield to appear before the full Senate committee on July 16, 1973, where chief minority counsel Fred Thompson (later part of the Law and Order television cast) asked the fatal question, "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

There was, of course, no suggestion that Butterfield was part of the cover-up. He remained as FAA administrator until 1975. Butterfield, interestingly, was one of the few who guessed the real identity of "Deep Throat," telling the Hartford Courant in 1995, "I think it was a guy named Mark Felt."

Only about 200 hours of the 3,500 hours of conversation recorded on the Nixon tapes even mention Watergate, but eight of the tapes were subpoenaed by Special Watergate Counsel Archibald Cox. Citing executive privilege, Nixon refused. When Cox did not back off, Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire him. Richardson refused and resigned, as did his deputy William Ruckelshaus. It fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to fire him.

That was hardly the end of the taping problems. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made a "terrible mistake" and erased five minutes of the June 20, 1972, recording. Strangely, the gap grew from five minutes to 18-1/2 minutes. Woods denied she had anything do to with the additional 13 minutes. While only the participants know for sure what was discussed in those missing 18-1/2 minutes, H. R. Haldeman's notes say that in that particular meeting, Nixon and Haldeman spoke about the arrests at the Watergate that had taken place three days previously.

Although various attempts were made to explain away the gap, the President's attorneys eventually decided that there was "no innocent explanation" they could offer for the problem.

In any event, it wasn't the 18-1/2 minute gap from June 20 that was the problem, but rather the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, six days after the break-in. On that tape, Nixon agreed to pressure the CIA to ask the FBI to halt its investigation of the break-in on the grounds that it was a national security matter. That, according to the Watergate special prosecutor, constituted a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, a Federal — and impeachable — offense. That tape was released in late July 1974; Nixon resigned in early August.

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