As the Watergate break-in nears its 40th anniversary, the Justice Department has filed a brief in federal district court opposing a historian’s bid to unseal records that would shed light on one of the scandal’s last remaining mysteries: what was overheard on the illegal wiretap that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
The infamous political scandal began to unfold June 17, 1972, when five men with ties to Nixon’s re-election campaign and to the Central Intelligence Agency were arrested inside the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate office complex.
Over the next two years, fitful efforts were made by White House aides, and ultimately Nixon himself, to cover up the burglars’ connections to the administration and the Committee to the Re-Elect the President.
Secret tape recordings made in the Oval Office and other evidence uncovered by investigating committees and special prosecutors helped unravel the cover-up and triggered Nixon’s August 1974 resignation.
While Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford, pardoned the ex-president for all crimes he committed or may have committed while in office, guilty pleas and verdicts were secured against roughly 50 other men, including Nixon’s former top aides and 19 corporations.
In May 2009, history professor Luke A. Nichter, of Texas A&M University, wrote to the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, seeking to persuade Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth to release long-sealed records from the original trial of the five burglars and their two superiors, G. Gordon Liddy and the late E. Howard Hunt. The case of U.S. v. Liddy, held in Washington amid great publicity in January 1973, ended with guilty pleas or convictions for all seven defendants.
Liddy, who steadfastly refused to discuss the case throughout all the ensuing trials and hearings, went on to serve the scandal’s longest prison sentence: 52 months.
But amid all the investigations and bombshell disclosures, the man whom the burglars had hired in the spring of 1972 to monitor the wiretap installed at the DNC offices – a former FBI agent named Alfred C. Baldwin III – has never been permitted to state explicitly what he overheard.
A gag order put in place by the D.C. appellate court during the Liddy trial, and still in effect today, has prohibited Baldwin from disclosing the contents of the Watergate wiretap, because the conversations of DNC secretaries and other personnel were illegally intercepted.
Among the records Nichter is seeking is secret testimony by Baldwin and other trial documents that would shed light on the contents of the wiretap. Reporters and historians have long wanted to know what was discussed over the wiretapped telephone because they have believed that knowing that information would help explain the true purpose behind the fateful break-in.
In a brief filed with Judge Lamberth on June 1, acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart F. Delery and U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. agreed that some sealed records from the Liddy case could now be opened to scholars. These include “bench conferences about evidentiary matters that could not be discussed in the presence of the jury” and records of “pre-trial meetings between lawyers and the court in chambers that concern[ed] the investigation or other trial matters.”
But the Justice Department strenuously opposed the release of any grand jury records from the case and any evidence that would reveal what was overheard on the wiretap.
“As the Supreme Court has emphasized, safeguarding the privacy of innocent persons who have not consented to the interception of their communications was a motivating factor behind the passage of” the 1968 law that prohibits illegal wiretapping, the government lawyers wrote. “In this case, the majority of the victims to the illegal wiretap at issue have expressed their continued objection to any disclosure of the wiretap contents.”
Late last year, the same court, responding to a petition from a group of historians and Watergate figures, ordered the unsealing of Nixon’s testimony before the grand jury from June 1975. The Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder also had opposed that release, but did not file an appeal when the court ruled in favor of release.
Nichter plans to continue pressing the court for the Liddy trial documents. A ruling from Judge Lamberth is expected within a few months.