WASHINGTON – Thirty-five years after Richard Nixon testified secretly to a grand jury investigating Watergate, a group of historians has launched a legal bid to make public what the president said under oath about the break-in that drove him from office.
Nixon was interviewed near his home in San Clemente, Calif., for 11 hours on June 23-24, 1975, 10 months after he resigned. It was the first time a former U.S. president testified before a grand jury, but the 297-page transcript remains sealed from the public.
The historians have filed a petition before Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court here arguing the historical significance outweighs arguments for secrecy with the investigations long over and Nixon dead for 16 years. They argue that unsealing the interview could help address ongoing debate over Nixon's knowledge of the break-in at Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate office complex and his role in the cover-up.
The testimony is especially important because Nixon was speaking under the threat of perjury, said Stanley Kutler, who filed the petition this week along with four historians' organizations. Kutler, author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes," successfully sued to force the release of audio recordings Nixon secretly made in the Oval Office.
Courts have on occasion ordered the release of grand jury records because of their historical impact, including those investigating espionage allegations against Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
But there is no precedent for releasing grand jury records on historical grounds in the District of Columbia court, said Public Citizen's Allison Zieve, the attorney representing the petitioners. Justice Department officials are reviewing the petition, said spokesman Charles Miller, so it remains unclear whether they will fight it.
Newspapers reported at the time of Nixon testimony that he was questioned about the 18½-minute gap in his Oval Office tapes, changes made to White House transcripts of the recordings, his administration's use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass his political enemies and a $100,000 campaign contribution from billionaire Howard Hughes. But the details of what the president said have never leaked out.
Several Watergate figures filed declarations in support of the petition, including Nixon's White House counsel John Dean, who served prison time for his role in the scandal. Dean wrote that Nixon's testimony covers topics that the president only vaguely discussed in his memoirs and his revelations to the grand jury would help stop "those wanting to twist and distort history."
But not all Nixon historians support release of his testimony. James Rosen, author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate," says not enough time has passed as it had in the Hiss case when the main figures were long dead.
"In this case, President Nixon's chief accuser — John Dean — remains very much alive," said Rosen, a correspondent for Fox News. "The court should wait until all participants in Watergate have died before making public the testimony that President Nixon gave willingly and with the assurance that it would, like all grand jury testimony, remain sealed."