WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Justice says at least some materials sealed as part of the court case against seven men involved in the 1972 Watergate burglary should be released.
The agency responded Friday to a request by a Texas history professor who is seeking access to materials he believes could help answer lingering questions about the burglary that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.
Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, Texas, wrote the chief judge of the federal court in Washington to ask that potentially hundreds of pages of documents be unsealed. The judge said in a letter made public earlier this year that the professor had "raised a very legitimate question" about whether the material should remain sealed, and he ordered the Department of Justice to respond with any objections.
Justice attorney Elizabeth Shapiro wrote in a court document filed Friday that the office would not oppose the release of at least some documents.
"Forty years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee that began the chapter of U.S. history known as Watergate, no good reason exists to keep sealed many of the judicial records created during the trial of the Watergate burglars," she wrote.
But Shapiro said three categories of documents should remain secret: certain documents containing personal information, grand jury information and documents about the content of illegally obtained wiretaps.
In particular, Nichter wants access to records of at least two court hearings held behind closed doors and interviews and testimony given by Alfred Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who was hired to listen to and transcribe conversations from a phone the burglars wiretapped at the Democratic National Committee during a burglary on May 28, 1972. The burglars were caught when they returned to the office on June 17, 1972.
There is some precedent for unsealing Watergate documents. In 2011 the same judge, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, ordered that a secret transcript of President Nixon's testimony to a grand jury about the Watergate break-in be made public. Lamberth agreed with historians that arguments for releasing the 297-page transcript outweighed arguments for secrecy, because the investigations are long over and Nixon died in 1994.
Nichter, who also runs a website cataloging secret recordings made by President Nixon in the White House, said the government's reply is somewhat encouraging, though it's hard to tell from it what documents he might get access to.
"I'm obviously going to get something, but I don't know what that something is," he said Saturday.
Nichter said he would consult the judge to see how to proceed now that the government has responded.
Jessica Gresko can be reached at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko