The Nixon White House tapes are audio recordings of conversations between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Nixon administration officials, Nixon family members, and White House staff, produced between 1971 and 1973.
In February 1971, a sound-activated taping system was installed in the Oval Office, including in Nixon's Oval Office desk, using Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders to capture audio transmitted by telephone taps and concealed microphones. The system was expanded to include other rooms within the White House and Camp David. The system was turned off on July 18, 1973, two days after it became public knowledge as a result of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings.
The tapes' existence came to light during the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 1974, when the system was mentioned during the televised testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield before the Senate Watergate Committee. Nixon's refusal of a congressional subpoena to release the tapes constituted an article of impeachment against Nixon, and led to his subsequent resignation on August 9, 1974.
Just prior to assuming office in January 1969, President Nixon learned that his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had installed a system to record his meetings and telephone calls. According to his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon ordered the system removed, but during the first two years of his presidency, he came to the conclusion (after trying other means) that audio recordings were the only way to ensure a full and faithful account of conversations and decisions. At Nixon's request, Haldeman and his staff—including Deputy Assistant Alexander Butterfield—worked with the United States Secret Service to install a recording system.
On February 16, 1971, a taping system was installed in two rooms in the White House, namely, the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Three months later, microphones were added to President Nixon's private office in the Old Executive Office Building and the following year microphones were installed in the presidential lodge at Camp David. The system was installed and monitored by the Secret Service, and the tapes were stored in a room in the White House basement. Significant phone lines were tapped as well, including those in the Oval Office, Old Executive Office Building and the Lincoln Sitting Room, which was Nixon's favorite room in the White House. Telephone conversations were recorded by tapping the telephone lines from the White House switchboard and relaying the conversations to recorders in a closet in the basement of the residence. All audio equipment was sound-activated, except in the Cabinet Room. All locations in the White House were activated by the Executive Protective Service's "First Family Locator" system: when an officer notified the system that the president was in the Oval Office, the taping machinery switched on, ready to record when triggered by sound.
By design, only very few individuals (apart from Nixon and Haldeman) knew of the existence of the taping system: Butterfield, Haldeman's assistant Lawrence Higby, and the Secret Service technicians who had installed it. The recordings were produced on as many as nine Sony TC-800B machines using very thin 0.5mm tape at the slow speed of 15/16 inches (23 mm) per second.
The tapes contain more than 3,000 hours of conversation. Hundreds of hours are of discussions on foreign policy, including planning for the 1972 Nixon visit to China and subsequent visit to the Soviet Union. Only 200 of the 3,500 hours contain references to Watergate and less than 5% of the recorded material has been transcribed or published.
The existence of the White House taping system was first confirmed by Senate Committee staff member Donald Sanders, on July 13, 1973, in an interview with White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Three days later, it was made public during the televised testimony of Butterfield, when he was asked about the possibility of a White House taping system by Senate Counsel Fred Thompson.
On July 16, 1973, Butterfield told the committee in a televised hearing that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House to automatically record all conversations. Special Counsel Archibald Cox, a former United States Solicitor General under President John F. Kennedy, asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena nine relevant tapes to confirm the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.
President Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, for two reasons: first, that the Constitutional principle of executive privilege extends to the tapes and citing the separation of powers and checks and balances within the Constitution, and second, claiming they were vital to national security. On October 19, 1973, he offered a compromise; Nixon proposed that U.S. Senator John C. Stennis review and summarize the tapes for accuracy and report his findings to the special prosecutor's office. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused the compromise and on Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead, then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was asked to dismiss Cox but refused and was subsequently fired. Solicitor General and acting head of the Justice Department Robert Bork discharged Cox. Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski special counsel on November 1, 1973.
According to President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, on September 29, 1973, she was reviewing a tape of the June 20, 1972, recordings when she made "a terrible mistake" during transcription. While playing the tape on a Uher 5000, she answered a phone call. Reaching for the Uher 5000 stop button, she said that she mistakenly hit the button next to it, the record button. For the duration of the phone call, about 5 minutes, she kept her foot on the device's pedal, causing a five-minute portion of the tape to be rerecorded. When she listened to the tape, the gap had grown to 18½ minutes. She later insisted that she was not responsible for the remaining 13 minutes of buzz.
The contents missing from the recording remain unknown, though the gap occurs during a conversation between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman. Nixon claimed not to know the topic or topics discussed during the gap. Haldeman's notes from the meeting show that among the topics of discussion were the arrests at the Watergate Hotel. White House lawyers first heard of the gap on the evening of November 14, 1973, and Judge Sirica, who had issued the subpoenas for the tapes, was not told until November 21, after the President's attorneys had decided that there was "no innocent explanation" they could offer.
Woods was asked to replicate the position she took to cause that accident. Seated at a desk, she reached far back over her left shoulder for a telephone as her foot applied pressure to the pedal controlling the transcription machine. Her posture during the demonstration, dubbed the "Rose Mary Stretch", resulted in many political commentators questioning the validity of the explanation.
In a grand jury interview in 1975, Nixon noted that he initially believed that only four minutes of the tape were missing. When he later heard that 18 minutes were missing, he said, "I practically blew my stack."
Nixon's counsel, John Dean, has said that "These recordings also largely answer the questions regarding what was known by the White House about the reasons for the break-in and bugging at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as what was erased during the infamous 18 minute and 30 second gap during the June 20, 1972, conversation and why."
A variety of suggestions have been made as to who could have erased the tape. Years later, former White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig speculated that the erasures may conceivably have been caused by Nixon himself. According to Haig, the President was "spectacularly inept" at understanding and operating mechanical devices, and in the course of reviewing the tape in question, he may have caused the erasures by fumbling with the recorder's controls; whether inadvertently or intentionally, Haig could not say. In 1973, Haig had speculated aloud that the erasure was caused by an unidentified "sinister force". Others have suggested that Haig was involved in deliberately erasing the tapes with Nixon's involvement, or that the erasure was conducted by a White House lawyer.
Nixon himself launched the first investigation into how the tapes were erased. He claimed that it was an intensive investigation but came up empty.
On November 21, 1973, Sirica appointed a panel of persons nominated jointly by the White House and the Special Prosecution Force. The panel was supplied with the Evidence Tape, the seven tape recorders from the Oval Office and Executive Office Building, and the two Uher 5000 recorders. One Uher 5000 was marked "Secret Service". The other was accompanied by a foot pedal, respectively labeled Government Exhibit 60 and 60B. The panel determined that the buzz was of no consequence, and that the gap was due to erasure performed on the Exhibit 60 Uher. The panel also determined that the erasure/buzz recording consisted of at least five separate segments, possibly as many as nine, and that at least five segments required hand operation; that is, they could not have been performed using the foot pedal. The panel was subsequently asked by the court to consider alternative explanations that had emerged during the hearings. The final report, dated May 31, 1974, found these other explanations did not contradict the original findings.
The National Archives now owns the tape, and has tried several times to recover the missing minutes—most recently in 2003—but without success. The tapes are now preserved in a climate-controlled vault in case a future technological development allows for restoration of the missing audio. Corporate security expert Phil Mellinger undertook a project to restore Haldeman's handwritten notes describing the missing 18½ minutes, though that effort also failed to produce any new information.
In April 1974, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes of 42 White House conversations. At the end of that month, Nixon released edited transcripts of the White House tapes, again citing executive privilege and national security; the Judiciary Committee, however, rejected Nixon’s edited transcripts, saying that they did not comply with the subpoena.
Sirica, acting on a request from Jaworski, issued a subpoena for the tapes of 64 presidential conversations to use as evidence in the criminal cases against indicted former Nixon administration officials. Nixon refused, and Jaworski appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to force Nixon to turn over the tapes. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the tapes. The 8–0 ruling (Justice William Rehnquist disqualified himself owing to having worked for Attorney General John Mitchell) in United States v. Nixon found that President Nixon was wrong in arguing that courts are compelled to honor, without question, any presidential claim of executive privilege.
In late July 1974, the White House released the subpoenaed tapes. One of those tapes was the so-called "smoking gun" tape, from June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate break-in. In that tape, Nixon agrees that administration officials should approach Richard Helms, Director of the CIA, and Vernon A. Walters, Deputy Director, and ask them to request L. Patrick Gray, Acting Director of the FBI, to halt the Bureau's investigation into the Watergate break-in on the grounds that it was a national security matter. The special prosecutor felt that Nixon, in so agreeing, had entered into a criminal conspiracy whose goal was the obstruction of justice.
Once the "smoking gun" tape was made public on August 5, 1974, Nixon's political support practically vanished. The ten Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against impeachment in committee announced that they would now vote for impeachment once the matter reached the House floor. He lacked substantial support in the Senate as well; Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott estimated no more than 15 Senators were willing to even consider acquittal. Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of Thursday, August 8, 1974, effective as of noon the next day.
After Nixon's resignation, the federal government took control of all of his presidential records, including the tapes, in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. From the time that the federal government seized his records until his death, Nixon was locked in frequent legal battles over control of the tapes; Nixon argued that the act was unconstitutional in that it violated the constitutional principles of separation of powers and executive privilege, and infringed on his personal privacy rights and First Amendment right of association.
The legal squabbling would continue for 25 years, past Nixon's death in 1994. He initially lost several cases, but the courts ruled in 1998 that some 820 hours and 42 million pages of documents were his personal private property and had to be returned to his estate.
On July 11, 2007, the National Archives were given official control of the previously privately operated Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The newly renamed facility, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, now houses the tapes and releases additional tapes to the public periodically, which are available online and in the public domain.