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18½-minute gap in Watergate tape remains mystery

Douglas Caddy

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The 18½-minute gap in Watergate tape remains lost to history after high-tech detective work

By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, June 16, 11:04 AM

WASHINGTON — High-tech detective work has failed to solve a puzzle from the Watergate scandal that destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Forensic scientists assembled by the National Archives have been examining two pages of notes from a June 1972 White House meeting, looking for clues about what was said during an 18 1/2-minute gap in a recording of the session.

They explored impressions in the paper, analyzed ink and hoped to find evidence of missing notes on the conversation between Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman.

But the archives said Thursday the effort didn’t unravel the mystery.

The meeting came after burglars tied to Nixon broke into Democratic headquarters. The question of what Nixon knew and when was key, and it caused a sensation when investigators learned the 18 1/2 minutes had been erased.

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June 16, 2011

Truth Behind Watergate Uncertain, Even With Technology

The New York Times


A high-tech attempt to plug the mysterious 18 ½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes turned up a tantalizing clue, the National Archives and Records Administration said Thursday, but ultimately proved inconclusive in solving the scandal’s most intriguing questions: What did President Richard M. Nixon know, and when did he know it?

In 2009, archives officials convened a team of forensic document experts to examine two pages of handwritten notes by H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, during a meeting on June 20, 1972 — three days after Nixon campaign operatives were arrested for breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex.

With 18 minutes of that conversation erased before the tapes were surrendered by Nixon to a special prosecutor, Haldeman’s notes — preserved by the National Archives — were the only existing record of the meeting. The investigation was to determine whether the two pages had been doctored to remove or add notes afterward, presumably to protect the president. The examination was prompted by an independent investigator, Philip Mellinger.

“It has been suggested,” the archives investigators found, “that the two pages contain insufficient content to represent the entirety of the meeting; that the first page describes the initial few minutes of the meeting and the second page describes a discussion consistent with the end of the meeting; and that one or more intervening pages of original notes corresponding to the content of the audio tape erasures may have been removed prior to submission of the materials on subpoena.”

Hyperspectral imaging, which compiles images to determine layers in a document, video spectral comparison, electrostatic detection analysis and handwriting comparison, by teams from the archives, the Library of Congress and the archivist for the United States, David S. Ferriero, found no evidence of additional notes by Haldeman. However, their analysis revealed differences in the black ballpoint inks used to write the notes, and the date on the top of the first page and the page number on the top of a second page.

The differences in ink was “an anomaly,” said David G. Paynter, one of the investigating archivists.

Asked whether that suggested the page number was written later, to conceal removal of other notes, he replied: “Since the two participants, Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Nixon, are dead and nothing was brought up with any witnesses questioned in the only legal forum on the 18 ½-minute gap, we will probably never know.”

In 2003, the National Archives said it had given up trying to retrieve the missing conversation from the tape itself. Experts appointed in 1973 by a federal judge, John J. Sirica, concluded that the conversation had been deliberately erased. On the audible portion, Nixon says of the Democratic headquarters, “My God, the committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line.”

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