Nixon Tapes: Overview

 

Vital Statistics

  • Size of Collection: 3,700 hours approx.
  • Begin Date: February 16, 1971
  • End Date: July 12, 1973
  • Processing Status: About 2,371 hours have been released. The most recent release (6/2009) consisted of conversations from January and February 1973.

Secret Service Documents on Installation and Maintenance of Recording System

Scanned Secret Service documents dealing with the installation and Maintenance of Nixon's recording system are available here. They were declassified by the Nixon Library in June 2009.

Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings," (1996)

[Extract from John Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996). Used with permission.]

From February 16, 1971, through July 12, 1973, President Richard Nixon secretly recorded over 3,700 hours of his meetings and conversations. Microphones were installed in the Oval Office, in Nixon's office in the Old Executive Office Building (EOB), in the Cabinet Room, and in Aspen Lodge at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. In addition, microphones were placed in telephones in the Oval Office, the EOB office, and the Lincoln Sitting Room in the residence section of the mansion. There were two separate systems for the telephones in Aspen Lodge at Camp David. [1]

The Decision to Record

During the transition period, President Johnson offered Nixon the use of the White House Communications Center to conduct business. Soon after Johnson's offer, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover visited the President-elect in New York and advised him not to use the Communications Center because it was bugged. [2] Hoover went on to tell Nixon that Johnson recorded his telephone conversations and meetings. [3]

Following the inauguration, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, toured his new office and found a recording system tucked in the closet. [4] Thinking that this machine was part of President Johnson's taping system, he ordered a search of the White House for hidden listening devices. According to Jack Albright, Commander of WHCA, who accompanied Nixon's electronic expert on his search, no listening devices were located. [5]

Haldeman stated that although "Nixon abhorred the idea of taping" his conversations and meetings, he nonetheless was forced into recording them for several reasons. [6] First, along with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, Nixon believed that recording conversations and meetings was an excellent way of ensuring historical accuracy. Haldeman stated that many people met with the President and, for one reason or another, “did not always report accurately what was said and decided privately.” [7] George Reedy, President Johnson's Press Secretary, stated that he could “well see Nixon recording,” and taping was the one way of ensuring that people he met with were “on record.” [8]

Second, Nixon preferred to meet with foreign leaders and other visitors without his aides present. According to Nixon, the presence of aides and members of the white House staff inhibited conversation. [9] Nixon felt that these one-on-one meetings provided a sense of intimacy and privacy which ensured that visitors could state their beliefs and opinions in confidence. [10] While these one-on-one meetings may have fostered frankness, they did not provide a “paper trail” documenting the discussions. Third, Nixon wanted an accurate record of his presidency for use in preparing his memoirs. Nixon was always very concerned about history. [11] “From the beginning, I [Nixon] had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.” [12] In his July 16, 1973, testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, Haldeman's chief aide, Alexander Butterfield, stated: “They [the taping system] were installed, of course, for historical purposes, to record the President's business.” [13] He then added:

They were installed to preserve history for posterity. That was always on the President's mind ... he was very conscious of our having a good system for collecting the things which transpired with regards to the affairs of the State. [14]

The recording system would not only accurately record his meetings and conversations, but also the intangibles: nuances of expressions and tones of voices. Nixon, according to Haldeman, considered these intangibles "of substantive importance and always of historical significance.” [15]

Initially, Nixon used note-takers to describe a presidential meeting by writing a ‘color’ memorandum for the record. Color memoranda were intended to describe the details of presidential meetings as completely and thoroughly as possible. However, he was not satisfied with this system. As stated earlier, he felt that note-takers inhibited conversation, describing them to Haldeman as “scribbling intruders.” [16] Moreover, the ‘color’ memorandum for the record varied widely in detail and content, depending on the note-taker. Some aides wrote more thorough and accurate accounts than others. These memos were also subject to that aide's own interpretation and often, the aide misinterpreted what was said. [17]

Nixon and Haldeman searched for a way of resolving these problems. They experimented briefly with different options, including having Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters, who was known for both his outstanding memory and writing ability, sit in on the various presidential meetings, memorizing the conversations and writing memoranda afterwards. Walters refused, telling Haldeman that “I am a Commander of troops. I am not a secretary to anybody.” [18]

As Haldeman and Nixon were wrestling with finding a solution to this problem in the winter of 1970-71, former President Johnson, through an intermediary, offhandedly offered them a solution. Apparently, he told the intermediary that Nixon had made a mistake in removing his recording system. [19] Johnson went on to say that his tapes were invaluable in helping him write The Vantage Point. [20]

The Recording System

Haldeman and Nixon discussed installing a recording system in early 1971. Nixon finally agreed. [21] Haldeman and Butterfield decided that the best solution was to install a voice-activated recording system. They felt that Nixon would forget to turn a manually controlled system on and off. In addition, they felt that the President was “far too inept with machinery ever to make success of a switch system.” [22] Butterfield ordered the head of the Technical Services Division of the Secret Service, Alfred Wong, to install a taping system that required minimal maintenance. [23]

The Secret Service designed a voice-activated recording system that operated automatically. This system was tied to the Secret Service's presidential locator system. [24] Whenever President Nixon entered a designated recording area, his electronic beeper would automatically signal the recorder to switch into record/pause mode. A Voice Operated Relay turned the recorders on as soon as the microphones picked up any sound and the machines began recording. In theory, the system would continue recording for twenty to thirty seconds after the last sound was made. [25] The Secret Service installed seven different recording stations for President Nixon. The seven stations were: the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the White House telephone (which included Nixon's telephones in the Oval Office, his EOB office, and the telephone in the Lincoln Sitting Room in the residence), Nixon's EOB office, Aspen Lodge at Camp David, [26] the telephone on Nixon's Desk in Aspen Lodge, [27] and the telephone on a table in Nixon's study in Aspen Lodge. [28]

Each recording station had two Sony 800B recorders. A timer switched from one recorder to the other every twenty-four hours, except on weekends when one recorder ran for forty-eight hours. [29] Because Nixon and Haldeman wanted a system that required little maintenance and could record for extended periods, the Secret Service decided to use tapes that recorded at the very slow speed of 15/16 inches per second on very thin 0.5 millimeter tape. [30] Because of the slow recording speed, each reel could hold up to six and a half hours of recording time per reel.

On occasion, the Secret Service agents changed reels while a meeting was in progress. In these cases, some portions of those meetings were not recorded while the change took place. They placed the completed tape in a box and wrote the inclusive dates on it. These tapes were then placed in secure storage vaults and arranged into seven series or stations according to the recording location.

Oval Office

The Oval Office recording series contains 502 tapes which were recorded between February 16, 1971, and July 12, 1973. [31] Following Butterfield's instructions, Wong supervised the installation of the voice-activated system in the Oval Office in February 1971. In all, seven microphones were placed in the Oval Office. (See Appendix F for diagram) Five were located on the President's desk, and two were located in wall sconces near the couches by the fireplace. This arrangement allowed meetings and conversations which took place by the President's desk and by the fireplace on the opposite side of the room to be recorded clearly. Wires passed through holes cut in the floor and led to a room below the Oval Office where the recording machines were kept. [32]

Cabinet Room

There are eighty-three tapes of President Nixon's Cabinet Room meetings recorded between February 16, 1971, and July 18, 1973. At the same time Wong installed the Oval office system, Butterfield asked him to install a manually-controlled recording system in the Cabinet Room. [33] Of the seven different recording systems that Nixon used simultaneously during his presidency, only the Cabinet Room system operated manually. The Secret Service installed an on/off switch on either side of the President's place on the Cabinet Room table. [34] Butterfield also had the technicians install a switch on his desk. [35] In practice, Nixon did not activate the system himself. Rather, he had Butterfield activate the system using the switch on his desk. [36] Since this system was not tied to the presidential locator system and was not voice-activated, many non-presidential conversations and meetings were recorded accidentally when the recorder was inadvertently left on. As a result, this series of recordings contain long periods of recorded room noise, cleaning activities, such as vacuuming, and miscellaneous conversations between unknown aides, cleaning personnel, and other individuals, as well as meetings between unknown individuals. [37]

Two microphones were installed under a small table near the President's chair in the Cabinet Room. As with the Oval Office system, wires led from the microphones through a hole cut in the floor. The two Cabinet Room recording machines were located in the same room as the Oval Office recording machines. [38]

Nixon's Old Executive Office Building Office

There are two hundred and four recordings of meetings held in the President's EOB office between April 6, 1971, and July 18, 1973. In April 1971 Butterfield had the Secret Service install a voice-activated recording system in the President's hideaway EOB office. The President primarily used this office for conducting day-to-day business, such as meeting with members of the White House staff or preparing speeches. In this office, the Secret Service installed four microphones in the President's desk: three were placed on the edges of the desk and one in the kneewell. [39] Wires led from the microphones in the desk to an adjoining room used by the Secret Service where the recording equipment was located. As with the other tapes, recorded tapes were boxed and dated. Initially, they were stored in a cabinet in this room; later, they were brought to the room underneath the Oval Office for central storage. [40]

White House Telephone System

There are forty-six composite tapes documenting most of President Nixon's telephone calls between April 7, 1971, and July 18, 1973. As with the EOB office and Oval Office recording systems, the telephone recording system was tied to the presidential locator system. This system was designed to record the President's telephone calls in the Oval Office, in the hideaway EOB office, and in the Lincoln Sitting Room in the Residence section of the mansion. [41]

The Secret Service set this recording system up by placing taps on the phone lines going into the Oval Office, the EOB office and the Lincoln Sitting Room from the white House Switchboard. Telephone calls from these locations were recorded onto a single tape. The recording system for the White House telephone system was located in a room in the mansion. [42]

If a call originated from or was transferred to one of these three rooms, and the presidential locator system indicated the President was present, that call was then recorded. For this reason, there are many recorded telephone calls between individuals other than the President. In these cases, Nixon was physically located in the room, but not a party in the conversation. [43]

Like President Johnson, Nixon also had telephones installed in his offices that would ring his key aides directly. The President had direct lines to H. R. Haldeman (his chief of staff), Henry Kissinger (his national security advisor), John Ehrlichman (his chief domestic policy advisor), Alexander Butterfield (his chief administrative officer), and Steve Bull (his daily appointments secretary). Because these direct telephone lines bypassed the White House switchboard, calls made on these lines were not recorded. [44]

The Camp David Recording Systems

Like his predecessor, Nixon enjoyed getting out of Washington, D.C. Whereas Johnson used his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, to conduct business in a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere, Nixon used the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, for the same purpose. Only a forty-five minute helicopter ride from the white House, Nixon often journeyed there on weekends. In the four weeks following his 1972 re-election, Nixon spent eighteen days there recuperating. [45] In addition, Nixon held many formal meetings at Camp David, including the 1973 visit by Soviet Union Premier Leonid Brezhnev. [46]

There were three separate recording systems installed in Aspen Lodge at Camp David. All three systems were installed by Secret Service technicians in early May 1972. The first system, the Camp David Hard wire, was designed to record meetings and conversations taking place in Aspen Lodge using a microphone hidden in the room. This system, like that in the Oval and EOB offices, was voice-activated and tied to the Presidential locator system. [47] There are fifty-seven tapes in this series, dating from May 17, 1972, to March 4, 1973. Butterfield had the Secret Service remove this system in early March 1973.

The second and third systems were attached to telephones in Aspen Lodge. The first was called the Camp David Study Table system. The microphone for this system was placed in the telephone located on the table in the President's study. There are forty tapes in this series dating between May 16, 1972, and June 21, 1973. The second was called the Camp David Study Desk system. As would be expected, the microphone was placed in the telephone located on the desk in the President's study. There are eighteen tapes in this series of recordings, dating between May 18, 1972, and June 21, 1973. These systems were also tied to the Secret Service's presidential locator system. The Secret Service technicians removed these two systems in June 1973 on Butterfield's instructions. [48] All three recording systems were Sony 800B machines. They were kept in a small room next to the President's study. Recorded tapes were collected at the end of the President's stay at Camp David and brought to the central storage area below the Oval Office. [49]

The Nature of the Recordings

For the most part, the recordings are difficult to listen to and understand. [50] There are many reasons for this. Principal among them are mechanical problems with the Sony recording machines, the microphones, and the wiring. The tapes themselves were not suited to record conversations and meetings. Background noises and intruding sounds frequently interrupted conversations. Lastly, the meetings and conversations recorded were often unstructured and free-flowing and are difficult to follow.

Each of the seven recording stations had a degree of mechanical problems. The wires connecting the microphones to the recording machines were unshielded. As a result, the recordings picked up power line hum and other electromagnetic interference. [51] The EOB tapes are the most difficult to understand because the power hum is especially evident. [52]

The voice-activated system did not operate as intended either. First, the systems were supposed to continue recording for twenty to thirty seconds after the last sound made to ensure that words were not cut off. In reality, only the oval office system operated as intended. Each station had different noise volume sensitivities as to when to begin and stop recording. Both the EOB and Camp David Hard Wire systems contain frequent machine start-up and shut-off interruptions. Generally, it took a second or two for the machines to begin recording at the proper speed. This resulted in a ‘whip’ or ‘blip’ sound at the start of most conversations or after periods of silence. As a result of these machine malfunctions, brief portions of conversations and meetings were not recorded or are unintelligible. [53]

The volume fluctuated greatly on the tapes as well. Whereas commercial recordings usually have a signal-to-noise ratio between 40 to 60 decibels, many of the Nixon tapes range between only six and ten decibels. [54] Consequently, there are many very low volume tapes among the nine hundred and fifty Nixon tapes that are difficult to hear.

For the most part, the White House Telephone tapes are audible. However, some recordings made in the Lincoln Sitting Room are not. The automatic gain control (AGC) occasionally failed on the recording machines at this location. The AGC automatically adjusted the sound levels of the differing conversations. When this failed, the person speaking from the Lincoln Sitting Room is barely audible. The person he is speaking with is completely inaudible. [55]

The Secret Service opted to use thin 0.5 millimeter analog tape that recorded at a very slow 15/16 inches per second. A single reel of tape could record up to six and a half hours of conversation. Because Nixon desired a voice-activated system which required little maintenance or supervision, the Secret Service had little alternative. The original tapes are very thin and fragile. The tape thickness and recording speed are far from ideal for use in recording spoken sound. [56]

The placement of the microphones also caused many problems. In some cases conversations are not audible because the participants who were speaking were not near the microphones. In the EOB, four microphones were installed in the President's desk. Meetings taking place near this desk are audible. However, no microphones were installed in the sitting area. As a result, conversations in this area are faint and difficult to hear. [57] The conversations recorded on the Camp David Hard wire system are also difficult to understand because the Secret Service only installed one microphone in the President's study in Aspen Lodge. [58]

Extraneous room and background noises are evident throughout the entire collection. These noises tend to obscure portions of meetings and conversations. Although the Oval Office series of recordings are the easiest to comprehend, there are some individual conversations that are difficult to understand. Because five microphones were placed in the President's desk, they picked up the sound of anyone writing on the desk, or setting down a coffee cup or a glass. Furthermore, they picked up the sound of Nixon's chair banging into the desk, his feet banging on the desk when he put his feet up, and the sound of his knees knocking against the kneewell of his desk. One microphone was placed next to the telephone. The telephone ringing frequently blocked out small portions of conversations.

Similar problems existed in the EOB and Camp David series. For example, the President kept a ticking clock on his desk in the EOB. Unfortunately, the Secret Service technicians installed one of the microphones right next to the clock and the ticking is recorded very clearly. At Camp David, the President often had a fire lit in his study while he worked. The snapping and crackling of wood burning in the fireplace interfered with the recordings of some of his conversations. [59]

There were other extraneous noises that affected the quality of the recordings. On occasion, the helicopter rotor blades from Marine One completely obliterated conversation taking place in the Oval Office .[60] Ambulance, fire engine and police sirens were also recorded on the tapes. Doors opening and closing briefly interfered with conversations.

Unlike his predecessors who consciously made the decision to record a meeting or conversation and manually controlled their recording systems, Nixon opted to use a voice-activated system that would record virtually everything that was said while he was present. This meant that, in addition to recording formal meetings, briefings, telephone conversations, and long stretches of miscellaneous room noise, informal daily meetings between Nixon and members of his immediate staff were recorded as well. These meetings were often unstructured and free-flowing. [61] Participants interrupted each other and finished each other's sentences. They answered questions before they were elucidated and repeatedly changed conversation topics. Moreover, participants alluded to conversations and meetings that took place at unknown times in the past. These factors, at times, render some conversations difficult to interpret.

As a result of all of these factors, the overall quality of the recordings are relatively poor. Machine malfunctions, volume fluctuations, inferior equipment and tape quality, and extraneous noise all hinder the intelligibility of the tapes. In addition, the voices in the meetings and conversations themselves, sometimes further obscured what was being said.

Nixon Tapes Released to the Public

To date, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) have released sixty-three hours of Watergate-related conversations to the public. [62] The Watergate trial tapes were released in 1980. These consist of twelve and a half hours of segments of conversations and meetings which were introduced as evidence by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) and played in court during the Watergate trials of members of Nixon's staff. [63] In 1991, NARA released the second segment of Watergate-related conversations. This group consisted of forty-seven and one half hours of segments of conversations and meetings subpoenaed by the WSPF but never used in court. Staff members of the WSPF prepared transcripts for most of the conversations and meetings included in these two file segments. [64]

The third public release of Nixon's White House tapes consisted of segments of Watergate-related conversations for the months of May and June 1972 which total three hours. These conversations, although not subpoenaed by the WSPF, were determined by the Nixon Project archivists to contain Watergate-related information. Although there are no transcripts for these segments, the National Archives did prepare descriptive tape logs to correspond to the conversation. The tape logs include the date, time, location, names of conversation participants, and an outline of the contents of the conversation.

One of the factors of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 is that the National Archives give priority in processing and releasing materials relating to abuses of governmental power, commonly referred to as “Watergate.” [65] After the release of the WSPF tapes, the Archives decided to review and propose for release additional tape segments of conversations determined to be Watergate-related. The Archives released the May-June 1972 segments and their corresponding tape logs in 1993 and plans on releasing all remaining Watergate-related segments as early as November 1996.

Notes:
[1] A History of the White House Tapes, Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NLNP), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), March, 1995.
[2] Telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995.
[3] Ibid. See also: H. R. Haldeman, “The Nixon White House Tapes The Decision to Record Presidential Conversations,” Prologue, National Archives and Records Administration, Summer 1988, Volume 20, Number 2, p. 80. Albright recalled that he was informed of Hoover's conversation with President-elect Nixon. He, in turn, informed President Johnson, who ordered him to remove all traces of the different recording systems in the white House. This order was carried out over the weekend of December 28, 1968.
[4] Haldeman's first office was located next to the Little Lounge next to the Oval Office. During 1968, it was James Jones' office.
[5] Telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995. The recording machine left in Haldeman's new office was used to duplicate Johnson's public statements.
[6] "The Nixon White House Tapes..." p. 80.
[7] Ibid. pp. 80-81.
[8] Telephone interview with Reedy, August 16, 1995.
[9] Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset and Dunlop (New York: 1978) pp. 500-501.
[10] "The Nixon White House Tapes..." p. 81.
[11] Nixon, pp. 500-501. See also: Telephone interview with Reedy, August 16, 1995; "Watergate Reminiscences," p. 1250; "The Nixon White House Tapes..." p. 81; White House Tapes: Scope and Content Note, NLNP, NARA, undated.
[12] Nixon, p. 500. See also: "The Nixon White House Tapes..." p. 81.
[13] SSC, Book 5, p. 2075.
[14] Ibid. p. 2085.
[15] “The Nixon White House Tapes...” p. 82.
[16] Ibid. p. 81.
[17] In his memoirs, Nixon said of the note-takers: "the quality of prose varied as much as the quality of perception," p. 501.
[18] "The Nixon White House Tapes..." pp. 82-83.
[19] There is some controversy surrounding this issue: Haldeman and Nixon believed that Johnson's system was still in place when they took office. WHCA documents make clear the fact that the system was removed prior to Nixon taking office. In either case, Nixon wrote that he "abhorred" the idea of secretly taping conversations and had the system removed.
[20] Nixon, p. 501. See also: “The Nixon White House Tapes...” p. 83.
[21] "The Nixon White House Tapes..." p. 83.
[22] Ibid. p. 84. See also: “Watergate Reminiscences,” pp. 1250-1253.
[23] Telephone interview with Alfred Wong, Chief of Technical Services, United States Secret Service, December 4, 1995.
[24] The Presidential locator system is designed so that the Secret Service knows where the President is at all times. Typically, this is an electronic device that the President wears at all times.
[25] White House Tapes Scope and Content Note, p. 3. As will be explained in greater detail later, this did not work as intended: each recording system had different sensitivities, resulting in constant machine shutdown and start-up, resulting in inconsistencies.
[26] Ibid. This was called the Camp David Hard Wire system.
[27] Ibid. This was called the Camp David Study Desk system.
[28] Ibid. This was called the Camp David Study Table system.
[29] "Processing the Nixon Tapes," Maarja Krustin, CIDS Paper, NARA, September 14, 1979, p. 3.
[30] Telephone interview with Mayn, December 19, 1995. The standard for recording spoken sound is 3 3/4 inches per second; the faster the tape speed, the better quality the sound. Unfortunately, this means limited recording time per reel. Likewise, the standard for tape thickness is 1.5 millimeter, not 0.5 millimeter tape.
[31] Telephone interview with Anita Happoldt, NLNP Archivist, NARA, January 3, 1996. Nixon ordered all the taping systems removed on July 18, 1973, two days after Butterfield's revelation. There are no recordings between July 13, 1973, and July 18, 1973, because Nixon was in Walter Reed Army Hospital for treatment for pneumonia.
[32] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 5.
[33] Telephone interview with Wong on December 4, 1995.
[34] Like President Johnson, Nixon had control boxes installed throughout the White House. The Cabinet Room control box could activate the recording system, page his assistant, Steve Bull, and page his personal valet, Manolo Sanchez.
[35] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 5.
[36] SSC, Book 5, p. 2076 and p. 2080.
[37] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 4.
[38] A History of the white House Tapes, March 1995, p. 1.
[39] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 4. See Appendix G for a diagram of the EOB office and recording system.
[40] Ibid. p. 4.
[41] Ibid. p. 4.
[42] A History of the White House Tapes, p. 1.
[43] Haldeman often made telephone calls from the Oval Office and hideaway EOB office while he was meeting with the President.
[44] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes. pp. 30-31.
[45] Breaking Cover, p. 205.
[46] Butterfield explained in his Senate testimony on July 6, 1973 that the three Camp David recording systems were removed by the Secret Service "prior to occupancy by Chiefs of State, heads of Government, and other foreign dignitaries." (SSC, Book 5, p. 2077.)
[47] A History of the White House Tapes, p. 1.
[48] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996. See also: SSC, Book 5, p. 2077. Butterfield testified that the Secret Service removed these three systems periodically when a foreign dignitary stayed in Aspen Lodge.
[49] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 5. See also: Telephone interview with Wong on December 4, 1995.
[50] In describing the Nixon tapes, I have only used publicly available sources, including books, articles, finding aids, and tapes from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force and the Abuse of Governmental Power tapes for May and June 1972.
[51] Telephone interview with Mayn on December 19, 1995. Mayn stated that everyday items such as televisions, electric clocks, or telephones could interfere with a recording. See also: White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 5.
[52] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996.
[53] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996. See also: White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 3.
[54] General Services Administration, Report to Congress on Title I Presidential Materials and Preservation Act, Government Printing office (Washington, D.C. 1975) pp. El-E3.
[55] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996. See also: White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 6. 78
[56] Telephone interview with Richard McNeil, Audiovisual Archivist, NLNP, NARA, on January 4, 1996. As will be explained in greater detail in Section two of this paper, the archival standard for voice recordings is on 1.5 mil tape, recording at 3 3/4 inches per second.
[57] White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 24. See Appendix G for a diagram of the EOB recording system.
[58] A History of the White House Tapes, p. 1.
[59] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996. See also: White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 5.
[60] Telephone interview with Happoldt on January 3, 1996. See also: White House Tapes: Scope and Content Notes, p. 24. The President's helicopter would wait on the South Lawn of the White House while the President completed business before boarding.
[61] Paul Schmidt, The opening of the Nixon White House Tapes: Procedures and Problems, CIDS Paper, NARA, May, 1985, p. 2.
[62] The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act governs the review and release of Nixon's presidential materials. The Watergate definition is explained in Section II of this paper.
[63] A History of the White House Tapes, p. 2. The Nixon staffers were: H. R. Haldeman, Charles W. Colson, John D. Ehrlichman, John W. Dean, John B. Connally, Maurice H. Stans, and John N. Mitchell.
[64] Ibid.
[65] Segments of conversations determined to be Watergate-related under the Nixon Regulations, but not included in the WSPF collection, are called “Abuse of Governmental Power Segments.”


 

Alexander Butterfield Explains the Nixon Taping System

John F. Kennedy Library, Presidential Tapes conference, February 16, 2003. Unofficial transcript.

At the Presidential Tapes conference at the John F. Kennedy Library in February 2003, Alexander Butterfield spoke in detail about his role in setting up the Nixon taping system as well as his role in revealing its existence during a public hearing for the Senate select committee investigating the Watergate break in.

Alexander Butterfield: I’ve always characterized my role as peripheral, and I certainly believe that. It was a very small thing that I did bringing these tapes to light. I simply answered a question. But I was, to answer that first question—Bob Haldeman was our—what they call now—White House Chief of Staff. But we did not have that term then. He was never, ever called or referred to as White House Chief of Staff. And I was his only deputy, and I did occupy that office immediately to the west of the Oval Office that adjoined the Oval Office, and I was simply asked one day to put in a taping system. And I didn’t get any particulars, so I talked to Haldeman later. I was asked by Haldeman’s staff assistant Larry Higby, and, so I talked to Haldeman later in the day and learned more, and he said, “Yes, we want a taping system put in. Make it good so that, you know—and elaborate, and don’t have the military do it.” Haldeman viewed the military with some disdain, some considerable disdain, and he felt that they wouldn’t do a good job. Plus, the fact that the military do get transferred from time to time, and it was deemed, you know, more secure if you had the Secret Service. So, to conclude, we had the Technical Security Division of the Secret Service, and no other Secret Service people knew about this installation. But, the Technical Security Division installed the tapes and, and we were off and running. And I had no idea that this would be a red-letter day, or a black day in history or any of those things. [laughter]

John W. Carlin [Archivist of the United States]: Now, I was always told that the quality of the tape that was purchased to use was from across the street and not exactly high quality. Is there truth to that, or do you feel that the system was set up from the very beginning to be high quality and using the best?

Butterfield: Well, we asked that the quality be high, and I made two spot checks during the two-year period I was in the White House following the installation. Incidentally, the installation of the Nixon tapes came roughly midway in first term. You know, it was February [19]71, and we were in the White House from January of [19]69. So, I checked them twice and the quality was very good. I could understand everything. But, they put the initial microphones in the president’s desk. So that came back to bite us because, when coffee was served at the desk, which was the normal routine, you could hear the coffee cups rattle, and the president’s knee would kick the desk, or he would put his feet up now and then, probably right on a microphone [laughter]. There, there were six microphones imbedded in the surface of the desk. So—

Carlin: It was a voice-activated system, was it not?

Butterfield: Oh yes, it was voice activated, yes.

Carlin: So, the cleaning lady got her share of time—[laughter].

Butterfield: [Laughs]. No, I don’t want to belabor this because it’s somewhat technical, and I’m not a technical person, but it was voice-activated only when the president was in the Oval Office. And, the president—the way the Secret Service knew that the president was in the Oval Office is by a locator box, and there were a few of us—about five of us, that had locator boxes, that had to know where the president was from minute to minute. I was one. Steve Bull, who was a staff assistant on the other side of the Oval Office, was another, Haldeman was a third, Rose Mary Woods, a fourth, and I can’t think who else. Possibly Dwight Chapin, the appointment secretary. And this box looked similar to these cards, about 14 inches long, and there were little windows in it. Seven little windows. One said “Barber Shop,” for instance; one said “out,” meaning the president was out, away from the White House complex; one said “Oval Office”; one said “Executive Office Building,” “Camp David,” that type of thing. When the president was in the Oval Office, the Secret Service knew that. They had little things in the wall, and when the president moves, they open the cabinet in the wall and let that information be known to the White House situation room, which is sort of under the Oval Office, under the Cabinet Room actually. And, and they’d say, “The president’s going to the EOB office,” or “The president’s now in the Oval Office.” And these guys flicked the light in the—so, when the light was on for Oval Office, this thing was operating. So, no one was in there—

Carlin: The cleaning lady turned it on herself, because she [Butterfield laughs]. I’m just talking about a lot of tape we’ve got that isn’t that much use. [laughter]

* * * *

Carlin: Mr. Butterfield, why do you think President Nixon sort of let the machine run? I mean, do you think he sometimes even forgot about the fact that he was taping?

Butterfield: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. We, we marveled at his ability to, uh, seemingly be oblivious to the tapes. I mean, even I was sitting there uncomfortably sometimes saying, “He’s not really going say this, is he?” [laughter] But . . . but he did and I’m sure—[laughter] I’m sure John Dean can attest to that too. But, pertinent to that question about why they were put in, I wanted to say again that—yeah, you could go in the Oval Office when this light was not on in the Oval Office and shout obscenities if you wanted to, but when the light was on, we didn’t have to shout our obscenities [laughter]. And we didn’t—Nixon, if you think there was any way of having Nixon hit a button, you didn’t know Nixon. I mean he couldn’t, he could not hit a button and I’m very serious about that; he would not be able to do that. Even a toggle switch. So we did have a manual—[laughter] Truly he couldn’t!

Unknown: Are you suggesting he was mechanically inept?

Butterfield: Yeah, that was the suggestion [laughter]. I’m surprised you picked up on that. [laughter]. But, but, in the Cabinet Room, we did have—that was a manual system in the Cabinet Room, and in there we had the microphones on the base of the lamps that were on the wall, so you couldn’t hear quite as well if someone’s sitting on the far side of the Cabinet Room table, with their backs to those, those microphones, because these mics would have to pick it up and they were quite a distance away. So, I had buttons installed by the Technical Security Division. We had a coffee thing down there, so the mess boys could bring the president coffee when he wanted it, and one other, I think, was for Steve Bull. So, we had a Haldeman and Butterfield button over here, I forget which was on and which was off, not that it matters—although historians care about that sort of thing—and I was the cabinet secretary as the additional duty, so I’m standing right behind the president. When he came in, we actually did this formal thing in the cabinet meeting. Steve Bull would come in and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” So, when everyone stood up, I just stepped forward and hit the proper button to turn the things on. And I’m sure I always turned it off after a cabinet meeting, but I hear from John Powers of the [National] Archives that someone must have hit—maybe the cleaning ladies hit that button by mistake when they were dusting, because there was a lot of superfluous conversation on the Cabinet Room tapes only. And then, as a backup, I had a button put on my telephone, which had a great many buttons on it anyway, and there was one that wasn’t doing anything, so we had the Secret [Service]—that turned them on too in the Cabinet Room. So, if I couldn’t be there when the Cabinet Room began, I could hit that button at two o’clock if the cabinet meeting was supposed to start at two. So that’s—

Carlin: Outside of you, who knew the system was being used?

Butterfield: Well, yeah, it was a deep dark secret, and I want to say no one knew, but the people who actually knew are the president, myself, Bob Haldeman and Larry Higby, Bob’s staff assistant—one of three staff assistants to Bob, Al Wong, who was the Technical Security Division Chief, Al Wong, W-O-N-G, and three technicians who, who put these tapes in: a fellow named Ray Zumwalt, Roy Schwalm, S-C-H-W-A-L-M, and Charles Bretts. They were the technicians, and one of those three changed the tapes when they had to be changed and that sort of thing. There was a little thing—they blasted a hole in the brick wall down underneath the White House and put all this machinery inside a brick wall and then put a cabinet door over it. And I said to Wong, I—this was in the locker room of the protective security [unclear—microphone problem] Secret Service agents, so when they’d come to work, they had little lockers in there, and they’d change clothes and go home. They didn’t stay long in this little room, and I said, “Aren’t they going to think this great big panel—what you call it—used to be a brick wall, they’re going to question that?” And he said, “No, they probably won’t, and if they do, I’ll just say, ‘We’ve got something in there,’ and they won’t ask any questions.” And that’s true. The Secret Service wouldn’t pry or probe at something like that. But there was a hell of a big door in there, and we—[laughter] and it was a tiny little room anyway, pretty little. I do want to say one more thing.

Carlin: Go ahead.

Butterfield: As to purpose. There truly was—in case anyone thinks there was, it’s been written about—there was no sinister purpose to the Nixon tapes, even though—well we didn’t know then how sinister Nixon was—but it was simply for history. He was—he really cared about the history. And the interesting thing is, beginning with the Nixon administration in January [19]69, we initiated a program called “Memos for the President’s File,” so some one sat in on every meeting, even meetings with his own staff people. Arthur Burns would go in, but we’d have a guy in there sitting with the president and Arthur Burns. Or Pat Moynihan. He was a Democrat, so we had two guys in there [laughter]. No, but we did. We had sort of a “trusted staff member” in there taking notes, and after a while the president said, “Don’t take notes, because that does tend to inhibit the guest. So sit in there and soak up as much as you can, but as soon as you leave the meeting, go back to your desk and just write out, forget grammar and punctuation, just write out the essence of what happened in that meeting.” And those were due in to me. So I was running—most of my time was taken up with running around beating people about the head and ears getting the memo. They were due in to me in 24 hours, and I kept the memos for the president’s file. Kissinger was the worst because his meetings were the most complex, and he wasn’t about to sit down afterwards and dictate a memo for me. And uh, we never did get them all. We probably got 60 percent of these. So when the tapes came along, I was sort of secretly and initially relieved. I thought, “Oh boy, I don’t have to follow up on these memos,” but we didn’t stop that procedure. So, we had two things going: the tapes, and the Memos for the President’s File.

Carlin: Did you ever get anybody asking you a question of, “Why are the notes no longer important?”

Butterfield: No, no, no. I didn’t.

* * * *

Carlin: I’d like to ask Mr. Butterfield one more question in terms of—you’ve shared with us today about the early note taking and then the switch to the taping. Could you give us a little more—

Butterfield: The addition of the taping.

Carlin: —the addition of the taping. Who made that suggestion? I recall some discussion between Nixon and Johnson at some point. Was there not, in regard to taping and use of tapes—wasn’t there an inadvertent comment that Johnson made that might have stimulated Nixon to think of going to the taping and not just depending on—

Butterfield: Yeah, I don’t know much about that. I, too, have heard or read that Johnson essentially recommended that Nixon would want this.

Carlin: That’s what I’ve heard.

Butterfield: And, uh, Stanley Kutler and others probably know the answer to that. I don’t. [I] didn’t think of tapes, had nothing to do with tapes, and when we were told to put them in, even that didn’t seem—I mean, we were told to do a lot of things there in the White House that we didn’t—[laughter]. I wanted to pick up on one thing—

Carlin: Go ahead, please do.

Butterfield: —that Sheldon [Stern] said, though, about feeling that the tapes were his own, and probably all these presidents felt that way. I know Nixon did—

Carlin: [It] was personal property. It wasn’t until after the Presidential Records Act that the law changed.

Butterfield: Right. And uh, in fact, he was fairly confident—it gives me a pain in the pit of my stomach to say this—to think they would ever be revealed. He was so sure they wouldn’t.

Carlin: Claudia [Anderson], do you know about a conversation President Johnson had with President Nixon?
Anderson: What I’ve heard is that President Johnson told President Nixon that the tapes had been very useful in writing his memoirs, and that he should tape conversations so that he would have that record to use, so that’s. . . .

* * * *

Audience Member: Jeremy Leahy, WTKK Radio. Mr. Butterfield: the 18-minute gap, um—there’s been some speculation recently that there is technology out there that we may, at some point, be able to find out what actually is on that accidentally erased period of time on the tape. You care [to say] what your thoughts are on that?

Butterfield: I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that. That would be great. I feel confident—this sounds terrible, I know, to say this, but—that I know what’s on that tape. If you knew Nixon really well and Haldeman, and, assuming that it was purposely-erased—which I’m sure it was. “Rose Mary’s boo-boo,” they called it at the time. It’s easy to discern what was on that tape.

Leahy: Could you save us the frustration and tell us what? [laughter] I see that Mr. Dean is down here too, so maybe he could—
Carlin: It would also save me quite a bit of money because we’re doing a lot of research on that, so if you know—[laughter]

Butterfield: No, no, that’s what I say. I don’t, I don’t want to build anxiety here, but. . . . Yes, well, I’m sure they were reviewing what Haldeman called the “vulnerabilities.” And, of course, see, I’ve always believed—I’ve never heard anyone else say it, but I—well, yeah, Mr. Schorr and some other people. Stanley Kutler have heard me say this. I know that Mr. Nixon knew about the break-in, at least the first one that happened some three weeks before June 17. I feel certain that nothing like that could possibly happen without Nixon’s knowledge, because I know it had Haldeman’s knowledge, and we’ve since—tapes been uncovered that should’ve been shredded and wasn’t, and so we know that Haldeman did approve the fund for Liddy’s activities and they knew essentially what those activities would be. Um, I don’t live and breathe this, so I haven’t researched this lately, but my, my guess is—and I have to call it a guess—is that Nixon felt that—he was glad, I think, that he could say he didn’t know anything about the June 17 break-in, because technically he did not. Assuming he knew about the one on May 28, I think MacGruder, who was running this team from the Committee to Re-elect the President, from CREEP, felt when this one bug was, was not performing as it should and they were having problems, that he sort of had tacit approval to go back in. He knew he had initial approval to go in in May, and I don’t think that Nixon ever knew what day they were going in—he just—he had to say okay for Haldeman to then say okay, in my opinion. So, uh, now Nixon could say no. He did not know about the June 17 break-in because he really didn’t know about that, because I think MacGruder felt, “Okay, we’ve gotta go back in and fix that thing,” and he could explain it to Haldeman that way. He may not even have told Haldeman. But Haldeman was the, you know, he was the assistant president, and he knew everything that Nixon knew, and Nixon knew everything he knew. And even when John Dean was reporting to the president—this is, again, just me talking—I’m convinced that Nixon—even though he was a pretty good actor—not a good athlete or technician, but a good actor—I think he knew much of what—but it helped him to hear what John was reporting to him because he had heard it from Haldeman, but he could—it’s always helpful when you hear it from two. But anyway, they talked about the vulnerabilities, and he did explain to Nixon that his own staff assistant, Gordon Strand, was in touch with the Committee to Re-elect the President, with MacGruder, and MacGruder reported to him all the time. And I just think that what was on that tape—I wrote a little bit about that in an article in Harper’s, and I forget the other things I feel certain were said, but the essence of it I just told you. Yeah, we’ll still keep working on that tape, because, uh, I’m not certain. But it would be fun to know, wouldn’t it?

Carlin: I can say that, uh, the current technologies are being studied for their feasibility in being able to identify, uh, and at this point the jury’s still out as to whether or not that technology exists. . . .