Sleuths to Review Watergate Tape's 18 1/2 Minutes Experts Wonder If Technology Exists

The Florida Times Union, July 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sleuths to Review Watergate Tape's 18 1/2 Minutes Experts Wonder If Technology Exists


WASHINGTON -- The National Archives is looking into new technologies to answer one of the 20th century's most intriguing political mysteries: What was erased during the 18 1/2-minute gap in an Oval Office tape recording made shortly after the Watergate break-in?

A panel of experts will meet Sept. 21 to explore whether it is technically possible to recover the conversation erased decades ago, archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper told Knight Ridder Newspapers.

The tape, made June 20, 1972, just three days after the botched burglary, captures a White House conversation between Republican President Richard Nixon and close aide H.R. "Bob" Haldeman. It is their first meeting after the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex.

"It was the first time after the break-in that the major participants in what later proved to be a conspiracy to obstruct justice were back in Washington and available to meet together," said Richard Ben-Veniste, former chief of the Watergate task force and now a Washington lawyer.

"It would also further illuminate what steps were taken immediately after the break-in to begin the process of covering up. It would also show, I think, that the president was provided information about who was culpable in the break-in."

Haldeman's published diary records that he and Nixon discussed Watergate during the gap in the tape, but doesn't detail their conversation. Nixon and Haldeman are both dead and Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, who said she accidentally erased the tape, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The tape is considered the "Holy Grail" by aging Watergate junkies, and a landmark challenge by forensic tape experts. Woods told investigators the gap occurred by mistake, when she leaned over to answer the phone and accidentally hit a pedal that erased the tape. A photograph taken of Woods re-creating the event, nearly sprawling to accomplish both simultaneously, made her account seem improbable. …

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