Putting the Nix on Nixon

How was Nixon caught taping conversations (w/o consent)? Was it tips from “Deepthroat”? That’s my WAG! Also, had this practice of his been going on before the Watergate break-in?

I don’t recall the tapings in and of themselves to be an issue. They were made in his office, and were justified as being a part of the archiving of his Presidency. Caveat: It has been thrity-five years since I gave Nixon and his band of merry pranksters any consideration, so I am probably oversimplifyng to an extreme.

The problem was that he would not release the sections of the tapes for Congressional review which were of interest to the committee, not that he was taping them without permission. (Unless you are thinking of some of the FBI shenanigans under J. Edgar, which is a whole different set of betrayals of public trust than Watergate.)

Nixon had the bright idea to preserve history by recording everything that happened in his office. It turned out to bite his ass in the end.

And the fact that 18 minutes got accidentally :rolleyes: erased didn’t help his case. Backups hadn’t yet been invented in the 70’s.

National Lampoon ostensibly got hold of the missing 18 minutes and released a record album with it. Think more of The Onion than Wikileaks, tho.

John Dean testified that he thought Nixon was taping conversations, but that was hearsay, so it passed. However, the Watergate Committee started asking other people in the White House about it.

Alexander Butterfield was asked a direct question about it during his preliminary interview (by the Republican counsel), and had already decided he’d tell the truth if asked. As soon as he made the statement, the hearings were interrupted so that Butterfield could testify about it to the full committee.

Nixon had been taping since his first day in office. He justified it by saying that JFK and Johnson had done the same thing. The taping itself was the secondary issue, though – the more important one was what was on the tapes, especially the one that had been erased.

As to how it became publicknowledge: at one of the early congressional hearings, Nixon 's office released a detailed summary of a conversation between Nixonand Dean , IIRC, in anattempt to discredit Dean. The problem was that it was too detailed to be fromsomeone’s personal rcollection, months after the event, so it raised curiosity on the committee as to how the summary could have been created.

When one of Nixon’s staffers, Alexander P. Butterfield, was called before the committee to testify, one of the questions they asked him was if he had any idea how such a detailed record couldhave been created, he hummed and hawed a bit, but eventually said it could have been reconstructed using the taping system. Pause. “What taping system?” was the next question. And he explained in detail how Nixon taped all his conversations.

(It’s been awhile since I read it, but that’s my recollection, from All the President’s Men.)

Darn this slow iPhone!

Kennedy and Johnson had occasionally taped what happened in the White House. Nixon had a full taping system installed - as previously mentioned, to preserve what happened for posterity.

Of course, all the current laws about taping and wiretapping are a result of many cases like this - at the time, the issue of privacy, epscially in a government office, was not a big issue. No warrant was needed, IIRC, for wiretaps on phones, or bugs planted somewhere. For phones, the FBI or local police just paid a visit to Bell and got what they wanted.

Of course, the technology sucked. A lot of Nixon’s tapes are barely intelligible; his version of some transcripts and the House committee’s were often very different (although there may be other reasons). For wiretaps of the day, autorecording technology was not very advanced so a bug was a very labour0intensive task.

As the technology improved, concerns about privacy became more common. Plus, a lot of the laws were a result of the fact that free-lance wiretaps (by private investigators, etc.) were also becoming common and until then were not themselves illegal IIRC. After all, opening a phone box on a public street and attaching a device was not breaking any serious laws compared to break and enter…

I’d have thought being forced to reveal the contents of one’s own tapes was forcing self-incrimination…
Still, is the present and recent White House permanently wired for the sake of posterity ?

Private telephone wiretaps were very much illegal in 1972. That’s why the Watergate burglars were arraigned before a federal judge, John Sirica. If it had been an ordinary burglary, where the burglars were just trying to steal things, it would have been handled by the District of Columbia police and courts. But when the police discovered phone tapping equipment on the burglars, it immediately became a federal offense.

Nixon, of course, was taping conversations in his office rather than tapping his own phones. Even today, is it illegal to tape people who enter your home or office? I honestly don’t know.

I very much doubt it, now that everybody knows the risks. All during the exhaustive investigation into White House goings-on during the Clinton administration, there was no hint of any tapes.

Nixon fought turning over the tapes. He tried everything, from having selected senators hear them in private to releasing edited transcripts (whence comes the famed "expletive deleted). Finally, the Watergate prosecutor appealed to the Supreme Court to force disclosure. When they ruled against Nixon, he resigned a short time later because the so-called “smoking gun” tape was among those he had successfully hidden.

But self-incrimination was never the issue, IIRC. It was always executive privilege. The state cannot force you to incriminate yourself under oath in a formal court setting or without knowledge of your rights when being interrogated after arrest, but that doesn’t give you the power to refuse to turn over to a court evidence of wrong-doing. Otherwise how could they ever collect evidence?

Nixon never invoked the 5th Amendment in refusing to release the tapes. His argument was that the President has a right to engage in discussions with his advisers and staff, and that being forced to reveal the contents of those discussions was an intrusion by Congress on the power of the executive branch.

The idea might have had some traction if Watergate had been about how the U.S. got into Vietnam or negotiated with the Soviet Union. However, it was about a crime, and the Administration’s “stonewalling” was widely viewed by everyone (including a 9-0 vote by the Supreme Court) as obstruction of justice.

Also, if Nixon had invoked the 5th, it would be an admission that he could have been subject to criminal prosecution. He believed that a president could not be tried for a crime – that impeachment and conviction by Congress was the only Constitutional remedy for a president’s criminal activites. (This theory was also discussed during the Clinton impeachment.) Pleading the 5th would have undermined that argument.

Not to mention that had Nixon tried it, Congress would have used their
Constituional power to grant him immunity from prosecution and ordered him to release the tapes or face a contempt of Congress citation – which would have been a sufficent argument for impeachment anyway.

So what was on the tapes that was incriminating? Was it that Nixon knew in advance, and approved of the break-in, or that he found out after the fact and tried to cover it up?

The most incriminating part was the 17 minutes that had been erased.

There was never any evidence that he knew about it in advance, but he certainly tried to cover it up, and that was the key feature in his downfall.

Direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up came from John Dean’s testimony to the Judiciary Committee in June 1973. He told senators that as early as January, Nixon had approved payments of hush money and pardon offers to key Watergate players. However, Dean offered no proof, and the White House denied Dean’s claims. So when Butterfield revealed the existence of a taping system, it was like a goldmine.

Both Nixon and Dean had photographic memories, at least by reputation.

As for taping, it is illegal to secretly tape someone in your own home in almost all jurisdictions, including California. There are some exceptions where you believe that you will be subject to certain crimes.

That was bad, no question, but where were many things worse – the moment in March 1973 when Nixon learned of the burglary for the first time and essentially ordered the coverup, and the famous “cancer on the Presidency” line from Dean a week later.

I believe you’re referring to the “smoking gun tape” of June 23, 1972–six days after the break-in–in which Nixon ordered the cover-up.

It’s important to note that if there had been no tape, Nixon might have avoided conviction by the Senate (although he probably still would have been impeached by the House.) Ten members of the House Judiciary committee had voted against the articles of impeachment in committee. After the smoking gun tape was released, all 10 said they would vote for impeachment when it came up for a floor vote.

8-0, actually. Rehnquist J. recused himself because he had been in the Justice Dept. under Nixon.