Mystery in History Missing Portion of the Nixon Watergate Tape

About the mystery of the missing portion of the Nixon Watergate tapes, history and possible solutions to the "mystery."


The Event: The Mysterious 18 1/2-Minute Gap

When: June 20, 1972

Where: Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C.

The Mystery: At 2:00 A.M., June 17, 1972, five men, including James W. McCord, Jr., who was security chief for Pres. Richard Nixon's reelection committee, were arrested while bugging and burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C.

Three days later, Nixon, who was secretly tape-recording all conversations which took place in the Oval Office and in his office in the Executive Office Building, met with his aide H. R. Haldeman to discuss various affairs, including the Watergate break-in. The discussion began at 11:26 A.M. and continued for one hour and 19 minutes.

In July, 1973, the tape of this meeting was subpoenaed by Archibald Cox, special prosecutor investigating the break-in and its cover-up Nixon resisted the subpoena for four months. On Nov. 21, 1973, Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court was informed by Nixon's lawyers, J. Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment, that the tape of the June 20, 1972, meeting between Haldeman and Nixon contained an 18 1/2-minute buzz, which obliterated the conversation. According to Haldeman's notes of the conversation, the missing 18 1/2 minutes were the ones in which the Watergate break-in had been discussed. His notes read in part: "What is our counterattack? PR [public relations] offensive to top this. Hit the opposition w/ their activities.... We should be on the attack for diversion."

Judge Sirica appointed a panel of six technical experts to study the tape and determine the nature and cause of the mysterious obliteration. In a report submitted to Sirica on Jan. 15, 1974, the panel concluded that the erasure and buzz probably had been produced on the Uher 5000 tape recorder which had been used by Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, to transcribe the subpoenaed tapes. The panel also stated that the obliteration was the result of at least five separate erasures. Despite further investigation, it remains unknown what Nixon and Haldeman said during the 18 1/2 minutes, as well as who caused the gap.

Possible Solutions: The most common explanation of mysterious events--UFOs--was quickly discounted in light of the unusually thick security web which surrounded President Nixon at all times. Suspicion fell on Rose Mary Woods, who appeared in court and attempted to take credit for 4 1/2 to 6 minutes' worth of erasure. She claimed to have made "a terrible mistake." While answering a phone call, she had pushed the "record" button instead of the "stop" button while keeping her foot on the advance pedal. Even if one accepts Woods's rather implausible story, over 12 minutes of erasure are left unaccounted for.

The following people may know what was on the tape: Haldeman and Nixon because it was their conversation; John Ehrlichman, who may have been in the room; Rose Mary Woods, who transcribed the tapes; and presidential assistant Steve Bull, who prepared the tapes for Woods to transcribe.

And who went over the 18 1/2-minute portion of the tape again and again, between five and nine times, until all that could be heard was buzzing? Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., who replaced Haldeman as Nixon's chief of staff, had his theory. He blamed the gap on "sinister forces." Although Haig has never elaborated on this theory, there seems little doubt that he was correct.

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