Disclosure and candour

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President (a book-and-CD set) edited by John Prados; The New Press; pages 331, 34.95.

IT is a delight to read in the National Archives old files of the Raj. Guaranteed confidentiality, the civil servant or Minister would let himself go, as it were. In internal notings, colleagues, who had no access to them, were not spared. A government can run only if the Ministers and civil servants discuss issues in perfect candour. There is a clear public interest in confidentiality. However, there is also a competing public interest in disclosure when a prima facie case of wrong-doing is disclosed. The people acquire a right to know how the decision was arrived at, by whom and who were opposed to it.

The courts strike the balance and tilt towards disclosure in the measure that there is proof of wrong-doing and its cover-up. In the Pentagon Papers case, Chief Justice Warren Burger remarked that the duty to return stolen goods applied as much to The New York Times as it did to cabbies. He was in a minority. The majority upheld the Times' right to print the papers. Wrong-doing and suppression of evidence tilted the balance.

While going through the file in one case, Judges of the Patna High Court found that the Judicial Commissioner, the Secretary-cum-legal remembrance and a couple of others had, in notings on a file, sharply criticised rulings of the High Court. All, the State government included, apologised while denying that they had committed contempt of court. They were held guilty and sentenced to a fine of Rs.50 each. On April 28, 1987, the Supreme Court reversed the order on their appeal. Justice V. Khalid said such action would "cause impediments in the fearless expression of opinion by the officers of the government" (The State of Bihar and Ors. vs. Kripa Shankar and Ors. (1987) 3 SOC 34).

But President Richard Nixon came to grief because the United States Supreme Court rejected his claim of privilege and ordered disclosure of his tapes, which revealed "the smoking gun" (United States vs. Richard M. Nixon 419 U.S. 683, 41 L.Ed. 1039 (1974)). The court ordered surrender of certain of the tapes to District Judge John J. Sirica for his judgment as to what portions of the tapes were relevant and admissible.

This book explains how Nixon fell by the taping system he had maintained. Its editor John Prados is a distinguished historian at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C. and is author of nearly a dozen books, including President's Secret Wars and a history of the National Security Council, Keepers of the Keys. This book covers the period from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. It describes how the taping of discussions began with Roosevelt and the changes it underwent, notably at Nixon's hands. The reader is initiated into the technical intricacies of sound recording since its inception and the hazards of transcription of tapes. "Things that happened during the recorded meetings also affect the tapes, papers being shuffled on the desk or table, the sound of writing, things falling, the hum of air conditioners, JFK's [John F. Kennedy] rocking chair, people crossing their legs and hitting the underside of the table, noises in the room or outside it, power surges, machinery noise, gaps left when tape reels ran out and the record was picked up by another tape or recorder - any number of other possible sources of interference have reduced the quality of the recordings."

But the effort is well worth the while. It is in fact very necessary for "in every case we have seen, the tapes reveal much more that took place in these meetings than documentary records ever noted. The assembled materials both established the context for the tapes and furnished clues as we listened and transcribed... We discovered that no two transcripts are entirely identical. For example, our transcription of the Nixon "smoking gun" tapes differs from that compiled by Senate Watergate investigators, which differed from the one done by the Nixon tapes authority Stanley Kutler (as does ours also). Everyone heard something different. The editor is therefore at pains to make clear that "the tape itself is the authoritative source, and the transcripts should be viewed as an aid to listening".

He brings to bear on his task painstaking scholarship. Each selection is prefaced with a commentary in which the context is described in detail. The existence of presidential tapes came to light for the first time on July 16, 1973, during the Watergate hearings when Alexander P. Butterfield revealed that the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, as well as other White House and presidential locations, were wired with microphones linked to a sound recording system. That Nixon bugged others, journalists and officials particularly, was well known. It came as news that he bugged himself as well. The tapes provided proof of his participation in an obstruction of justice and led to his resignation from the presidency on August 4, 1974. The "smoking gun" tapes recorded all that in the discussions of a cover-up on June 23, 1972. The book contains selections from the transcripts.

But taping did not begin with him. The system was in place under Roosevelt. Kennedy relied on it considerably especially after differences developed over what advice the Joint Chief of Staff had given him on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy personally controlled taping by using a switch.

Lyndon B. Johnson was a master in the use of the telephone to influence people. All calls, outgoing and incoming, were taped.

"Richard Nixon, with whom Lyndon Johnson spoke about tape systems, reports that LBJ's phone system covered his office, his bedroom in the White House family quarters, Camp David, the LBJ Ranch in Texas, and his office in the Federal Building in Austin."

Nixon wanted his presidency to be the best chronicled in history. He learned that Johnson had told people that Nixon was foolish not to have a recording system. He opted for a voice activated taping system. On April 9, 1973, he ordered his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to shut down the entire system; but cancelled the order the next day.

John Prados discusses the question all asked in the aftermath. "The great imponderable of Watergate is, of course, why Richard Nixon did not simply destroy the tapes. Nixon obviously knew what questionable conversations had taken place in the Oval Office, and he also knew that audiotape records of those meetings existed. Until July 1973 there was no subpoena for that material, and the tapes could have been destroyed with impunity. By his own admission Nixon had listened to some tapes a month earlier, reminding himself of the sensitivity of this material. In a televised interview with British journalist David Frost in September 1977, President Nixon said he did not believe the existence of the tapes would become public, and that if he had destroyed them it would have appeared he had something to hide."

Once the Senate hearings began it was too late to destroy them. Years later he wrote on a yellow legal pad: "Should have destroyed the tapes after April 30, 1973."

The editor discusses the legal developments that followed in congressional legislation such as the Presidential Records Act as well as Supreme Court rulings. "President Nixon did succeed in establishing one legal point, however, which was that there was a distinction between official material on the recordings and personal comments mixed into the same conversations (listeners will discover that the Nixon tapes contain numerous deletions of conversation deemed personal). That meant reviewing all Nixon tapes for the presence of personal material, including those previously open to the public. Nixon did lose a subsequent court case that sought to reserve to himself the power to decide upon what was a valid personal deletion. Those determinations were made by the Archivist of the United States until 2002, when an executive order by President George W. Bush reserved decisions to the sitting President."

Necessarily selective, the tapes tell a lot. On November 1, 1963, the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown in an Army coup and murdered the next morning, along with his brother, while they were on the run. The transcript of a National Security Council meeting only three days earlier on October 29 shows that the U.S. Attorney-General Robert Kennedy was the only one to warn against the consequences of supporting the coup. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara said: "I think above all, Mr. President, if Lodge (a reference to the instructions to the Ambassador in Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge) is leaving there, you must, in this message, make clear who's to be in charge of coup planning. We have to re-write paragraph three, the top three paragraphs of page three, Mr. President."

Robert Kennedy warned: "Could I, I may be a minority, but I just don't see that this makes any sense on the face of it. Uh, I mean, it's different from a coup in the Iraq or (a) South American country; we are so intimately involved in this, and what we're doing, really, is, uh, what we talked about when we were sitting around the table talking about all this kind of thing we talked about four weeks ago. We're putting the whole future of the country and, really Southeast Asia, in the hands of somebody that we don't know very well, that one official of the United States government has had contact with him, and he, in turn, says he's lined up some others... .

"If it's a failure, I would think Diem's gonna tell us to get the hell out of the country, and, see, he's gonna have enough with his intelligence to know that this, in these contacts and these conversations. And he's gonna capture these people, they're gonna say the United States is behind it. I would think that we're just going down the road to disaster. Now, may be it's gonna be successful, but I don't think there's anybody, any reports that I've seen, indicate that anybody has a plan to show where, where this is going; and I think this cablegram, set out like it is, indicates that we are willing to go ahead with the coup but we think that we should then have a little bit more information." The book reproduces the photostat of the cable sent to Lodge.

Nixon was obsessed with the media as was his friend the Reverend Billy Graham. In one talk on February 1, 1972, "Nixon and Graham both discuss the supposed concentration of ownership of media sources in Jewish hands, so serious in their view that, as Graham says, `This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going down the drain.' When the tape of this conversation was opened to the public in early 2002, Billy Graham's comments proved so controversial that, on March 1, 2002, Reverend Graham felt obliged to issue a statement to the press disallowing them."

Graham preached to Nixon: "I think that you have a dignity to maintain. You have to, and you're doing the job. That's the thing they want to see. And I think there's got to be, and I think you have been able to get over integrity, I think the only thing that has hurt your integrity has been this Pakistan-India situation, and the so-called Anderson papers. But, uh, that has passed over in my judgment. That's not going to hurt. But your overall impression is one now of integrity. You've brought dignity to the office, and I think people are, uh, uh, impressed by that." Indeed.

Nixon responded: "In the media now, money, it's totally dominated by the Jews. Newsweek is totally, is all by Jewish and dominated by their editorial pages The New York Times, The Washington Post, totally Jewish (unintelligible), the owners of The Los Angeles Times (unintelligible) in our system about (unintelligible). The other thing, you know, is that all three (television) networks except for, say (sic.), they have top men, in our case, men per (name) or (Walter) Cronkite may not be of that persuasion. But the writers going, 95 per cent are Jewish. Now, what does this mean? Does this mean that, uh, that, uh, that all of Jews are bad and all, but it does mean that all Jews are left wing, way particularly the younger ones like that. They're way out, they're radical, they're peace at any price except for where (unintelligible) is concerned. Uh, the only thing that you could tell me would be that (unintelligible) uh, the Middle East. The best Jews actually are the Israeli Jews.

Rev. Graham: That's right.

President Nixon: Because Israel, the reason is Meir (Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, 1969-74) supports me, which she does... .

President Nixon: For the LA Times or The New York Times, it's a Max Frankel. That's telling you. For The Washington Post it's Karnow, Stanley Karnow. And uh, these are the people who are going with me on these trips. At NBC it's Herb Kaplow.

Rev. Graham: Yeah.

President Nixon: From CBS, uh, it's Ra. Dan Rather. (Tape is excised for one minute, ten seconds).

Rev. Graham: You know, I mean, I don't care how conservative, I'm sure I'm more conservative than you are. At least you told me that one time, and I think that's true. But, I have to lean a little bit, you know, I go and I keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal at The New York Times and people of that sort, you know... .

President Nixon: (speaks over Rev. Graham, unclear what he says).

Rev. Graham: And, uh, all the, I mean not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They, they swarm around me.

President Nixon: Rosenthal.

Rev. Graham: They're friendly to me, uh, because they know that I'm friendly to Israel, too. But they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country. And I have no power and no way to handle them.

President Nixon: You must let them know."

THE piece de resistance is, of course, "the smoking gun". Five men were arrested on June 17, 1972, for breaking into the Democratic National Committee HQs in the two-building Watergate complex in Washington DC. A sixth man was found who had helped in the break-in. He was H. Howard Hunt. It was a venture of the Committee to Re-elect the President. Nixon read about the arrests in the papers while on vacation. They soon connected Hunt to the White House. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Director L. Patrick Gray suspected that it was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) job. In the conversation on June 23, recorded in the "Smoking Gun tapes", Nixon agreed to and worked on a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice by having the CIA stop the FBI's Watergate investigation on the grounds of national security, on the ground that it might uncover agency sources and methods. The tapes consist of several conversations between the President and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman throughout the day. These talks continued at another meeting at the White House, to which CIA Director Richard M. Helms had been summoned.

John Prados sums up the result of the lengthy transcripts. "For an hour and a half beginning a little after ten O'clock in the morning, Nixon and Haldeman discuss the `problem area' of the investigation which is the potential for Watergate links to implicate White House officials, in particular (at that stage) Charles Colson, the President's hatchet man. The FBI was out of control, in Haldeman's view, in the sense that Director Gray could not prevent his special agents from pursuing their investigation into the problem area. He suggests the only way to head off that possibility is White House instructions, and they have to be addressed to Helms and his deputy, General Vernon Walters. President Nixon says, `All right, fine'. Then he rationalises why the CIA ought to go along with this: `Well, we protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things'. Nixon then articulates why the strategy of having the CIA claim its operational security was at risk in the Watergate investigation was a plausible one, and that is because (supposedly) Howard Hunt and the Cuban contract agents had been mixed up in projects the agency would not want to have revealed, starting with the Bay of Pigs and its successor anti-Cuban project, which had been codenamed Mongoose.

"`You call them in?' Nixon ended, referring to Helms and Walters. `Good, good deal. Play it tough. That's the way they play it and that's the way we're going to play it.' Director Helms and General Walters were scheduled to meet the officials in the office of John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy chief, around 1 p.m. Haldeman popped into the Oval office at 1-04 p.m. for a last-minute check on his instructions. Nixon emphasised that the CIA people should be told they had to shut down the FBI investigation of Watergate due to the involvement of Howard Hunt."

All this and more was on tape. It destroyed Nixon. To its credit, the FBI refused to cooperate. Haldeman reported to Nixon at the very first meeting on June 23: "Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we're back to the - in the problem area, because the FBI is not under control, because Gray (Acting Director of FBI from May 1972 to April 1973) doesn't exactly know how to control, and they have their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they've been able to trace the money, not though the money itself, but through the bank. You know, sources... .

The way to end all this now is, for us to have Walters (Deputy Director of CIA from April 1972 to July 1976) call Pat Gray and just say, `Stay the hell out of this. This is uh, this business here we don't want you, going any further on it.'"

To repeat, the FBI refused to cooperate. There can be little doubt as to how the CBI would have behaved in similar circumstances. Witness: Its behaviour in the Ayodhya cases involving former Union Home Minister L.K. Advani.

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