Post-CSI: Watergate Tape Mystery Remains

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/2166009504/">dbking</a>/Flickr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Two years ago, Mother Jones reported that amateur historian Phil Mellinger had made an intriguing discovery about one of the great political mysteries of the 20th Century: the 18 ½ minute gap in the Watergate tape of the meeting in which President Richard Nixon first discussed the break-in with his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman.

After examining Haldmen’s original handwritten notes of the meeting, Mellinger saw that these two pages contained little information corresponding to the erased portion of the Watergate tape. Which was odd, because Haldeman took copious notes of his sessions with Nixon. There seemed to be a gap in the notes that matched the gap in the tape. This suggested that pages of notes might have been removed. And Mellinger had an idea: a forensic procedure known as impressions analysis—under which a page is examined to determine what had been written on the preceding page—might determine if indeed pages had been removed and perhaps even reveal what had been written on them.

Mellinger raised this idea with the National Archives, which holds the Watergate papers and tapes, and officials there thought he was on to something. They initiated the process he had proposed, hoping that they could finally solve this mystery.

Two years later, on the 39th anniversary of the Watergate caper, the National Archives has revealed its findings in a nifty video. And…it did not answer this enduring question.

The CSIers retained by the Archives determined there is indented writing on the second page of the notes. It looks like a signature, but it is illegible. They also found that a date written on the top of the first page and the page number written on the top of the second page were written in different ink than the rest of the notes. The Archives declined to draw conclusions from this, but this could mean that the notes were tampered with and that a page number was written on the second page to cover up the removal of notes.

So the famous gap remains empty. And the Archives, which had previously explored using high-tech methods to recover audio from the tape, notes that in the future “additional work” may be able to be done on the tape itself. But for now, this central part of the Watergate cover-up is intact.

Here’s the National Archives video. It shows all the procedures used to analyze the Haldeman notes. It was an impressive exercise.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate