A historian of the Richard Nixon presidency wants to review sealed wiretap materials stemming from the 1972 burglary at the Watergate hotel and subsequent criminal prosecutions.
In a pending case in Washington's federal trial court, the U.S. Justice Department on May 3 said "the request for the content of illegally obtained wiretaps poses an unusual legal issue that the department intends to address in its response."
Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Shapiro asked Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for two more weeks to respond to the request from Luke Nichter, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. The earlier deadline was May 5.
“These and other sealed materials may be the key to determining why the Watergate break-in occurred, who ordered it, and what the burglars were looking [for],” Nichter, who specializes in American political history, wrote in a letter (PDF) to Lamberth in 2010. Nichter is researching whether exposing a prostitution ring was the real reason for the Watergate burglary.
Answers to those questions remain unknown, Nichter said, despite “the passage of nearly forty years, years of litigation and the expense of millions of taxpayer dollars.” (Nichter was not immediately reached for comment today.)
In the letter to Lamberth, Nichter said summaries of the wiretap material were provided to staff members on Nixon’s re-election committee, including G. Gordon Liddy and Jeb Magruder.
In the prosecution of Liddy in Washington, the late Chief Judge John Sirica sealed wiretap information, Nichter said.
Liddy was convicted in 1973 on charges that included burglary and conspiracy in connection to the break-in at the Watergate. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 commuted Liddy’s 20-year prison sentence.
“While the traditional understanding of the break-in was the need to acquire ‘political intelligence,' the sealed wiretapped material purportedly will demonstrate that exposing a prostitution ring was the real motivation for the break-in,” Nichter said in a letter in May 2009 to Lamberth.
Earlier this year, Lamberth created a miscellaneous case based on his correspondence with Nichter, who is not a lawyer.
In March, soon after Lamberth created the case, Shapiro said DOJ needed more time to formulate and submit a response to Nichter’s request. It’s possible, Shapiro said in court papers, that the requested information is not only sealed by a judge but also subject to grand jury secrecy rules.
Lamberth, in correspondence with Nichter, said the request for Watergate wiretap information “raised a very legitimate question.”
“Your diligence in pursuing this is very much appreciated,” Lamberth said in a letter to Nichter in 2010. “I’m sure we can work through this together in a way that will benefit the public interest and not harm any legitimate remaining privacy interest.”
Lamberth and Shapiro are intimately familiar with Nixon-era legal proceedings. Lamberth was the Washington judge who, last July, ordered the Justice Department to release Nixon’s grand jury testimony from 1975.
DOJ lawyers fought against the release of the information, saying that federal rules of criminal procedure do not allow trial judges to breach grand jury secrecy rules for reasons of historical interest. Lamberth was not moved.
“Nearly forty years later, Watergate continues to capture both scholarly and public interest,” Lamberth said in his ruling last summer. “The disclosure of President Nixon’s grand jury testimony would likely enhance the existing historical record, foster further scholarly discussion and improve the public’s understanding of a significant historical event.”
The recent release of the Nixon grand jury testimony could guide a determination to release the sealed records.
In a letter to the National Archives last November, Nichter suggested striking a balance between government transparency in light of historical interest and any remaining privacy restrictions.
“Without these materials, we cannot hope to understand why the break-in occurred in the first place, which resulted in a White House cover-up, the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War and the only resignation of an American president,” Nichter wrote.