A Washington federal judge today ordered the disclosure of certain previously sealed information related to the Watergate scandal, but denied a request to unseal all of the records at issue—including the substance of an illegally obtained wiretap.
A historian of Richard Nixon's presidency petitioned the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to release documents sealed in the criminal case against G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was convicted in 1973 of charges related to the Watergate Hotel break-in. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth last year unsealed court records the government didn't object to unsealing, saying he would then weigh a request to unseal the contested information.
The historian, Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University, argued the sealed information could be key to a better understanding of the Watergate break-in. The Justice Department argued the remaining information should remain sealed because the documents "disclose private, personal information, would constitute a breach of grand jury secrecy, or would reveal information obtained by an illegal wiretap," according to the opinion.
In today's decision, Lamberth partially granted Nichter's request by unsealing presentencing reports for four individuals prosecuted in the Watergate break-in: Virgilio Gonzalez, Engenio Martinez, Bernard Baker and Frank Sturgis. He instructed the government to redact certain medical, psychological, and other personal information included in the reports that wouldn't provide any benefit to the public.
Presentencing reports are usually confidential, but Lamberth wrote that disclosure of more information "will help correct misinformation and dispel myths and baseless conspiracy theories surrounding this sad episode of American history." In addition, he wrote, "the publication of court records, even those that would normally remain under seal, places politicians and their allies on notice that they will be held responsible for their actions."
In a footnote, Lamberth said he had asked probation officers for presentencing reports for Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and James McCord Jr., and would consider releasing them once they were found.
Nichter had also asked Lamberth to unseal an illegal wiretap used at the Democratic National Committee office. The government argued the court couldn't disclose any information that was the subject of an illegal wiretap, and Lamberth agreed. However, Lamberth ordered the release of names of individuals overheard on the wiretap.
Finally, Nichter requested transcripts and other information obtained during grand jury proceedings in the case. Lamberth denied that request as well. The judge wrote that although historical interest could justify an exception to rules keeping the information secret, the possibility of disclosing information about still-living jurors and witnesses outweighed the benefits of disclosure; he said at least one subject of grand jury testimony was definitely still alive.
"Revealing the names of Watergate grand jurors and grand jury witnesses could bring these individuals or their families unwanted media attention," Lamberth wrote. "If interviewed, living former grand jurors and witnesses may divulge information constituting a further breach of grand jury secrecy."
The judge noted that after reviewing the grand jury-related documents at issue, he did not believe the information included "would help resolve any ambiguities in the historical record or bring Prof. Nichter any closer to solving the questions he presents."
"Prof. Nichter's quest to discover the ultimate truth behind Watergate is laudable," Lamberth wrote. "Unfortunately, the law does not allow the Court to release all the requested information."
Nichter and U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Elizabeth Shapiro declined to comment.