The Record - September 1998
National Archives Prepares to Return
Private Portions of Nixon Tapes
Under court order, the National Archives and Records Administration has begun a project to cut apart the original White House tape recordings made by former President Richard Nixon so that portions that courts have ruled are the private property of the Nixon estate can be returned to it.
The National Archives, which has custody of the tapes, is in the process of opening those to which the government is entitled. In the continuing process of reviewing the tapes, NARA officials so far have identified approximately 820 hours of recorded conversations that must be returned, which is approximately 22 percent of the 3,700-hour total.
As ordered by the courts, the National Archives will have to destroy or return copies it has made as well as return the portions of the original tapes containing private or personal information. But Archives officials are hopeful that the Nixon estate itself might preserve and someday make public at least some of the private conversations.
Archivist of the United States John Carlin has formally asked the Nixon estate to accept the return of the entire master preservation copy so that the Estate can preserve one intact copy of the private or personal information. This would allow the "political" conversations, which are included in those private or personal materials, to be preserved in context with other conversations and possibly to be made available to the public in the future.
President Nixon secretly recorded many conversations during his administration on tapes that came to light during the "Watergate" investigation. The Presidential Recordings and Material Preservation Act of 1974, which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in
1977, requires that the National Archives review these tapes, identify and return "private or personal" conversations, and retain the rest, opening to the public material such as conversations related to "abuse of governmental power."
Regulations promulgated under the Act describe "private or personal materials" as materials that relate "solely to a person's family or other non-governmental activities, including private political associations, and having no connection with his constitutional or statutory powers or duties as President or as a member of the President's staff." The regulations further specify that "political materials" can be kept by the government "only when those activities directly relate to or have a direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional or statutory powers or duties."
In 1997, a federal district court directed NARA to provide the estate of the late President "forthwith with all personal or private conversations identified to date" on the tapes and tape logs and to destroy or return all additional private or personal material identified in the continuing review of the tapes. A U.S. court of appeals subsequently affirmed the order, with which the National Archives is complying. Accordingly, archivists at NARA in College Park, Maryland, will physically cut out of the original tapes all segments identified as private or personal in a painstaking process that could take from three to six years. Despite the delicacy of the process, taped conversations that the law allows to be made public will not be lost or harmed because the Archives can and is retaining them on preservation copies usable with today's technology. Under a court-mediated agreement with the Nixon estate, the National Archives will continue to release in stages recorded material that the law allows to be made public.