Archives To Proceed with CSI-ish Watergate Test


In July, I was the first to report that the National Archives was considering conducting high-tech forensic tests on two pages of presidential records that could provide key clues to one of the great political mysteries in US history: what was on the 18 1/2 minutes of White House tapes suspiciously erased during the Watergate scandal? Last year, Phil Mellinger, a one-time National Security Agency systems analyst and Watergate researcher, made an intriguing discovery—that meeting notes written by H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, seemed to contain a gap corresponding to the gap in the recording of the infamous June 20, 1972 conversation during which Nixon and Haldeman discussed the Watergate break-in. Mellinger asked the Archives to test other pages of Haldeman notes from this meeting to determine if indented writing could be found on these pages. The goal would be to find impressions indicating what Haldeman had written on possibly missing pages that covered the part of the conversation obliterated from the tapes. On Wednesday, the National Archives announced it was proceeding with the testing Mellinger requested.

Here’s the press release:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The National Archives and Records Administration announced today that it is convening a forensic document examination team to study two pages of the handwritten notes of H. R. Haldeman, a chief of staff to President Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1973. The notes are among the permanent records in the holdings of the National Archives.

The two pages of notes under investigation were purported to have been created during Mr. Haldeman’s 11:30 A.M. meeting with President Nixon on June 20, 1972, in the Executive Office Building, three days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This is the same meeting in which 18 1/2 minutes of tape-recorded conversation between Mr. Nixon and Mr. Haldeman were erased, prior to the White House tape recorded conversations being turned over to Judge Sirica in response to a subpoena from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.

The National Archives has assembled the examination team in attempt to clarify some mysteries surrounding the June 20 meeting, of which Mr. Haldeman’s notes are the only extant account. Historians and scholars have long speculated on the subject of that meeting. The team will attempt to determine whether there is any evidence that additional notes were taken at the meeting that are no longer part of the original file.

Instrumental examinations of the documents will include Hyperspectral Imaging at the Library of Congress to study the ink and to possibly reveal latent or indented images on the paper; Video Spectral Comparison (VSC) of the ink entries and paper substrates; and Electrostatic Detection Analysis (ESDA) to reveal indented images that could correspond to original handwriting on these or other pages – present or no longer present – among documents from the Haldeman files.

Team members include experts from the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing Division, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Forensic Science Laboratory, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Forensic Science Laboratory.

The National Archives will announce the test results in a press availability event as soon as the testing is complete. The expected time-frame is early 2010.

My original article was headlined “CSI: Watergate.” Indeed. Good luck to the real-life forensic experts working this caper.

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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.