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New Theories Related to Watergate Continue to Capture Public Imagination

Latest National Archives Work Focuses on Elusive 18 Minute Gap

Referred to simply as an "amateur historian" in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones, Phil Mellinger's recent research on Watergate and specifically the infamous "18 Minute Gap" challenges the traditionally held views pertaining to the number of erasures that occurred, who directed them, and whether we can hope to recover any of the contents of the conversation itself. (Read the complete Mother Jones article on Mellinger's work by clicking on the front cover image to the left.)

The conventional theory related to the "18 Minute Gap" is that when President Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman gathered in the president's private office in the Executive Office Building on June 20, 1972 three days after the Watergate break-in they must have discussed something about Watergate. Perhaps they discussed White House foreknowledge of the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee, or perhaps an order was given to destroy evidence, or maybe they considered an early call to instruct the Central Intelligence Agency to stop the accelerating FBI investigation. Otherwise, how could 18 minutes of the conversation have been "accidentally" later erased during the peak of the Congressional inquiry into Watergate the cover-up? Most observers have long maintained that the erasure was more than a coincidence, if not deliberate.

To "listen" to the  18 minute gap, click here (17.4m, 18:35)

Mellinger's work not only offers new hope that we may be able to recover the material discussed during the period of time coinciding with the erasure, but he has also come to a new conclusion about the erasure itself. The Mother Jones article explores Mellinger's present collaboration with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to see if the missing pages from Haldeman's notes from the June 20, 1972 conversation can be recovered by reading impressions left by Haldeman's pen on adjacent pages of his notes. While numerous unsuccessful attempts have been made to recover the erased recording itself, this represents a new approach to excavating the contents of the meeting that has been the subject of so much intrigue over the course of the past 35 years.

In addition, Mellinger has new theories about the erasure itself, including how it was made and even who may have directed its erasure. While the advisory panel that originally analyzed the tape erasure concluded that it was not one erasure attempt but nine overlapping erasures, Mellinger has concluded that in fact ten erasures actually occurred. To listen to the complete conservation from June 20, 1972, including the 18 minute gap, see inset below.



Time Participants Audio


EOB 342-016a 06/20/1972 11:26 am -  12:45 pm P, HRH mp3 (30.3m)  pdf (27k)
EOB 342-016b       mp3 (31.9m)  

Why does any of this matter? After all, is it likely to change our understanding of Watergate, or the president's involvement? The best answer we have is "maybe" (after clicking, scroll down to "Notes on a Scandal"). The most promising aspect of Mellinger's research is that even if it yields no groundbreaking results, the fact that over time new forms of technology allow us to come to new conclusions based on old evidence is fascinating. 

Whether we are talking about a new technique to recover Haldeman's notes, or whether more advanced computers allow us to analyze fractions of a second of audio to achieve a fuller understanding of the technical specifications of the erasure itself, these are techniques that were not possible in the early 1970s, and they are therefore exciting in their own right.

More than anything else, the fact that human creativity continuously attempts to find better solutions to persistent problems means that our best hope of solving the remaining mysteries related to the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up will always be in the future. However, at present, Mellinger's conclusions are thought-provoking and deserve our attention, as well as appropriate scrutiny. 


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