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Watergate '18-Minute Gap' May be Recovered
1972 recordings led to resignation of President Nixon  
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Dateline: 06/17/02

Thirty years after the Watergate scandal brought down a presidency, America may soon know what was said during the famous "18 1/2-Minute Gap" in the Nixon-Watergate audio tapes if the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) succeeds in its restoration efforts.

On August 8, 2001, NARA published this "Request for Information" in the Commerce Business Daily requesting proposals from contractors to participate in a project attempting to recover erased audio material from the 18.5 minute segment of the original "Nixon White House tape" number 342.

On tape 342, President Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman are meeting in the old Executive Office Building on June 20, 1972, just three days after the Watergate break-in. As the two men talk, their conversation is suddenly replaced by 18.5 minutes of silence broken only by electronic-sounding clicks and hisses.

When the apparent erasure was disclosed in late 1973, Nixon's already damaged credibility reached perhaps its lowest point during the entire Watergate scandal. Facing impeachment in the House and probable conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency in August of 1974.

Nixon's secretary, the late Rose Mary Woods, ended up taking the blame for the erasures. Woods testified that while she was transcribing the tape, a ringing phone startled her, causing her to press a wrong button without removing her foot from the recording device's foot pedal, accidentally recording over the missing section of tape.

President Nixon himself had order the Secret Service to install the extensive voice and telephone recording system throughout the White House office complex in February 1971.

Existence of the recording system was first made public during the Senate Watergate hearings in July 1973. While the recorders were turned off shortly thereafter, the system was not dismantled until 1974, after President Nixon left office.

The NARA project to recover any speech that may or may not be present on the "18 1/2-Minute Gap" of Watergate tape 342 is expected to take at least 18 months. Over the next 12 months, NARA will conduct an extensive series of tests to evaluate the ability of potential contractors to recover sounds in the erased area without damaging the historic tape.

According to NARA, the tests will consist of a sequence of three test tapes recorded with signals and conversation known only to the National Archives evaluation team. Each succeeding test tape will more closely simulate the original recording. After recording the test signals the tapes will be erased. Participants will have to recover all that is recorded on the test tapes without any evidence of damage to the test tape or the signal recorded on it. Identical test tapes will be provided to each candidate. The overall goal of this effort is recovery of intelligible speech on tape 342 that is similar to speech recorded before and after the "gap", not just speech like patterns or an indication that there was recorded material in the gap.

According to a NARA press release, the goal of the project is not to determine how the tape was erased or who erased it. "Those factors are not in question," states NARA, "The goal is recovery of intelligible speech."

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