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July 29, 2011  

Court Sides With Public Citizen, Grants Historians’ Request To Unseal Nixon’s 1975 Grand Jury Testimony

Judge Orders National Archives to Make Former President’s Testimony Public

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal judge this morning ordered the release of the 1975 grand jury testimony of President Richard Nixon, agreeing with Public Citizen that courts have the authority to release grand jury materials in exceptional circumstances.

The judge ruled in response to a petition filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Public Citizen in September 2010 on behalf of history professor Stanley Kutler, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists. The petition explained the importance of the grand jury testimony to the historical record.

“We are so pleased that the court agreed that the reasons for releasing President Nixon’s sworn testimony outweigh any grounds for keeping sealed this important piece of history,” said Allison Zieve, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group and lead attorney for the petitioners.  “Although Watergate and all that word has come to represent has been extensively studied and debated, President Nixon’s knowledge of the events and role in the cover-up remains a subject of speculation for historians, journalists and others.”

The request for the testimony to be made public was supported by a wide range of people, including John W. Dean III, former White House Counsel; David Dorsen, former assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee; Barry Sussman, former D.C. editor of The Washington Post; Raymond Smock, former historian of the U.S. House of Representatives; Richard J. Davis, former assistant special prosecutor with the Watergate Special Prosecution Force; and several prominent historians.

The government opposed the petition, arguing both that the court had no authority to unseal grand jury material based on historical significance and that doing so would invade the privacy of people mentioned in the transcript. The government also asserted that the release might deter future grand jury witnesses from testifying based on fear of disclosure. Rejecting these arguments, the court ruled that the “undisputed historical interest in the requested records … far outweigh[s] the need to maintain the secrecy of the records.”

Watergate ignited a crisis of confidence in government and raised constitutional questions that tested the limits of executive power and the mettle of the democratic process itself. After leaving office, Nixon was called before a grand jury. He testified in California on June 23 and 24, 1975, before two members of a federal grand jury. His testimony was presented in Washington, D.C., to a full grand jury that was convened to investigate political espionage, illegal campaign contributions and other wrongdoing.

According to press reports, Nixon answered questions about: 1) the infamous 18.5-minute gap in the tape recording of his conversation with H.R. Haldeman three days after the Watergate break-in; 2) the extent of his involvement in altering transcripts of tape recordings that were turned over to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; 3) his use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass political enemies; and 4) a $100,000 contribution from Howard Hughes.

Today’s court decision adopts Public Citizen’s argument that Nixon’s testimony should be made public because of the ongoing historical interest in Watergate and Nixon’s legacy, and because the concerns that support secrecy of grand jury records no longer apply to this 35-year-old material. The various Watergate investigations ended decades ago; Nixon and many other key players in the Watergate scandal are deceased; most of the key players in the scandal testified publicly under oath; and some information about the Watergate grand jury testimony has already been disclosed.

“The release of this transcript is a significant step toward a complete historical record,” Zieve said.

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