WASHINGTON — A history professor from Texas is seeking access to long-sealed court records that he believes may help explain the motivation behind the Watergate break-in that ultimately drove President Richard Nixon from office.
Luke Nichter of Texas A&M is seeking the release of potentially hundreds of pages of documents. On Tuesday, a judge in Washington gave the government a month to object to the request.
Nichter wants to unseal records that were part of the court case against seven men involved in the 1972 burglary.
He said the documents originally were sealed because they were seen as unnecessary to proving the group, which was tied to Nixon’s re-election campaign, was responsible for the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington.
Nichter, who also runs a website cataloging secret recordings made by President Nixon in the White House, said the materials he wants may help answer lingering questions about the burglary. The documents may explain the motivation for the burglary, which has been disputed, he said.
In particular, he wants access to materials resulting from an earlier, successful burglary at the headquarters in May 1972. During that break-in, a wiretap was placed on at least one phone. It was during a second burglary more than two weeks later that the group was caught with additional bugging devices. Information about the contents of the initial wiretaps, which played a role in prompting the second burglary, were sealed and never revealed.
‘Don’t people deserve to know the truth?’
“These and other sealed materials may be the key to determining why the Watergate break-in occurred, who ordered it, and what the burglars were looking for,” Nichter wrote in asking the chief judge of the federal court in Washington to unseal the materials.
He said it’s time they are released.
“Nearly four decades after the break-in don’t the American people deserve to know something closer to the truth?” Nichter wrote in another letter.
Nichter initially wrote to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth about releasing the material in 2009, and the two have since corresponded about the issue. Lamberth said in a 2010 letter made public Tuesday that he believed the professor had “raised a very legitimate question” about accessing the material.
Lamberth previously has granted access to sealed Watergate material. Last year, he ordered that a secret transcript of President Nixon’s testimony to a grand jury about the Watergate break-in be made public. Lamberth agreed with historians that arguments for releasing the transcript outweighed arguments for secrecy, because the investigations are long over and Nixon died in 1994.
Nichter said in a telephone interview Tuesday that like many people, he’s just curious about the documents he’s requested. He said he believes that if the government doesn’t object, the material could be available in as little as two months. It’s not clear exactly where the material is, although it likely is in the courthouse, Nichter said. It’s also not clear exactly how many pages of material were sealed.