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Nixon Lawyers Blamed His Secretary for 18 1/2-Minute Gap, Papers Say

January 12, 1995 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Richard Nixon’s White House lawyers secretly told a judge that Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods caused the 18 1/2-minute gap in a crucial tape recording, and did it intentionally, a newly disclosed Watergate document asserts.

The claim, charging the destruction of critical evidence, is contained in a legal memo among 35,500 pages of Miss Woods’ White House files made public Thursday by the National Archives. She has always denied being the culprit in the biggest remaining mystery of the Watergate saga.

The erased tape carried part of a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, three days after the June 17, 1972, break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office complex.

``Three times Miss Woods’ attorneys secretly entered her office in her absence searching for proof to support their felony charges,″ the document says.

The document is headed ``Memorandum to Research Staff″ and dated Jan. 10, 1974. It appears to have been prepared by Miss Woods’ lawyer, Charles Rhyne, now retired, or his assistants. But it carries no letterhead or signature.

Rhyne became her attorney after White House lawyers Leonard Garment and the late Fred Buzhardt made their accusation without informing her and, on the following day, advised her ``that she should secure another attorney,″ the memo said.

Garment, in an interview Thursday, denied that he and Buzhardt accused Miss Woods of creating the tape gap. He said they merely reported to Judge John Sirica, handling the Watergate case, and to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski that a gap existed.

``We made no charges against her,″ Garment said. ``We did not go in and say, `This diabolical woman, who I’ve known for years and who is a dear friend, is a criminal.″

He said he advised Miss Woods, through Haldeman’s successor, Alexander Haig, to get a lawyer. He said he and Buzhardt represented the presidency rather than Miss Woods. He also said he had no recollection of entering Miss Woods’ office although Buzhardt may have. In any event, that would not have been improper, he said; ``it was government property.″

``I’m not sure to this day who monkeyed with the tape,″ Garment said.

He said he and Buzhardt felt it was vital to go to Jaworski and Sirica to report something was amiss.

``We did not talk to her because she may have been in collaboration with you-know-who,″ Garment said, referring to Nixon. ``She was there. He was there. ... The suspicious set of facts put us on notice that we should be careful about what we say to her or her to us.″

Rhyne could not be reached for comment. Sirica and Jaworski are dead.

Garment said he assumed Rhyne was the memo’s author. ``He was very agitated about the fact that Rose Mary Woods was getting a bum rap,″ Garment said. ``He went very much on the attack against Fred and myself from early on. I felt for him. It was not a happy time.″

In August 1974, Nixon, desperately fighting impeachment, lost vital Republican support in Congress after the release of another tape made a few days after the 18 1/2-minute gap tape. It showed he had been part of the coverup conspiracy almost from the start.

On Aug. 9, 1974, he became the first president to resign. He died last year.

Miss Woods, who served Nixon through most of his political life, always denied causing the 18 1/2-minute gap (which the documents refer to as an ``18 1/4-inch″ erasure), although she testified in court that she accidentally erased four or five minutes of the tape by pushing the record button while taking a telephone call at the time she was transcribing.

A picture of her reaching for the telephone while awkwardly keeping her foot on the pedal-control of the transcribing machine _ a posed re-creation of how she said she made the erasure _ became a famous photograph of that era.

The Archives’ memo says that Sirica conducted a secret hearing after receiving the Garment-Buzhardt allegations.

``The testimony of Miss Woods refuted the secret felony charges in an overwhelming manner,″ it says.

The memo said that Garment and Buzhardt first went to Jaworski ``without her knowledge or consent,″ accusing their client of ``intentionally, not `accidentally’ erasing 18 1/4 minutes of the tape.

It said the lawyers and Jaworski told Sirica ``there is no `innocent explanation’ of the gap or erasure.″

The document said Sirica subpoenaed Miss Woods without informing her of the charge, and she was questioned in secrecy.

``Copies of the transcript, still secret and sealed, and the subpoena are attached to this memorandum,″ the document said. But they were not attached in the copy of the memo in the Archives files.

The court empaneled experts to uncover the cause of the gap in the tape, but it has never been fully explained. In court testimony, Haig blamed it on ``sinister forces.″

In addition to Woods’ papers, the archives released 212,000 pages of Garment’s White House papers. Before advising Nixon on Watergate, he handled civil rights, Indian affairs, voluntary affairs and the arts.

The opening of the files marked the 13th release of Nixon White House documents seized after his resignation. His estate is pursuing lawsuits seeking to prevent the release of many of the remaining papers and tapes. The case has been in court since Nixon’s resignation.

The materials released Thursday had been cleared by the late president’s staff.