The “Legal and Administrative Difficulties” of the Watergate Files

Today’s post traces the legal and administrative challenges the National Archives faced when presented with the transfer of the papers of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. It’s from Joseph Gillette, an archivist on cross-training with the National Archives History Office. 

Landscape
Watergate Investigation government exhibit one: photograph of the Watergate Complex in Washington, DC, June, 1972. (National Archives Identifier 304965)

Four and a half years after the Watergate break-in—and years of investigation, scandal, legal activity, and the downfall of a President—the National Archives began preparing to accession the papers of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF).

The WSPF was tasked with investigating and prosecuting offenses surrounding the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex in 1972.

By the end of 1976, with Nixon’s resignation and pardon two years in the past, the National Archives was preparing to receive 600 linear feet of criminal investigation files from the WSPF. These records consisted of interview notes, assorted memorandums, correspondence, grand jury records, research papers, witness documentation, assorted court and investigative files, and White House tapes.

While most of the records were still administratively active, and appellate work was ongoing, the WSPF decided that the records ought to be placed in the possession of “a politically neutral agency—i.e. NARS [National Archives and Records Service].”

Likewise, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and lawsuits necessitated maintaining the records as active, even after their transfer to the National Archives. This resulted in NARS having to process FOIA requests itself and running the risk of becoming a defendant in any legal cases resulting from disputed FOIA requests.

Letter from R. Michael McReynolds, NARS liaison to the Special Prosecutor’s Office, to ND, 1976
Letter from R. Michael McReynolds, NARS liaison to the Special Prosecutor’s Office, December 1, 1976. (Records of the National Archives)

Jane Smith, Director of the Civil Archives Division, expressed “misgivings” about the “tremendous impact” accessioning these records would have. She enumerated four issues in particular: surveying the records, access restrictions, legal and court involvements, and staffing burdens. She felt NARS staff would become responsible for determining the bulk of the FOIA exemptions and would end up targets of lawsuits regarding access to the records. She anticipated 200 FOIA requests a month, an amount impossible to service given future reductions in staff. She felt NARS was facing a “crisis situation”:

 

By April 1977, Smith, after reiterating the problems with the approaching transfer, announced that the National Archives had made certain demands related to restrictions and staffing. If these could not be met, the National Archives should not assume responsibility for servicing the records lest it find itself in a “really untenable situation”:

Memo from Jane Smith, Director of the Civil Archives Division, to the Assistant Archivist, 1977
Memo from Jane Smith, Director of the Civil Archives Division, to the Assistant Archivist, April 20, 1977. (Records of the National Archives)

Assistant Archivist for the National Archives Mabel Deutrich forwarded these concerns to the Archivist of the United States with additional details concerning necessary physical modifications to the relevant stack area:

Memo from Mabel Deutrich, Assistant Archivist for the National Archives, to the Archivist, 1977
Memo from Mabel Deutrich, Assistant Archivist for the National Archives, to the Archivist, April 21, 1977. (Records of the National Archives)

On June 13, 1977, Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff officially offered the papers of the WSPF to the National Archives. It was Ruff’s intention that most of the records be made available to the public “as soon as possible.” Still, he acknowledged that certain legal restraints required “that a significant portion of the records be closed to public access.”

Specifically, he asked that transcripts and documents related to the grand jury, Presidential tape recordings, White House documentation withheld from release by prior agreements, and documents produced by other Federal agencies without prior release consent be withheld from public access.

Additionally, records produced by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration were to be withheld until certain “unresolved issues” could be resolved. Only Department of Justice personnel would have unrestricted access.

 

On July 5, 1977, Archivist James Rhoads officially accepted the records of the WSPF, with access “restrictions and other conditions” as they related to Internal Revenue Service and Senate committee records.

Letter from James Rhoads, Archivist of the United States to Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff, 1977
Letter from James Rhoads, Archivist of the United States, to Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff, July 5, 1977. (Records of the National Archives)

No further mention was made regarding the additional access restrictions (those not related to Senate committee papers), legal matters, FOIA workload, or staffing concerns brought up in previous intra-NARA correspondence until 1979. At that time, a “Change of Status Record” confirms that the specified grand jury records, Presidential tape recordings, and documents provided to the WSPF by the White House and other Federal agencies would remain closed unless and until a subsequent legal authorization was provided.

Are you interested in these records? Currently, the records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force can be found in Record Group 460 (Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, 1971–1977) located at the National Archives at College Park, MD. Most remain either partly or fully restricted. For additional information regarding
access to these records, contact NARA reference staff by phone at 301-837-3510, by fax at 301-837-1752, or by email at Archives2reference@nara.gov.

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