Alexander Butterfield Explains the Nixon Taping System
John F. Kennedy Library, Presidential Tapes conference, February 16, 2003. Unofficial transcript.
At the Presidential Tapes conference at the John F. Kennedy Library in February 2003, Alexander Butterfield spoke in detail about his role in setting up the Nixon taping system as well as his role in revealing its existence during a public hearing for the Senate select committee investigating the Watergate break in.
Alexander Butterfield: I’ve always characterized my role as peripheral, and I certainly believe that. It was a very small thing that I did bringing these tapes to light. I simply answered a question. But I was, to answer that first question—Bob Haldeman was our—what they call now—White House Chief of Staff. But we did not have that term then. He was never, ever called or referred to as White House Chief of Staff. And I was his only deputy, and I did occupy that office immediately to the west of the Oval Office that adjoined the Oval Office, and I was simply asked one day to put in a taping system. And I didn’t get any particulars, so I talked to Haldeman later. I was asked by Haldeman’s staff assistant Larry Higby, and, so I talked to Haldeman later in the day and learned more, and he said, “Yes, we want a taping system put in. Make it good so that, you know—and elaborate, and don’t have the military do it.” Haldeman viewed the military with some disdain, some considerable disdain, and he felt that they wouldn’t do a good job. Plus, the fact that the military do get transferred from time to time, and it was deemed, you know, more secure if you had the Secret Service. So, to conclude, we had the Technical Security Division of the Secret Service, and no other Secret Service people knew about this installation. But, the Technical Security Division installed the tapes and, and we were off and running. And I had no idea that this would be a red-letter day, or a black day in history or any of those things. [laughter]
John W. Carlin [Archivist of the United States]: Now, I was always told that the quality of the tape that was purchased to use was from across the street and not exactly high quality. Is there truth to that, or do you feel that the system was set up from the very beginning to be high quality and using the best?
Butterfield: Well, we asked that the quality be high, and I made two spot checks during the two-year period I was in the White House following the installation. Incidentally, the installation of the Nixon tapes came roughly midway in first term. You know, it was February 71, and we were in the White House from January of 69. So, I checked them twice and the quality was very good. I could understand everything. But, they put the initial microphones in the president’s desk. So that came back to bite us because, when coffee was served at the desk, which was the normal routine, you could hear the coffee cups rattle, and the president’s knee would kick the desk, or he would put his feet up now and then, probably right on a microphone [laughter]. There, there were six microphones imbedded in the surface of the desk. So—
Carlin: It was a voice-activated system, was it not?
Butterfield: Oh yes, it was voice activated, yes.
Carlin: So, the cleaning lady got her share of time—[laughter].
Butterfield: [Laughs]. No, I don’t want to belabor this because it’s somewhat technical, and I’m not a technical person, but it was voice-activated only when the president was in the Oval Office. And, the president—the way the Secret Service knew that the president was in the Oval Office is by a locator box, and there were a few of us—about five of us, that had locator boxes, that had to know where the president was from minute to minute. I was one. Steve Bull, who was a staff assistant on the other side of the Oval Office, was another, Haldeman was a third, Rose Mary Woods, a fourth, and I can’t think who else. Possibly Dwight Chapin, the appointment secretary. And this box looked similar to these cards, about 14 inches long, and there were little windows in it. Seven little windows. One said “Barber Shop,” for instance; one said “out,” meaning the president was out, away from the White House complex; one said “Oval Office”; one said “Executive Office Building,” “Camp David,” that type of thing. When the president was in the Oval Office, the Secret Service knew that. They had little things in the wall, and when the president moves, they open the cabinet in the wall and let that information be known to the White House situation room, which is sort of under the Oval Office, under the Cabinet Room actually. And, and they’d say, “The president’s going to the EOB office,” or “The president’s now in the Oval Office.” And these guys flicked the light in the—so, when the light was on for Oval Office, this thing was operating. So, no one was in there—
Carlin: The cleaning lady turned it on herself, because she [Butterfield laughs]. I’m just talking about a lot of tape we’ve got that isn’t that much use. [laughter]
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Carlin: Mr. Butterfield, why do you think President Nixon sort of let the machine run? I mean, do you think he sometimes even forgot about the fact that he was taping?
Butterfield: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. We, we marveled at his ability to, uh, seemingly be oblivious to the tapes. I mean, even I was sitting there uncomfortably sometimes saying, “He’s not really going say this, is he?” [laughter] But . . . but he did and I’m sure—[laughter] I’m sure John Dean can attest to that too. But, pertinent to that question about why they were put in, I wanted to say again that—yeah, you could go in the Oval Office when this light was not on in the Oval Office and shout obscenities if you wanted to, but when the light was on, we didn’t have to shout our obscenities [laughter]. And we didn’t—Nixon, if you think there was any way of having Nixon hit a button, you didn’t know Nixon. I mean he couldn’t, he could not hit a button and I’m very serious about that; he would not be able to do that. Even a toggle switch. So we did have a manual—[laughter] Truly he couldn’t!
Unknown: Are you suggesting he was mechanically inept?
Butterfield: Yeah, that was the suggestion [laughter]. I’m surprised you picked up on that. [laughter]. But, but, in the Cabinet Room, we did have—that was a manual system in the Cabinet Room, and in there we had the microphones on the base of the lamps that were on the wall, so you couldn’t hear quite as well if someone’s sitting on the far side of the Cabinet Room table, with their backs to those, those microphones, because these mics would have to pick it up and they were quite a distance away. So, I had buttons installed by the Technical Security Division. We had a coffee thing down there, so the mess boys could bring the president coffee when he wanted it, and one other, I think, was for Steve Bull. So, we had a Haldeman and Butterfield button over here, I forget which was on and which was off, not that it matters—although historians care about that sort of thing—and I was the cabinet secretary as the additional duty, so I’m standing right behind the president. When he came in, we actually did this formal thing in the cabinet meeting. Steve Bull would come in and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” So, when everyone stood up, I just stepped forward and hit the proper button to turn the things on. And I’m sure I always turned it off after a cabinet meeting, but I hear from John Powers of the [National] Archives that someone must have hit—maybe the cleaning ladies hit that button by mistake when they were dusting, because there was a lot of superfluous conversation on the Cabinet Room tapes only. And then, as a backup, I had a button put on my telephone, which had a great many buttons on it anyway, and there was one that wasn’t doing anything, so we had the Secret [Service]—that turned them on too in the Cabinet Room. So, if I couldn’t be there when the Cabinet Room began, I could hit that button at two o’clock if the cabinet meeting was supposed to start at two. So that’s—
Carlin: Outside of you, who knew the system was being used?
Butterfield: Well, yeah, it was a deep dark secret, and I want to say no one knew, but the people who actually knew are the president, myself, Bob Haldeman and Larry Higby, Bob’s staff assistant—one of three staff assistants to Bob, Al Wong, who was the Technical Security Division Chief, Al Wong, W-O-N-G, and three technicians who, who put these tapes in: a fellow named Ray Zumwalt, Roy Schwalm, S-C-H-W-A-L-M, and Charles Bretts. They were the technicians, and one of those three changed the tapes when they had to be changed and that sort of thing. There was a little thing—they blasted a hole in the brick wall down underneath the White House and put all this machinery inside a brick wall and then put a cabinet door over it. And I said to Wong, I—this was in the locker room of the protective security [unclear—microphone problem] Secret Service agents, so when they’d come to work, they had little lockers in there, and they’d change clothes and go home. They didn’t stay long in this little room, and I said, “Aren’t they going to think this great big panel—what you call it—used to be a brick wall, they’re going to question that?” And he said, “No, they probably won’t, and if they do, I’ll just say, ‘We’ve got something in there,’ and they won’t ask any questions.” And that’s true. The Secret Service wouldn’t pry or probe at something like that. But there was a hell of a big door in there, and we—[laughter] and it was a tiny little room anyway, pretty little. I do want to say one more thing.
Carlin: Go ahead.
Butterfield: As to purpose. There truly was—in case anyone thinks there was, it’s been written about—there was no sinister purpose to the Nixon tapes, even though—well we didn’t know then how sinister Nixon was—but it was simply for history. He was—he really cared about the history. And the interesting thing is, beginning with the Nixon administration in January 69, we initiated a program called “Memos for the President’s File,” so some one sat in on every meeting, even meetings with his own staff people. Arthur Burns would go in, but we’d have a guy in there sitting with the president and Arthur Burns. Or Pat Moynihan. He was a Democrat, so we had two guys in there [laughter]. No, but we did. We had sort of a “trusted staff member” in there taking notes, and after a while the president said, “Don’t take notes, because that does tend to inhibit the guest. So sit in there and soak up as much as you can, but as soon as you leave the meeting, go back to your desk and just write out, forget grammar and punctuation, just write out the essence of what happened in that meeting.” And those were due in to me. So I was running—most of my time was taken up with running around beating people about the head and ears getting the memo. They were due in to me in 24 hours, and I kept the memos for the president’s file. Kissinger was the worst because his meetings were the most complex, and he wasn’t about to sit down afterwards and dictate a memo for me. And uh, we never did get them all. We probably got 60 percent of these. So when the tapes came along, I was sort of secretly and initially relieved. I thought, “Oh boy, I don’t have to follow up on these memos,” but we didn’t stop that procedure. So, we had two things going: the tapes, and the Memos for the President’s File.
Carlin: Did you ever get anybody asking you a question of, “Why are the notes no longer important?”
Butterfield: No, no, no. I didn’t.
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Carlin: I’d like to ask Mr. Butterfield one more question in terms of—you’ve shared with us today about the early note taking and then the switch to the taping. Could you give us a little more—
Butterfield: The addition of the taping.
Carlin: —the addition of the taping. Who made that suggestion? I recall some discussion between Nixon and Johnson at some point. Was there not, in regard to taping and use of tapes—wasn’t there an inadvertent comment that Johnson made that might have stimulated Nixon to think of going to the taping and not just depending on—
Butterfield: Yeah, I don’t know much about that. I, too, have heard or read that Johnson essentially recommended that Nixon would want this.
Carlin: That’s what I’ve heard.
Butterfield: And, uh, Stanley Kutler and others probably know the answer to that. I don’t. (I) didn’t think of tapes, had nothing to do with tapes, and when we were told to put them in, even that didn’t seem—I mean, we were told to do a lot of things there in the White House that we didn’t—[laughter]. I wanted to pick up on one thing—
Carlin: Go ahead, please do.
Butterfield: —that Sheldon [Stern] said, though, about feeling that the tapes were his own, and probably all these presidents felt that way. I know Nixon did—
Carlin: [It] was personal property. It wasn’t until after the Presidential Records Act that the law changed.
Butterfield: Right. And uh, in fact, he was fairly confident—it gives me a pain in the pit of my stomach to say this—to think they would ever be revealed. He was so sure they wouldn’t.
Carlin: Claudia [Anderson], do you know about a conversation President Johnson had with President Nixon?
Anderson: What I’ve heard is that President Johnson told President Nixon that the tapes had been very useful in writing his memoirs, and that he should tape conversations so that he would have that record to use, so that’s. . . .
* * * *
Audience Member: Jeremy Leahy, WTKK Radio. Mr. Butterfield: the 18-minute gap, um—there’s been some speculation recently that there is technology out there that we may, at some point, be able to find out what actually is on that accidentally erased period of time on the tape. You care [to say] what your thoughts are on that?
Butterfield: I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that. That would be great. I feel confident—this sounds terrible, I know, to say this, but—that I know what’s on that tape. If you knew Nixon really well and Haldeman, and, assuming that it was purposely-erased—which I’m sure it was. “Rose Mary’s boo-boo,” they called it at the time. It’s easy to discern what was on that tape.
Leahy: Could you save us the frustration and tell us what? [laughter] I see that Mr. Dean is down here too, so maybe he could—
Carlin: It would also save me quite a bit of money because we’re doing a lot of research on that, so if you know—[laughter]
Butterfield: No, no, that’s what I say. I don’t, I don’t want to build anxiety here, but. . . . Yes, well, I’m sure they were reviewing what Haldeman called the “vulnerabilities.” And, of course, see, I’ve always believed—I’ve never heard anyone else say it, but I—well, yeah, Mr. Schorr and some other people. Stanley Kutler have heard me say this. I know that Mr. Nixon knew about the break-in, at least the first one that happened some three weeks before June 17. I feel certain that nothing like that could possibly happen without Nixon’s knowledge, because I know it had Haldeman’s knowledge, and we’ve since—tapes been uncovered that should’ve been shredded and wasn’t, and so we know that Haldeman did approve the fund for Liddy’s activities and they knew essentially what those activities would be. Um, I don’t live and breathe this, so I haven’t researched this lately, but my, my guess is—and I have to call it a guess—is that Nixon felt that—he was glad, I think, that he could say he didn’t know anything about the June 17 break-in, because technically he did not. Assuming he knew about the one on May 28, I think MacGruder, who was running this team from the Committee to Re-elect the President, from CREEP, felt when this one bug was, was not performing as it should and they were having problems, that he sort of had tacit approval to go back in. He knew he had initial approval to go in in May, and I don’t think that Nixon ever knew what day they were going in—he just—he had to say okay for Haldeman to then say okay, in my opinion. So, uh, now Nixon could say no. He did not know about the June 17 break-in because he really didn’t know about that, because I think MacGruder felt, “Okay, we’ve gotta go back in and fix that thing,” and he could explain it to Haldeman that way. He may not even have told Haldeman. But Haldeman was the, you know, he was the assistant president, and he knew everything that Nixon knew, and Nixon knew everything he knew. And even when John Dean was reporting to the president—this is, again, just me talking—I’m convinced that Nixon—even though he was a pretty good actor—not a good athlete or technician, but a good actor—I think he knew much of what—but it helped him to hear what John was reporting to him because he had heard it from Haldeman, but he could—it’s always helpful when you hear it from two. But anyway, they talked about the vulnerabilities, and he did explain to Nixon that his own staff assistant, Gordon Strand, was in touch with the Committee to Re-elect the President, with MacGruder, and MacGruder reported to him all the time. And I just think that what was on that tape—I wrote a little bit about that in an article in Harper’s, and I forget the other things I feel certain were said, but the essence of it I just told you. Yeah, we’ll still keep working on that tape, because, uh, I’m not certain. But it would be fun to know, wouldn’t it?
Carlin: I can say that, uh, the current technologies are being studied for their feasibility in being able to identify, uh, and at this point the jury’s still out as to whether or not that technology exists. . . .