The latest chapter of Watergate, the chapter being written by Ford, involves two interrelated matters. One is the pardon for Nixon and perhaps later for his aides. The other involves the disposition of the Nixon tapes and related materials. The full dimensions of this continuing cover-up have yet to be fully appreciated.
The net effect intended may easily be summed up. It is to let the culprits go free and send the full truth to the gas chambers. For the Ford-Nixon agreement on the tapes allows Nixon to control access to them during his lifetime and to destroy any of them he chooses after five years. After ten years, or upon his death should that come sooner, all the remaining tapes are to be destroyed. Destruction of these tapes is the essential first step to any Nixon comeback as a political influence.
Whatever secrets on those tapes Nixon has fought so hard and successfully to hide all these months will remain forever unknown. Nixon will be able to write his own story of his administration without being embarrassed by them, except for those disclosed in the tapes already obtained by Jaworski. The way is thus opened to poisonous untruths about his forced resignation which may some day prove injurious to the political health of our country.
There are two immediate steps Congress could take to preserve these tapes from destruction and to prevent the agreement from taking effect. One is for the judiciary committees of either or both houses to subpoena the tapes as part of an investigation into their disposal.
The second is to summon the attorney general and ask him to explain in plain language the tortured meaning of his convoluted legal memorandum which was released with the announcement of the tricky deal between the Ford White House and Nixon on the tapes.
The legal opinion was released as if it supported the tapes agreement. But a closer reading leads to other conclusions. The legal memorandum does say, in a curiously negative way, that these tapes can be considered Nixon’s property. But it concludes by advising the White House that none of the tapes or other materials “can be moved or otherwise disposed of” without court permission where subpoenas or other judicial orders are outstanding. This is so, the legal opinion says, because in both civil and criminal cases subpoenas may be issued “directing a person to produce documents or other objects which are within his possession but belong to another person.” The tapes and other materials covered by the agreement were left behind in the White House or deposited previously with the General Services Administration.
The agreement provides that all this material be removed from the District of Columbia, where the cover-up cases are being prosecuted, and “deposited temporarily,” so the letter of agreement by Nixon provides, “in an existing facility belonging to the United States, located within the State of California near my present residence.” The facility referred to is the so-called Laguna Miguel …