Pitfalls with the Nixon Tapes and How to Avoid ThemHistorians/History
The revised disclaimer was long overdue. In the late 1970s, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) decided that the recordings were the record and that its transcripts prepared for a number of court cases should not be regarded as 100% accurate. The State Department could have learned from NARA’s example. Since day one, nixontapes.org has urged readers to trust their own ears and to listen to the audio themselves. That is the point of the website: to make the audio easily accessible and to thereby empower researchers.
Tape transcription can be prone to error, even under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the problems highlighted by Mr. Aftergood have less to do with differences of “interpretation” and more to with the work environment described in detail by a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG report scarcely mentioned the tapes project—something of an oddity inasmuch as nearly every volume that covers the Nixon administration includes transcripts. Furthermore, disagreements over the tapes were one of the underlying sources of tension in the office.
The simple fact is that quiet, internal warnings were ignored, with the result that the entire quality control process had broken down by 2007, thereby jeopardizing the reliability of the Foreign Relations series. Failures in the quality control process also enabled the publication of a number of flawed transcripts in the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy.
This article documents in greater detail the problems exposed by Mr. Aftergood and includes digital audio of complete conversations so that readers can decide for themselves. More importantly, we explore some of the techniques and resources currently available to improve the quality of transcripts in the future transcription endeavors.
As the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy since 1861, the Foreign Relations should be the gold standard.The transcripts are the product of more than just individual historians working in isolation. They are, rather, the result of a team of scholars working together (ideally) to identify, transcribe, and review pertinent material—at the cost of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars invested in human resources, hardware, software, etc.
The Office of the Historian has suffered from a number of problems in recent years, as documented in the OIG’s recent report. Following the report, the Department of State acted swiftly at the highest levels to develop some corrective measures. Some of the recommendations have already been implemented. Unfortunately, other recommendations are still in process, while others remain in limbo. The fact is that the relatively short-term problems described by the OIG will play out on the pages of Foreign Relations for years to come.
There are also problems beyond those documented in the OIG report. For example, in his capacity as an Acting Division Chief, the editor responsible for the mistakes detailed by Mr. Aftergood is apparently overseeing the Nixon Tapes project as of June 12, 2009. Since the new disclaimer notes that, “the editor has made every effort to verify the accuracy of the transcripts,” it is clear where the fault lies. We can only hope that poor judgment and lack of attention to detail demonstrated by this compiler does not resurface in future FRUS volumes.
Between 2004 and the summer of 2007, quality control standards were inconsistently applied to Nixon tape transcripts. While some published transcripts are relatively sound, others have embarrassing errors that could have been easily avoided with proper review. After all, when we think of the North Vietnamese peace negotiators Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho, we usually think of them as being tenacious, rather than cuddling, revolutionaries.
While the new disclaimer is a belated step in the right direction, several troubling problems persist. The new preface states, “Through the use of digital audio and other advances in technology, the Office of the Historian has been able to enhance the tape recordings and over time produce more accurate transcripts.” This statement is misleading.
The reference to “the use of technology…to enhance” the audio is actually a reference to noise-reduction software. The disclaimer implies the Nixon Tapes Group at the Office of the Historian made widespread use of such noise reduction software, which was simply not the case. Anybody who has ever used noise-reduction software with the Nixon Tapes would know that reducing noise also entails the loss or distortion of the human vocal range. In the case of the Nixon Tapes, the source audio was recorded at a low gain and there little differentiation between frequencies of noise and speech, compounding the difficulties of filtering out unwanted noise while keeping legitimate speech. No matter how sophisticated (or expensive) noise reduction software is, it is still dependent on the original source audio.
Fine-tuning noise reduction software also takes time and resources that are better channeled into transcription and review. When the National Archives staff was attempting noise reduction with its analog version of the tapes in the early 1980s, they decided in most cases that the original recording was preferable and that very little staff time should be devoted to noise reduction. Similarly, when the Marine Corps digitized its oral histories from the Vietnam War several years ago, their staff decided that their editing software, while somewhat effective, was too time-consuming in its application and so they almost always used the original recording.
As one long-time technical expert with expertise in expensive "forensic audio" systems at the National Archives regularly says, “The best noise reduction software is between your two ears.” While noise reduction software can assist with the initial transcription of tapes where there is a particularly pronounced hiss or buzz, no competent transcriber would use such a crutch during the review process. The use of noise reduction software would be self-defeating at that stage, since the reviewer would not being checking the transcript against the actual audio, but rather, a modified version of it.
The disclaimer also omits the fact that the Office of the Historian has had access to digital audio since 2002, implying instead that such this is a recent innovation. For the record, less than 5 out of approximately 40 volumes relied on analog audio, many of them having been compiled prior to the creation of the Nixon Tapes Group.
Finally, if the audio itself is the “document,” why hasn’t the Historian’s Office put audio clips online, as has been repeatedly recommended over the last decade?
There is a silver lining to the dark cloud looming over Foggy Bottom: the tapes review process was completely reorganized in the summer of 2007 to ensure that each conversation currently in the production process—with the exception of a few volumes that had already crossed the publication Rubicon—meets the high standards that should be expected from the Foreign Relations series. If readers have any doubts, we encourage them to use the digital audio to compare the transcripts in American Republics, 1969-1972 with those of the flawed Soviet Union, 1971-1972 volume.
SOME SUGGESTIONS BASED ON TRIED-AND-TRUE EXPERIENCES
- The cardinal rule: When in doubt, CONSULT THE ORIGINAL AUDIO.
- “Perfect” transcripts from the presidential recordings are impossible because the source audio is, itself, far from perfect.
- Noise reduction software, while sometimes useful during initial transcription, is not a panacea. When dealing with single channel audio from an analog original, noise reduction also entails sound reduction and distortion. After 2007, the Nixon Tapes Group made only limited use of such software, relying almost entirely on the unadulterated digital audio.
- When properly executed, group efforts are always better than individuals working alone since transcripts benefit from the use of more than one ear (to catch “unclear” and errors) and head (to provide subject-area expertise). (The potential downside is groupthink)
- When there is any disagreement on what is being said, safe editorial practice dictates marking segments as “unclear” or “unintelligible.” This is the procedure NARA used when it was required to produce transcripts prior to the general release of the recordings.
- Use good equipment. Since the average office is actually a noisy location, invest in some good noise canceling headsets, which block room noise without altering the original audio.
- Multiple reviews are a must. The revised system at the Department of State tracked every conversation in every volume to ensure that each was reviewed a minimum of 5 times by at least 3 different staff members, including one subject area specialist. This is a standard that has yet to be eclipsed by any other institution in the world that works with Nixon Tapes.
- Longer conversations, historically significant conversations, or those with audio problems require yet more review than regular transcripts.
- Take breaks every 20-30 minutes. Listening for hours straight will lower productivity and degrade accuracy.
- Don’t blast the volume. This hastens tone deafness, not to mention actual deafness.
- Question what you hear, and what you read, especially when you are confronted with nonsensical statements. (See summaries of errors below: 670-13 | 720-4)
- It is a natural inclination to “hear” what you “see” on a page because people are suggestible. Learn to avoid this tendency.
- Embrace technology. Using a computer with digital audio, it is possible to fast forward and rewind hours of tape almost instantly. It is possible to isolate and repeat small sections. Electronic finding aids are easily searchable, and spreadsheets with time codes can help an experienced researcher immediately identify where to look for the relevant audio, especially when there are close to 3,700 hours of Nixon Tapes.
- When reviewing a transcript, after completing the initial transcript, set it aside and review it again the next day.
- As a corollary to embracing technology, use the best quality audio you can acquire. Transcribing off digital audio is light years ahead of using analog audio. Although the actual difference is only 10-15% compared to analog, a good deal of tape work takes place on the margins.
- Use a cost-benefit analysis. Try to keep things in perspective, balancing resources. Is it really worth spending an hour trying to enhance 10 minutes of audio? Remember, tapes are often repetitious, so unless you are dealing with the only record of a significant event or a “Smoking Gun” type of conversation, it might be worth tracking down another conversation with similar content from the same time period. Similarly, does a conversation need another review, or is listening to it 7 times over really enough?
- When doing a final review, go off the unaltered audio. An accurate transcript should be able to be verified without noise reduction software or any such technological crutches.
- Use common sense. Ask yourself if a troublesome passage makes any sense. There are frequent non-sequiturs in transcripts. The recordings are what linguists term “natural conversations,” so in many cases, the participants do not speak in complete sentences. Some people stutter and have verbal missteps. Others mumble or have accents. Frequently there is shared knowledge and speakers use verbal shorthand that can make the meaning opaque. Nevertheless, if something just does not seem right, be sure to check it as many times as necessary to confirm or mark the segment as unclear. Better ten “unclears” than one “cuddling.”
- Context is key. Knowledge of events, geography, etc. is invaluable. One Department of States historian managed to render invaluable help to the Nixon Tapes in spite of the fact that he wears hearing aids because of his unmatched subject-area knowledge. Inexperienced transcribers should not hesitate to ask for guidance from their more experienced colleagues in dealing with the plethora of verbal tics found in the Nixon Tapes (such as Nixon’s familiar refrain, “and so forth, and so on”).
- Check your ego at the door. We all make mistakes.
- To reiterate the cardinal rule: When in doubt, check the unadulterated audio—then check it again.
THE FLAWED TRANSCRIPTS
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971-May 1972 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, December 2006) | Link to Volume
Flawed transcripts prepared under the pre-2007 quality control system. Reviewed twice, possibly three times by two transcribers/compilers before being published. Repetition and stuttering have been omitted. Note the number and degree of substantive errors in these “interpretations.”
**Note that the corrected versions have been brought up roughly to the level of the post-August 2007 quality control standards, although we did not have access to the same resources as the State Department**
[Corrected PDFs include time codes that correspond to the transcribed portions]
[We recommend right-clicking on the “Complete Conversation Audio” and downloading the file to your computer for an easier listening experience]
Oval Office Conversation No. 670-13, February 14, 1972, 1:04 – 2:25 p.m.
Summary of errors:
-Fails to note that Haldeman was not only present but participated in a number of the exchanges
-Minor, yet numerous omissions (“I mean,” And,” etc.—also brief exchanges), grammatical & editorial errors, et cetera.
-Due to omission of Haldeman from introduction of editorial note, in at least one instance, Haldeman was misidentified as Nixon.
Kissinger (FRUS): And there will be another one in San Diego.
Kissinger (Probably): And, then we had another one in San Diego.
Nixon (FRUS): —with the hope that we will lay off our preemptive air strikes.
Nixon (Probable): Maybe’s he’s invited you for lunch with the hope that we will lay off of our preemptive airstrikes.
Kissinger (FRUS): They think you are getting ready to club the North Vietnamese.
Kissinger (Probable): They think you’re getting ready to clobber North Vietnam.
Kissinger (FRUS): That is—
Kissinger (Probable): That is a big deal.
Nixon (FRUS): The second thing it made me think of was that—
Nixon (Probable): The second thing it may be, Henry, but the second thing they make be thinking of is that they’re inviting—
Nixon (FRUS): I can’t believe that they would tell you on the other side of the coin, now I might be wrong, but they would have you for a private meeting and then proceed to kick the hell out of us.
Nixon (Probable): I can’t believe that they would tell you, on the other side of the coin—and I might be wrong—that they would have you for a private meeting and then proceed to kick the hell out of us prior to that time.
Nixon (FRUS): Because that’s why [unclear].
Nixon (Probable): Because that’s why I need you to put the condition—stick with the condition.
Nixon (FRUS): If you accepted the meeting and then they kicked the hell out of us and then we cancelled we’re in a [unclear] if you warn them in advance. Right?
Nixon: (Probable): If you accepted the meeting, and then they kicked the hell out of us, and then we cancelled, we’re in a bad way. We should warn them in advance that—right?
Kissinger (FRUS): Because if they hadn’t they would have had people there looking at their holes.
Nixon (FRUS): Yeah. That they didn’t amount to anything?
Kissinger (Probable): Because, if they hadn’t, they would have had people there looking at the holes.
Nixon (Probable): Yeah—
Kissinger (Probable): And—
Nixon: —and showing that they didn’t amount to anything.
Kissinger (FRUS): And we’ve had another report that has been particularly—they inflicted enormous casualties on some troop barracks.
Kissinger (Probable): And we’ve had another report that in Vinh, particularly, they inflicted enormous casualties on some troop barracks.
Kissinger (FRUS): On the other hand, you and I know that you were going to go for broke against the North.
Kissinger (Probable): On the other hand, you and I know that you weren’t going to go for broke against the North.
Nixon: (FRUS): And then afterwards admitted Bhutto let you down.
Nixon (Probable): Then, afterwards, admitted to Bhutto that, “We [the Chinese] let you down.”
Kissinger (FRUS): What they do is they’re asking for, cuddling for, the things we are going to do anyway. Like troop withdrawal.
Kissinger (Probable): What they do is they’re asking toughly for the things they know we’re going to do anyway, like troop withdrawals.
Kissinger (FRUS): So that the North Vietnamese will not forgive.
Kissinger (Probable): So that, the North Vietnamese will never forgive them.
Kissinger (FRUS): They’ve already objected in October so they—
Kissinger (Probable): They’ve already rejected it in October, so that—
Oval Office Conversation No. 720-4, May 5, 1972, 8:55 – 10:09 a.m.
Summary of errors:
(FRUS) Nixon: I want you to be rather cool, particularly outgoing with Dobrynin.
(Probable) Nixon: I want you to be rather than cool, particularly outgoing with Dobrynin.
(FRUS) Nixon: They might [unclear].
(Probable) Nixon: That’s the thing I said the other day.
(FRUS) Nixon: So that would be ineffective.
(Probable) Nixon: And so, in net, it would be ineffective.
(FRUS) Nixon: Well then, that perhaps is the mess we’re in because we can’t bomb unless we bomb now. We can’t bomb and then have—you can’t bomb and then have them kicking us around while we’re in Moscow. You see, that’s the point Thieu made which is tremendously compelling.
(Probable) Nixon: Well then, that perhaps is the convincing reason, because we can’t bomb unless we bomb enough. We can’t bomb and then have—you can’t bomb and then have them kicking us around while we’re in Moscow. You see? That’s the point that you made which is tremendously compelling.
(FRUS) Kissinger: One is does the United States put a Communist government into power and allow itself and its enemies to defeat its friends?
(Probable) Kissinger: One is: Does the United States put a Communist government into power and ally itself with its enemies to defeat its friends?
(FRUS) Nixon: You see—look, Henry, there’s nobody that’s more aware, because I, like you, one of the reasons we’re both in here, is that we both take a long view, which goddamn few Americans do. That’s why I said that we put out a little game plan if we wanted to cancel the summit first and then going after them, which I think we’re absolutely right in not doing that.
Kissinger: Now that is something—
Nixon: That’s good advice, because it’s something I’ve seen. I led you into that—I led you out of that, yes I did.
(Probable) Nixon: They’ve had it before. You see? Look, Henry, there’s nobody that’s more aware, because I, like you—I think one of the reasons [unclear: we’re both in here] is that we both take a long view, which goddamn few Americans do. That’s why I said, “Henry, let’s put out a little game plan [unclear] cancelling the summit first,” and they’re doing that, which I think we’re absolutely right in not doing—
Kissinger: No, that is certainly not—
Nixon: That’s good advice on the part of Connally.
Kissinger: That is certainly—
Nixon: He has seen something I had not seen. And I led you into that.
Nixon: I led you into that. Yes, I did.
(FRUS) Nixon: Now, here, the blockade plus, you understand—
(Probable) Nixon: Now, here, the blockade plus the bombing, you understand?
(FRUS) Nixon: Well, everybody knows then, that I’ve thrown down the goddamn gauntlet, and there it is. Do you want to pick it up? And, you see, I’m going to lift the blockade as I’ve said. It’s not over yet—the bombing’s not over yet.
(Probable) Nixon: Well, then everybody knows then that I’ve thrown down the goddamn gauntlet, and there it is. And [do] they want to pick it up? And, you see, that I’m going to live with the blockade, as I’ve said. Well, it’s an ultimatum.
Nixon: Bombing is not an ultimatum.
(FRUS) Nixon: Even if it all goes down the tubes, we will be remembered as the ones who went to China. And in the future, that’ll work out.
(Probable) Nixon: You have to remember, even if it all goes down the tubes, we will just—we will be remembered, as Clare Booth Luce says, as the ones who went to China. And in the future, that’ll work out.
(FRUS) Nixon: Who could help us to do—all right?
(Probable) Nixon: Who could help? Who else could do it?
(FRUS) Nixon: […] I saw the inevitability of McGovern, or Humphrey, or the only other possibility is Teddy, who might be the worst of the three.
Kissinger: Certainly. No, McGovern’s the worst.
Nixon: But anyway, as I saw that—McGovern would be the worst of the three for sure […].
(Probable) Nixon: […] I saw the inevitability of McGovern or Humphrey, or, if they’d have him, the only other possibility is Teddy, who might be the worst of the three.
Kissinger: Certainly the worst.
Nixon: But any of them—
Kissinger: Well, McGovern’s—
Nixon: —in any event , because I saw that—No, McGovern would be the worst of the three for sure if he gets in […].
(FRUS) Nixon: All right, I’m considering going […]
(Probable) Nixon: All right, I have considered it all […]
(FRUS) Nixon: […] I assured Rogers and Laird, [unclear] let’s make another offer, and have we agreed to offer this, and well, I don’t know if we have, and they’re wining and bitching about it. Well, Henry, you know and I know this is not true.
(Probable) Nixon: […] I assured Rogers and Laird with regard to this. They said, “Oh, let’s make another offer, and have we agreed to offer this,” I don’t know whether we have, you know, and they’re wining and bitching about it. Well, Henry, you know and I know that that’s just not true anymore.
(FRUS) Nixon: Oh, I hope they know, the guy across from me helped to break them off—did you get that across?
(Probable) Nixon: Well, I hope they know—it got across that they helped to break them off. Did Porter make the case—?
TRANSCRIPTS WITH REVISED PROCESS
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume E-10, Documents on American Republics, 1969-1972 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, July 2009) | Link to Volume
-Accurate transcripts prepared and reviewed under overhauled, post-August 2007, quality control system.
-Reviewed at least 5 times by at least 3 different transcribers/compilers.
-Stuttering has largely been omitted, although there is some repetition per compiler’s discretion.
-Note how accurate the transcripts are and how poor the audio quality is.
-Also note how the accuracy is consistent and the absence of major substantive mistakes in these “interpretations.”
[PDFs include time codes that correspond to the transcribed portions]
[We recommend right-clicking on the “Complete Conversation Audio” and downloading the file to your computer for an easier listening experience]
 Moss knows this to be the case because he was responsible for the entire transcription and quality-control effort between summer 2007 and June 2009.
 Audio quality was never part of original design, nor was longevity. In fact, the taping system was designed to maximize the amount of audio on one reel, which meant slowing the tape speed down and using large reels of thin tape. This design consideration was the polar opposite of audio quality, which would have required speeding up a thicker tape. The issue certainly was not the actual equipment, however, which was state of the art in 1971.
 Noise-reduced digital files are actually smaller than the unadulterated originals, even at the same bitrate and duration.
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Maarja Krusten - 8/1/2009
I am glad to see that the State Department has decided to include a caveat about transcription in the FRUS series. Better late than never, and I hope this is a case where all's well that ends well.
A note for anyone who undertakes work with the Nixon tapes. Keep in mind that the New York Times reported about the Nixon tapes on June 5, 1991 that "National Archives experts are cataloging and transcribing thousands of hours of remaining conversations, which will be released over time, but years will pass before all become public, the archives' spokeswoman, Jill D. Brett, said today."
Placed under oath in a court case in 1992, other NARA officials later said no transcription was taking place, indeed, such work would be against archival principles. It would do a researcher no good to ask the present Nixon Presidential Library for transcripts produced systematically by archivists around 1991. There are none. Indeed, that is why State undertook its own transcription project.
NARA never has been able to explain the discrepancy. Indeed, the history of the handling of the Nixon tapes that NARA published in its magazine, Prologue, essentially has a huge hole in the narrative for the late 1980s and early 1990s. Where authors such as H. R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, Joan Hoff, Steve Ambrose and Bruce Oudes once pointed to imminent release of the Nixon tapes in the late 1980s, due to its staff having completed description and review of the 4,000 hours, NARA suddenly fell silent on the issue around 1990. Or, as happened in 1991, referred to transcription that never occurred.
Historians, including those at State, should never forget that NARA is a subordinate agency within the executive branch. Seymour Hersh described in his article about NARA in the December 14, 1992 New Yorker an effort by the Reagan Department of Justice to force NARA to honor without discretion any claims of privilege over the tapes that were asserted by Nixon, Reagan, or any future President. Hersh observed that
". . . . committee members were not surprised to learn that the Archives leadership had been placed under intense political pressure by Meese's Justice Department, one congressional aide noted in a recent interview, but they could not understand why no one on the inside had reached out to Congress or any other group for help. 'These guys didn't let their supproters on Capitol Hill or in the archival or historical community know what Justice was doing,' the aide said. 'We had to find out on our own. The leadership did not raise the red flag when it should have.'"
Keep in this in mind. My advice to historians? Ask questions. Ask and ask and ask. And cross check. Do literature searches, look at published news articles, look for anamolies, look for inconsistencies or gaps in the narrative, seek out present and former NARA staff, engage your curiousity and critical analysis skills, and do due diligence. It's the best way to gather information and data and to avoid potential embarrassment or pitfalls.
Again, good luck to all now at State and to anyone else who works with the Nixon materials!
Maarja Krusten - 7/28/2009
Here is a link to the March 2005 meeting minutes for the State historical advisory committee meeting:
See colloquy between a State and s NARA representative as reported in those minutes:
"Louis asked Nancy Smith about the tapes NARA still needed to send to the office. Smith explained how NARA has processed the tapes. The remaining series, known as the fifth chron, she called 'virgin territory': they have not been reviewed or catalogued."
NARA may have decided to re-review segments of tapes. However, it correctly had asserted in court in 1992 that it its archivists had completed Phase II description and Phase III review of all the tapes.
See also "Why Aren't All the Nixon Tapes Now Available?" at
Maarja Krusten - 7/27/2009
It seems as if Mr. Moss has an excellent understanding of the Nixon tapes, in terms of content, best practices for transcription, and technical issues in general. It certainly sounds as if he has studied these issues in depth and seemingly gone to the right sources in his research. Many thanks, Mr. Moss. As noted above, based on my own work with the materials, I second your recommendations.
Does anyone else have information on the period of FRUS work on the Nixon recordings that predates Mr. Moss's association with State? If so, if he or she could let us know what literature searches on archivists' past work with the tapes State officials did, if any, and with whom they consulted at NARA, I would find that very useful to know.
Of course, I have looked at the minutes of the advisory committee meetings posted at the FAS site. FYI, there seemed to have been some confusion in the advisory committee minutes for March 2005. The minutes make it sound as if NARA had done no description or review of the Fifth Chron. There is an implication in the minutes that Chron 5 represented unknown territory. However, the HAC minutes err in stating "they have not been reviewed or catalogued."
In fact, by 1987, NARA had completed both Phase II (description, that is, preparation of tape survey logs) and Phase III (restriction review) of all 3,700 hours of Nixon's tapes.
See Kutler v. Wilson, C.A. 92-662-NHJ, Plaintiffs' Opposition to Intervenors' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, filed August 31, 1994:
"Initial archival processing expressly includes 'identifying materials requiring further processing,' which are then referred to the Senior Archival Panel under § 1275.46. When the archivists completed their archival review of the tapes in 1987, they had referred no issues to this Panel, nor were there any unresolved processing issues. Def. Resp. to Requests for Admissions Nos. 1-3.
Therefore, the Archives should have begun the process of releasing the tapes during 1987. Indeed, during the mid-1980s, that was the Archives' plan. Specifically, the Archives planned to release the Watergate-related tapes in 1989, to be followed by release of cabinet and legislative leadership meetings later in the same year, with the subsequent release of six-month chronological segments in 1991 and each year thereafter through 1995 until all releasable portions of the 4000 hours had been made public. Letter to R. Stan Mortenson from James E. O'Neill, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries (July 26, 1985) (Pl. Ex. B); Letter to R. Stan Mortenson from James E. O'Neill, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries (April 4, 1986) (Pl. Ex. C); Letter to R. Stan Mortenson from James E. O'Neill, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries (October 22, 1986 ) ( P1. Ex . D).”
See also Professor Clement Vose's article, “The Nixon Project,” in PS, Summer 1983. Dr. Vose wrote in 1983 that according to Archives' management, "it will take three more years to duplicate all the tapes, log them [that is, to produce outline summaries of the conversations], excerpt restricted material, and organize them for listening.”
Historian Joan Hoff wrote in 1988 that although “the Archives has basically completed processing the tapes and prepared a 27,000-page finding aid for researchers” lawyers for Nixon complained that “the review process agreed to in the 1979 ‘negotiated agreement’ has not proven feasible with respect to these controversial secret tapings and that, therefore, they should be reviewed again using stricter privacy standards.” (Joan Hoff-Wilson, Papers of the Nixon White House microform guide, Part 2, the President’s Meeting Files, 1969-1974, page vi.)
Stephen Ambrose echoed this story, which clearly derived from officials at NARA, writing in his Nixon biography that “four thousand hours of White House tapes, although processed by the Archives. . . which is ready to release them, also remain under seal, as a result of legal objections by Nixon’s lawyers.”
I worked at NARA's Nixon Project throughout the 1980s and can confirm that we prepared descriptive tape survey logs for *all* the Nixon tapes during that time. NARA confirmed to Dr. Kutler in 1992 that a 27,000 page finding aid existed for the entire span of tapes. We also did restriction review of all the tapes during the 1980s. By 1987, all of the tapes had been handled twice, for Phase II and Phase III processing by NARA.
Maarja Krusten - 7/27/2009
Here is the compressed URL for the Society of American Archivists newsletters with the description and photo of the equipment used by the National Archives during the 1980s:
Maarja Krusten - 7/27/2009
Excellent article, many thanks for writing this. As a former NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Project archivist (1976-1990), I largely agree with your recommendations. It’s best to approach the tapes with humility, to acknowledge that 100% accuracy is not possible, and to be willing to use the terms “unintelligible” or “unclear” as appropriate. BTW, I also applaud the excellent work done by Luke Nichter at Nixontapes.org.
There is a description and photo of the equipment at
(page 7) that we at NARA used during the 1980s for so-called “sound enhancement.” We did find that much of the extraneous noise on the Nixon tapes fell into the voice range. Consequently, it was very difficult actually to “enhance” the sound quality. Technical choices that affected extraneous noise (hum, hissing noise, a ticking clock on the desk in the OEOB, helicopters idling on the South Lawn, etc.) tended to affect the voices, as well.
We archivists at NARA did use “sound enhanced” reference copies for some of our archival review work during the 1980s. (By review, I mean listening to the tapes to determine what required pirvacy, national security, and other statutory restriction and what was disclosable to the public.) These were analog copies with SMPTE time codes. As it happens, most of the transcription that we did for court cases predated our acquisition of the equipment used during the 1980s. When we worked on transcripts around 1978 or 1979, we used tapes that exactly duplicated the audio that was on the original tapes. The originals were recorded on half mil tape at 15/16 i.p.s. For an excellent paper on the technical and archival aspects of working with the tapes, see John Powers, “The History of Presidential Audio Recordings,” (1996), excerpt at
As noted in the article in the Society of American Archivists newsletter at the first link, National Archives’ officials went on the record as early as 1979 regarding the issues with sound quality that affected some of the Nixon tapes. As you can see in the comments posted last week at the FAS site
an Archives official explained in 1984 why the agency decided not to do transcripts of the conversations on the 3,700 hours of tapes.
I’m interested in why it took State so long to put in the caveats about sound quality. Do you know whether officials at State did literature searches to see what National Archives’ officials had stated about the tapes and their decisions on archival processing and transcription? Given the red flags put up by NARA decades ago, I’m curious as to why State did not acknowledge at the outset the existing issues with sound quality.
NARA admittedly faced some peculiar issues with institutional continuity. I don’t remember exactly when FRUS staff started coming out to NARA’s Nixon Project. (I already had left NARA employ by then but still stayed in touch with former colleagues and remember hearing something about the FRUS process.) There admittedly had been considerable turmoil internally at NARA in the early 1990s about the processing of the Nixon tapes. That may have affected institutional knowledge. I know things were quite stovepiped at NARA for a while but improved during the mid- and late-1990s.
From your article, it appears State, too, faced some turmoil. Nothing related to handling the Nixon tapes is easy, it seems. Still, I’m curious. Did anyone at State ever talk to Mr. Hastings, Mr. Graboske, or any of my other colleagues – people familiar with the transcription NARA did during the late 1970s and early 1980s?
Historian and former federal archivist
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