Judge orders unsealing of Watergate documents

Lilly Chapa | Freedom of Information | News | November 7, 2012

A history professor hopes that a federal court's recent order to release long-sealed Watergate documents will shed light on the motivations behind the infamous 1972 scandal and help set an example for how to unseal court records.

Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., on Friday ordered the National Archives and Records Administration to review and release some of the documents within a month. The order came in response to Texas A&M history professor Luke Nichter's 2009 informal request to Lamberth to unseal a trove of documents relating to the 1973 trials of Watergate conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord.

Nichter's letter said that some of the sealed materials "purportedly will demonstrate that exposing a prostitution ring was the real motivation for the break-in." Liddy had alleged a similar theory in the mid-1990s, although he claimed that motive was unknown to him when he orchestrated the break-in.

The Department of Justice agreed that some files should be released but argued that documents containing information about illegally obtained wiretaps, grand jury information and personal documents should remain sealed. Lamberth gave Justice one month to explain why those contested records should remain sealed.

Nichter became interested in the sealed Watergate court documents after requesting and publishing the Nixon tapes online five years ago. He read the available Watergate documents at the National Archives but realized basic questions about the scandal had not been answered.

“It’s never definitively answered why the break-in happened or who ordered it,” Nichter said. “We all assume it had to do with Nixon and the election season, but these questions weren’t answered during the trials. The records talk about whether these guys were guilty of breaking and entering or illegal wiretapping, but not their motives.”

The case also highlights the practical difficulties of unsealing documents years after a court seals them. Nichter said he didn't know what records were sealed and where they might be stored.

Nichter contacted Lamberth in 2009 to figure out how to proceed in unsealing the missing records. Since Nichter sought records that were sealed by the court, the only way to unseal the documents was through the action of a judge.

“Even [the judge] wasn’t sure how to get these things opened,” Nichter said. “This brings up the bigger issue of how to access records that are in legal limbo. . . . Nobody’s really sure how to get these records out. Surely we can’t go to a judge in every instance.”

Lamberth’s recent order is only the beginning, Nichter said. Lamberth ordered the department to turn over to him all the contested records so he can review them as he considers whether they should be unsealed.

“There’s a lot more to come,” Nichter said. “There could be several more orders for documents to be released. It wouldn’t surprise me if this case went on for another year, especially if the Department of Justice asks for extensions.”

Nichter said he hopes the release of the records will fill in the gaps of the Watergate scandal and encourage others to obtain more such records.

“I’ve spoken to people at the National Archives, and they said they have thousands of Watergate documents in limbo that they’d love to get into the public and off their shelves,” Nichter said. “I don’t know what those are – that’s the whole nature of them being sealed, you never know exactly what you’re going to get.”