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Texas A&M professor seeks to unseal Baldwin Watergate testimony

A history professor at Texas A&M University—Central Texas has filed a petition to release sealed testimony from the very first Watergate trial, which he hopes will shed light on the motivation for the infamous break-in.

Luke Nichter, who runs the website nixontapes.org (which deals primarily with the non-Watergate aspects of the Nixon presidency), made the initial move to unseal the material in 2009, when he wrote to Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District Court for the District of Columbia expressing his desire to unseal testimony from the first Watergate court case, United States v. Liddy. On Tuesday, Lamberth, who in July 2011 ordered Richard Nixon’s Watergate grand jury testimony released, gave the government thirty days to object to Nichter’s request.

Nichter believes that the sealed testimony from U.S. v. Liddy may shed new light on the Watergate case. “Watergate has been the subject of innumerable books, articles, and movies,” he said in an interview, “but there are still unanswered questions.”  

The sealed materials, he wrote in a letter to Lamberth, “may be the key to determining why the Watergate break-in occurred, who ordered it, and what the burglars were looking for….”

Nichter is particularly interested in the sealed testimony of so-called Watergate “shadow man” Alfred C. Baldwin III, an ex-FBI agent who was responsible for listening in on tapped phone conversations from the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Baldwin was called to testify in the initial U.S. v. Liddy trial, where he reportedly “spilled his guts” to the presiding judge John Sirica. The testimony was sealed on a technicality by the court of appeals, as it was deemed irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of the accused in U.S. v. Liddy. The government also unsuccessfully attempted to quash an interview Baldwin gave to the Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1972, which almost cost Baldwin his immunity. Nichter hopes to find some clue about the motivation behind the burglary in Baldwin’s testimony.

The June 17 burglary could not have been conducted solely to bug the phone of DNC chairman Larry O'Brien, (the standard narrative of the break-in), Nichter said, because no taps were ever found on O'Brien's phone. Plus, he was out of town in Miami to prepare for the Democratic National Convention, so there were no conversations to record. “Earl Silbert, the prosecutor for U.S. v. Liddy, always believed the break-in was about sexual blackmail. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know what Baldwin said in his testimony. But as an historian, I’d like to know—I’m curious. Sircia was curious, too—that’s why he asked Baldwin what he heard.”

Baldwin, now 75, has repeatedly declined to answer questions posed over the years about the conversations he overheard on the tapped phone lines due to the court order. He was never charged or convicted in relation to the scandal.

Nichter is cautiously optimistic about the request. “There have been repeated high-level attempts to get this material unsealed [in the past],” he said, “but to my knowledge my appeal has gone the furthest.” Lamberth, Nichter noted, released Nixon’s grand jury testimony because he agreed with historians that enough time has passed, and enough of the major Watergate figures have passed away, that the testimony is now primarily of historical interest. Nichter himself, Lamberth noted in a 2010 letter, “raised a very legitimate question” about the case when he requested access to the material.

Nichter himself said that the question of the catalyst for the break-in “is important enough, and enough time has passed, for us to be able to know what’s in these records.”