Who Will Tape the White House Tapers?

“One could use that 18 1/2-minute buzz on the June 20 babble session with Hank Haldeman as a sound track for a Kenneth Anger movie which would be titled 'Nixon Sinking.' ”


A professional tape recorder technician who worked on the White House tape recording system as late as April 1973 has supplied additional information about the plexus of secreted microphones and hidden cables that enabled conversations to be recorded, according to the technician, in virtually every room in the White House complex, including Nixon’s offices, and relayed to an emplacement packed with approximately 14 highly professional Scully tape recorders, located on the first floor of the Executive Office Building (see “Nixon at the Console: A Second Tape System in the White House?”, Voice, February 21). The EOB, as it is fondly known, is situated just across the private street on White House grounds from Nixon’s Oval Office in the West Wing.

The plexus of Scully tape recorders is maintained by United States Army personnel of the White House Communications Agency, which is under the over-all supervision of the Secret Service. The system is serviced and repaired through contracts with outside civilian companies, including the Scully-Metrotech Corporation, which sends in employees from various Scully offices in the East. According to the technician, the recording has been used for everything from an eight-track mix-down of a performance of “Hello Dolly” to the recording of meetings of the Join Chiefs of Staff. The system was created during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations but was kept operative, and apparently even augmented, during the Nixon regime. Visitors to the public part of the White House, for instance, can look at the fluted columns in the room and have the wonderful knowledge that the flared panels at the bottoms of the columns have secreted in them microphone connection which lead by hidden wires clear to the data hive at the EOB.

Since Army personnel staff the Scully tape system, the possibility comes to mind that perhaps, Nixon installed the secret Sony 800-B system in February 1971 (the year of the leaks, of hassles with the CIA, of the theft of Kissinger’s papers by the military) and had the system maintained, not by the Army, but by Secret Service officers, in order perhaps to avoid his words being bled via scrambler lines into Richard Helms’s offices over in Langley. The tapes from the Sony system, however, were kept stored, according to Alexander Butterfield, in locked closets in the Executive Office Building, where the Scully monitoring system already was in place, so it is likely that knowledge of the tape collection might have spread to service personnel.

In any case, what the Scully technician has to say is very interesting because it sheds light on equipment that may in fact have been called into action during any incidents of tape tamper, since for instance the Scully machines could plugged into the Oval Office to pick up the ambient room noise, which would have been necessary to place upon a tape in order to make it appear to have been actually recorded in the Oval Office.

Here are some things he has revealed:

1. When asked if he knew of any continuous logging of conversations or phone calls by the Scully equipment in the Executive Office Building, he replied that when he went into the tape recording room, of the 14 tape recorders, some were running, and some were not, but that it was impossible to tell what was being continuously recorded.

2. He said that there are mixing consoles over at the EOB such that conversations in any room in the White House (with the probably exception of Nix’s private living quarters, one supposes) could be mixed down onto a cassette. They had cassette duplication equipment at the Executive Office Building and there was a whole library room over at the EOB filled with cassette tape recordings.

3. He never heard of a professional tape system in Nixon’s private quarters.

4. He said that the Scully tape recorders were of three types. There were Scully Series 280 monophonic tape recorders, Scully Series 280-2 stereo tape recorders, and Scully Series 284-8 eight-track tape recorders. The eight-track Scully recorders now retail for about $11,250. There are two eight-tracks, one of which is portable and which flies all over the world for Nixonian recording assignments. If Nixon had wanted to do so, he could have recorded his John Dean conversations on these eight-track machines, because the technician indicates that  there is what they call a “patch bay” which connects to microphones in all the rooms-said patch bay being a complex of electrical hook-ups, any mike line able to feed immortal babble into the eight-track equipment. Nixon also could have mixed onto a cassette from the Scully recorders.

5. On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield was asked by the Senate Select Committee where the Sony tape recorders used for Nixon’s conversations were kept and Butterfield replied that “most of the recording machines were in the basement of the West Wing of the White House.” The former Scully technician was asked if he knew of any Scully equipment under the West Wing or under Nixon’s Oval Office and he said there was, in fact, a large space down there where there was a caged storing area for tape equipment, i.e. for storing speakers, mixers, mikes, mike stands, and so forth. But he didn’t know of Scully taping being done there. The technician did not know of the secret Sony tape system set up by the Secret Service in February ’71, but notes that it is difficult to understand why they sneaked in the Sonys when every room was already wired to such a professional system as the Scully plexus.

What is the importance of all this? Well, the tape experts are due soon to issue their reports on the Nixon tapes, not just in the 18 1/2-minute buzz, but also as to whether some of the tapes are re-recordings, or have been edited, or as in the case of the March 13 and 21, 1973, conversations with John Dean regarding hush money, executive clemency, and presidential cancer, whether or not there has been a switcheroo, so as to make it appear that Nix heard of the coverup on the 21st instead of the 13th. For indeed, a presidential lie, at this stage of the game, is adios for Nix. And one could us that 18 1/2-minute buzz on the June 20 babble session with Hank Haldeman as a sound track for a Kenneth Anger movie which would be titled “Nixon Sinking.”

Judge Sirica has received into evidence all the Sony 800-B’s used for Nixon’s babble. The hidden microphones were left in place, possibly in order to be able to recreate if necessary conversations so as to match the ambient room noise against that on the subpoenaed tapes. Ambient room noise, so we are informed by recording engineers, is the peculiar noise characteristics that each room has, and which, in the hands of experts, can apparently serve almost as fingerprints in determining if a tape was actually recorded in a certain room. Accordingly, in my opinion, Judge Sirica should subpoena all the Scully tape equipment and any tape equipment, for that matter, in the Executive Office Building, because that equipment was in place and operating all during the Nixon regnum. They should subpoena the tape equipment in the wire cage in the basement also.

For instance, there is the ominous possibility, mentioned in the New York Times of March 3, 1974, that an Army Security Agency psy-war tape expert unit was sent into the White House the day after John Dean concluded his testimony last June 30, on a possible mission of tape-tamper, using equipment in the EOB. This was investigated by Special Prosecutor Jaworski ‘s office, with no apparent conclusive results. But we are beyond trust at this point, and the country can ill afford to inaugurate Chiquita Banana as its national anthem. The equipment should be taken into custody.

In the meantime, it is not untoward to propose that congress enact legislation requiring a 69-cent Woolworth phone lock to be installed on the red nuclear telephone, just in case Milhous should catch in mind late at night, after drinking martinis with Bebe in silence, a possible answer to the question facing us all. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2020