Advocacy

AHA Supports Release of Watergate Documents: Asks for Unsealing of Grand Jury Records Regarding US v. Liddy

Debbie Ann Doyle, January 2014

On November 1, 2013, AHA president Kenneth Pomeranz and executive director James Grossman submitted a letter, reproduced here, to Senior Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The letter supports a petition filed by AHA member Luke Nichter, a historian at Texas A&M University–­Central Texas, asking the judge to unseal grand jury records in US v. Liddy et al., the criminal trial resulting from the 1972 Watergate break-­ins.Click to read the letter in full.

Several batches of documents have already been unsealed in this complicated case, which has been through several phases. In 2012 Senior Judge Lamberth directed the government to release 950 pages of documents related to the case. In May 2013 the judge ordered that additional documents be opened. (See www.lukenichter.com.) However, some grand jury information and the testimony of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury remain sealed. Nichter’s petition also includes a request to unseal information pertaining to the National Security Agency and the illegal wiretapping that targeted the Democratic National Committee in advance of the break-­in. Nichter contacted the AHA Research Division to request that the AHA submit a letter of support in the case. The division agreed that the Association should support his lawsuit and the general principle of transparency and access to government records.

Said Nichter, “The AHA’s support of my petition is so important because, as the government considers revisions to declassification policies, it is easy to forget that some records cannot be declassified. Many Watergate records like the ones that are the subject of my petition cannot be declassified or opened through the review process described in the Freedom of Information Act. These are records that can only be unsealed by a judge. Access to records is the lifeblood of historical research. The AHA’s support of my petition reminds of us of the increasing complexities involved in accessing some primary source records. As stakeholders in our system of democracy, we must together resist excessive government secrecy which restricts access to records that should be public.”

The Association signed on as a petitioner in a 2011 case involving Watergate records brought by historian Stanley I. Kutler (Univ. of Wisconsin–­Madison), joining the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists in advocating for public access. That suit, also presided over by Senior Judge Lamberth, resulted in the release of nearly 300 pages of President Nixon’s 1975 grand jury testimony (see Lee White’s September 2011 article in Perspectives). At the time, Lamberth noted that “the special circumstances presented here—­namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records—­far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records.”

—Debbie Ann Doyle, the AHA’s coordinator, committees and meetings, staffs the AHA’s Research Division.