Watergate 'Gap' Mystery to be Solved?

High-tech testing by the National Archive could unearth new information.

November 18, 2009, 11:46 AM

Nov. 18, 2009— -- A dark chapter in the history of the Watergate scandal surrounding former President Richard M. Nixon might soon be uncovered.

The National Archives announced today it will use forensic documentation technology to try and uncover the contents of two pages of handwritten notes taken by Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman.

The notes were taken June 20, 1972, during a conversation between the president and Haldeman, three days after the infamous 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The discussion between Nixon and his chief of staff was captured by the president's secret White House recording system, except for an 18 1/2-minute gap where the tape was later erased.

Efforts to electronically salvage the lost audio from the actual tape have not worked in the past, leaving historians to rely on Haldeman's normally detailed handwritten notes for clues about what he and Nixon talked about. But many believe that a large chunk of Haldeman's notes, the only existing account of the meeting, taken during that 18 1/2 minutes are missing. The two remaining pages of notes -- written by Haldeman on yellow, lined pads -- are stored at the National Archives facility in College Park, Md., and are the subject of much scrutiny.

Now, technology could help shed light on those missing pages, and what happened in those undocumented minutes between Nixon and Haldeman.

"Historians and scholars have long speculated on the subject of that meeting," the National Archives said in a statement. "The team will attempt to determine whether there is any evidence that additional notes were taken at the meeting that are no longer part of the original file."

A spokesperson contacted by ABC News did not return calls seeking comment.

Amateur historian Phil Mellinger, who spent five years constructing an elaborate Watergate timeline and who first approached the National Archives with the idea to use technology to look for clues in Haldeman's notes, is thrilled the agency will be conducting the tests.

"I'm ecstatic about it," Mellinger told ABC News. "They seem to be as excited about it as I am. I just look forward to getting the results."

Mellinger, whose intelligence career has taken him from the Air Force and National Security Agency to the private sector, is the chief executive officer at Turiss LLC, a Virginia-based company that develops software and strategies to fight cyber and financial fraud.

He is excited that the Archives will be using a technology called hyperspectral imaging, a technique that aims different spectral frequencies at documents and then uses computer analysis to check for differences imperceptible to the naked eye. Mellinger, who has examined the documents, says there are faint impressions on the pages, made by a ballpoint pen writing on the pages above them.

"It will maybe be able to recover 10 to 12 pages of notes as opposed to just three or four. It's much more precise and more finely tuned for finding any of the differences," Mellinger said.

Despite the passage of time and the deaths of some key Watergate players, Mellinger says it's important to reexamine the case.

"Watergate is a trauma event that the American public went through that's sort of like a festering wound. It introduced a lot of mistrust about the government," Mellinger said. "Why reopen Watergate? To restore the trust in the government and to put the blame for this mistrust on the people who implanted it."

Presidential historian and ABC News Consultant Richard Norton Smith says it is hard to foresee what new information the technology could yield, but it is important to give it a try.

"It makes sense. If you can send a ship to the bottom of the Atlantic and find the Titanic, then why not take advantage of what science and technology give you to uncover the past," he told ABC News.

National Archives to Use Forensive Documentation Technology to Uncover Nixon Mystery

The National Archives said instrumental examinations of the documents will include hyperspectral imaging at the Library of Congress to study the ink and to possibly reveal latent or indented images on the paper; video spectral comparison of the ink entries and paper substrates; and electrostatic detection analysis to reveal indented images that could correspond to original handwriting on these or other pages -- present or no longer present -- among documents from the files of Haldeman, who died in 1993.

Forensic experts say electrostatic detection has been used to examine countless documents since being developed in the early 1980s by a British company.

"It's been a godsend," said Albert Lyter, president and chief scientific officer of North Carolina-based Federal Forensic Associates. "We use it routinely for things like bank robbery notes. You might find a grocery list embedded on a bank robbery note or, if you're lucky, somebody's name and address. It's been really useful."

It works by placing the original document under a thin plastic film. An electrostatic charge is applied to the page and then, tiny glass beads and black copier toner are cascaded or carefully brushed over the document.

"What happens is the black particles will congregate in the areas where the indented impressions are," Lyter said. "So you can actually read the writing that's there."

Video spectral comparison helps visualize areas that are invisible to the human eye. Unlike the other two, hyperspectral imaging is a relatively new technology.

It's not clear that Haldeman's notes, now more than three decades old, would reveal anything. Experts say it depends on the environmental conditions at the time the notes were written and the conditions under which they've been stored since then.

"If their goal is to visualize the image of a page of missing notes then any of those techniques may be able to do that. They may be able to cme up with entire images of pages of notes," Lyter said, but "in some cases, the circumstances would prevent it -- If the notes were done on individual sheets and not one on top of another... you probably won't be able to find out what it said."

It may also be hard to get much information if the sheet of paper has been exposed to up and down humidity for a long period of time.

"There's no guarantee this is going to give them any information," Lyter added.

The technology, while useful, can be costly. Lyter said electrostatic detection costs $6,000, video spectral comparison can range from $15,000 up to $80,000, depending upon the model, and a hyperspectral imaging cost about $65,000, although a new model costs slightly less.

In a July 28 online article, archivist David Paynter was quoted in "Mother Jones" as saying "the reason we are going forward with this is that we've already tried with the tape itself. Here's another avenue to shed light on an important episode in history. It's very exciting."

Results from the examination are expected in early 2010, and the National Archives said it will announce them as soon as testing is complete.

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