Tape 342

Iron oxide test on magnetic tape.  Image credit: Susan Schuppli 

Tape 342

At some point during the evening of June 20 1972 a conversation between two men was secretly taped on a SONY TC-800B reel-to-reel voice recorder. An innocuous machine that uses 0.5-mm tape and was set to run at the irregular speed of 15/16 IPS—or half the rate of a standard tape recorder. In keeping with this low-fidelity recording mode, the tiny lavalier microphones that picked up this particular conversation were cheap and poorly distributed throughout the space. The result was a tape of degraded sound quality produced under deficient recording conditions.

Tape 342, as it is officially referred to, is but one of a sprawling archive of approximately 3,700 hours of audio recordings taped surreptitiously by the late American President Richard Nixon over a period of several years. Known as the “Nixon White House Tapes” these recordings detail conversations between the President, his staff, and visitors to the White House and Camp David. Of the many thousands of audiotapes confiscated from the Oval Office, Tape 342 remains by far the most infamous. Not because of the damaging or volatile nature of the information it contains, but precisely because of its absence: a gap in the tape of 18-1/2 minutes. A residual silence that is haunted by the spectre of a man who refused to speak on the grounds that such testimony might be self-incriminatory. In pleading executive privilege Nixon refused to fill in the gap that would return the voice to the machinic silence of the tape and enable the playback of history.


18-1/2 minute gap in Watergate Tape 342

The location of the gap within the tape occurs during a conversation between Nixon and HR Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, three days after the break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The date of their conversation and the proximity of the tape-gap to the timeline of criminal events at the Watergate Hotel have lead many to speculate that the tape must have contained highly damaging evidence. The American Bill of Rights, under the aegis of the Fifth Amendment, gives one the right not to speak on the grounds that such speech may implicate oneself in activities that are punishable by law, it does not, however, allow one to take back or “erase” something already spoken. The absent recording had, in effect, converted non-evidence into such compelling and incriminatory material proof of willful destruction of evidence that moves towards Presidential impeachment were in part, activated.

Knowledge of the White House taping system, installed by the Secret Service in 1971, first came to public’s attention during the testimony of former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield before the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973. Less than a week after Butterfield’s revelation, Nixon ordered an end to White House taping although the actual recording equipment was not removed until after he resigned in August 1974. Upon learning about the existence of the White House taping system, the Senate committee, Special Prosecutor Cox, and Judge Sirica ordered all tapes considered relevant to Watergate to be turned over. Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege. By August the matter was in court. Nixon addressed the nation on August 15, 1973, explaining to the people why confidential conversations between the president and his advisors should not be made a matter of public record. Lawyers for the Watergate Committee and Special Prosecutor’s office argued that conversations dealing with matters of potential illegality should not be suppressed by claims of executive privilege.

Changing definitions of silence were central to shaping both the public perception of Watergate and the ways in which the prosecution developed their arguments. During the initial stages of the Watergate investigation, the existence of the White House taping system was not known and therefore Nixon’s refusal to speak on the grounds that his testimony might incriminate him marked his body as the initial locus of silence. When the discovery of the White House taping system was made public and with it the existence the vast tape archive, the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that Nixon must turn over the tapes to presiding Judge Sirica. Nixon countered with an offer to provide edited transcripts of the tapes, which were woefully inadequate. Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, transcribed all the White House recordings whether made under full disclosure and consent using the Secret Service equipment or covertly by the jerry-rigged concealed microphones and Sony 800B.

In Nixon’s follow-up (January 30th) State of the Union address, he insisted that “the prosecutor has been given all the materials that he needs”. However the reluctant cooperation of the Executive Office did not result in the handover any of materials relating to the dates in question around the Watergate break-in. As public criticism mounted, including calls for his impeachment, Nixon eventually relented and agreed to surrender most of the missing tapes. Although the White House always claimed that certain tapes subject to the subpoena did not actually exist. As the Grand Jury proceedings unfolded, silence consequently shifted from the aphasiatic body of the President to the absence of the subpoenaed tapes and upon their recovery to the 18-1/2 minute gap in Tape 342 itself. Through this sequence of juridical displacements, silence was reconfigured as the very means by which material artefacts could begin to speak for themselves. Although Nixon would continue to maintain his resolute silence, the tapes, including the gap, could now testify in his place. Once evidentiary silence was relocated to the tapes, Nixon’s live testimony became largely irrelevant, as he was already literally on-the-record. Moreover, the series of clicking noises distributed throughout the 18-1/2 minute tape-gap offered circumstantial evidence that a process of clumsy erasure had occurred raising the possibility that this machined silence was the consequence of a deliberate act. Controlling the discourse around silence proved to be a decisive strategy in turning the tide against Nixon in favour of the opposition.

“Next to a man’s wife, his secretary is the most important person in his career. She has to understand every detail of his job; to have unquestioning loyalty and absolute discretion. On every count Rose measures up. I’m a lucky man.”[1]—Richard Nixon, 1957

When news of the tape’s potential tampering was made public, Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods (now deceased) made two rather contradictory public statements. In her court testimony of November 8 1973 she asserted her secretarial competency, flatly denying ever making any stupid transcription errors when handling the tape recorder. “The buttons said on and off, forward and backward. I caught on to that fairly fast. I don’t think I’m so stupid as to erase what’s on a tape.”[2] However a month later, under cross-examination in a federal courtroom, she told a rather confused story of how she might after all have made “a terrible mistake” and been partially responsible for the glitch. Woods claimed that while she had been transcribing the tape on her UHER 5000, the telephone suddenly rang causing her foot to press the wrong pedal thus producing the erasure.

Summoned by the imperative ringing of the phone, summoned to speak in court, to testify, Rose Mary Woods had been called to action, both to explain her actions and ultimately the actions of her boss. When audio experts later examined the tape they concluded that the RECORD/STOP/RECORD button had actually been pressed 5 to 9 times. The materials themselves told a different story thus refuting the loyal secretary’s attempted admission of guilt.


Rose Mary Woods re-enacting how she may have erased the tape while stretching to answer the phone. Photo #E1874-16A.

Etymologically speaking the secretary is the “keeper of secrets”. In providing the space for the unspooling of machinic speech she becomes the de facto repository for masculine discourse: speech acts performed [recorded] in the specialised domains proper to the masculine subject—the inner sanctum of the Oval Office, outside of her own feminine jurisdiction—the secretarial pool. The lack that Woods claimed to have inscribed within the tape appears to be an extension of her own subordination within the patriarchal operations of the White House. Is she as Plato and Socrates condemn a mere conduit for the voices of others—a device for channelling the audio dispatches that would broadcast Nixon into history? Is she unable to answer for herself as an embodied subject in the world, only ever able to repeat the texts that she transcribes, the orders that she follows? Like the imitative arts of painting and writing, the secretary when called to testify before the tribunal of history finds that her hands are literally tied to the typewriter and her ears plugged by the tape recorder.

“[A]s the presumed representatives of a spoken word, as agents capable of speech, as depositories or even fences for the words the court is trying to force out of them. If they should turn out not to be up to testifying in this hearing, if they turn out to be impotent to represent a live word properly, to act as its interpreter or spokesman, to sustain the conversation, to respond to oral questions, then bam! They are good for nothing. They are mere figurines, masks, simulacra.”[3]

Not content to let the gap stand as circumstantial evidence in relationship to a crime, the Prosecution sought direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in. And so in December of 1973, Tape 342 was escorted by six fully armed US Marshalls to the Federal Scientific Corp. in Harlem for testing. There the tape was met by another six court-appointed technical experts (an Advisory Panel of engineers and electronics specialists) entrusted with the forensic task of reviving the tape and bringing its latent speech acts back to life. Together they carried out over 200 hours of testing using spectrum and waveform analyses, digital signal processing equipment, which was an emerging technology at that time in addition to optical inspection of magnetic patterns made visible by “washing” the tapes in a fluid containing ferrite particles (which aligns themselves in congruence with the residual magnetic patterns on the tape). A process that I replicated last year on a copy of Tape 342 (along with AFM, STM scans) for a short photo-essay in Cabinet. Unfortunately for the audio experts, the tape maintained its stubborn silence, although I would argue that the tape is in fact not silent but resonant with acoustic information. After an extensive barrage of test, Tape 342 remains a hostile witness.


JR HR Haldeman & President Nixon in the Oval Office, 1972

Although the tape defied all technical efforts at conjuring its sound-ghosts, it was understood as harboring important trace evidence that might testify to Nixon’s criminality in the Watergate break-in. Fear of disturbing the remaining few magnetic particles that clung to the gap meant that after its initial testing, Tape 342 was sealed and deposited in the vaults of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). There it has lain undisturbed in cryogenic sleep for over thirty years, waiting for that moment when the kiss of technological progress will reawaken it. The archive leverages the partial erasure of Tape 342, against the projected forensics of the future, wagering that further developments in technology will restore its lost speech acts.

When a tape is erased, the erase head scatters its magnetic particles, scrambling its contents. This phenomenon doesn’t remove particles but radically reorients them through demagnetisation. The original recorded voice still clings to the tape but is ventriloquised by its machinic deterritorialisation as the presentness of absence. The more the tape is rewound and replayed, the more mobile or animated its particles become. In their temporal drifting across of the surface of the tape they produce a kind of latent noise or acoustic interference. But this should not be viewed negatively as an act of magnetic subterfuge, but rather, as one of the means that the machine has at its disposal to create new sounds and ‘meanings’. The very absence of meaning in noise says Jacques Attali frees the listener’s imagination because it unchannels auditory sensations. The absence of meaning is thus the presence of all possible meanings because it creates an open field for exploration. The concern for the fragility of Tape 342 and recovery of its covert speech acts has of necessity limited the number of times it has been played back. To-date proposed restoration techniques have relied upon methods of digital enhancement that still require the tape’s actual transit through the mechanical components of a machine. This physical encounter between artefact and apparatus is highly problematic for NARA, as each playback of the tape alters the relative location of its remaining metallic particles ever so slightly. Playback engenders transformation, in that it continually redrafts the surface contours of the tape with each successive rewind.

Following media theorist Janne Vanhanen, I would suggest that repetition or playback is a force-multiplier as each re-emergence of acoustic material, amplifies differences by emphasizing the gaps between successive repetitions of the system.[4] Such repetition is also form of returning that conjures forth sound-ghosts, a memory effect of magnetic recording in which the imprint of a previous recording mysteriously reappears. “Ghosts in machines always appear as malfunctions, glitches, interruptions in the normal flow of things. Something unexpected appears seemingly out of nothing and from nowhere. Through a malfunction, a glitch, we get a fleeting glimpse of an alien intelligence at work.”[5] This effect was first reported in 1947 when two new kinds of tapes were introduced with varying degrees of coercivity (resistance to demagnetisation) but also results from errant microns located at the edge of a recorded track which have escaped full erasure and haunt subsequent recordings. The latter phenomena, also known as hysteresis or remanence, are what Vanhanen has called the “ghostly unpresence of gaps in recorded time.” White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig (1973-74) actually suggested that the Nixon tape-gap was the result of “some sinister force.” The refusal to replay Tape 342 on NARA’s part signals a desire to remain in the suspended past-life of the tape in the hopes that Nixon’s sound-ghost will appear not through the repeat performances of the tape but through the exorcisms of new media technologies.

In 2001 the National Archives re-convened a scientific panel to evaluate whether forensic audio technology had advanced sufficiently to consider unsealing Tape 342 and resubmitting it to new modes of examination. Several unsuccessful “proof-of-concept exercises” were conducted using test-reels recorded on the original Nixon-era tape recorders over a period of two years. “Five expert groups participated in this round of testing which consisted of two test tapes recorded on an original Nixon White House Sony 800B tape recorder, then erased on Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods UHER 5000. The UHER 5000 was determined by the Advisory Panel to Judge Sirica in 1974 to be the machine that actually erased the 18 1⁄2-minute portion of Tape 342. John W. Carlin Chief Archivist attributed the failure in this new round of testing to the lack of suitable forensic technology.

UherUHER 5000 tape recorder, government exhibit No.60. 

“I am fully satisfied that we have explored all of the avenues to attempt to recover the sound on this tape. The candidates were highly qualified and used the latest technology in their pursuit. We will continue to preserve the tape in the hopes that later generations can try again to recover this vital piece of our history.”

Last year I decided to track down the same test copies of Tape 342 produced by the National Archives and contacted Paul Ginsberg, one of the forensic audio experts who had participated in their “proof-of-concept exercises” in 2002. Ginsberg reminded me that Tape 342 had, of course, never been unsealed again for this purpose and that while NARA had made test-reels using the similar recorders, it had not in fact made a copy of Tape 342. In order to assess the relative success of any recovered audio material, NARA would have had to have known exactly what information was recorded on the tape and erased prior to making it available for testing. (What they recorded remains a mystery.)

Because the discourse around the tape has turned on the rhetorical deficiency of the gap, whether named as silence or as an erasure that produced a breach in the historical record, my interest has alwves commitment to investigating the magnetic encodings of the tape and unlocking its secrets is tied to its conviction in technology’s progressive futurity, the tape’s status as mute has already been extensively undone by the sheer volume of speculation around what kind of lurid data lurks within; musings that far exceed what any one man can actually say in 18-1/2 minutes. It is this conception of the gap as producing an excess—what Derrida has called [following Rousseau] a dangerous supplement—regardless of how we might make sense of this surplus that continues to propel my interest in this media artefact. I contend that the tape-gap is now, in its state of archival deep-freeze, is more resonant with acoustic potential than it was at the time of its original voice recording in 1972. Tape 342 need not look to future forensic operations to extort a testimonial from its lingering magnetic tailings, for the recorded material and subsequent erasure already speaks to us in many complex ways and on several different registers. Nixon’s act of erasure rather than destroying the sonic transmissions of the tape radically reinvents the tape, renewing its orality/aurality so that it now speaks a kind of machinic glossolalia. In the end the evidentiary value of the recorded tape is that of noise which stands in the place of illegal speech.

Nixon resigns, 11:35 am August 9 1974.


Text by Susan Schuppli, presented at The Showroom, 25 February 2012


[1] Richard Nixon, in a press interview, 1957. Anon., “The Secretary and the Tapes Tangle,” Time Monday December 10 1973. P. 1.
[2] Anon., “The Secretary and the Tapes Tangle.”
[3] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Derrida, Dissemination. P. 137.
[4] Vanhanen, Loving the Ghost in the Machine: Aesthetics of Interruption. P. 5.
[5] Janne Vanhanen, Loving the Ghost in the Machine/Aesthetics of Interruption, 2001, ctheory, Available: www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=312, October 2005. P. 1.