Profile: Alexander Butterfield
Alexander Butterfield was a participant or observer in the following events:
President Nixon, regretting his removal of the secret tape recorders in the White House left behind by former president Lyndon Johnson, orders the installation of a sophisticated, secret taping system in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room, which will, when activated, record every spoken word and telephone conversation in either chamber (see July 13-16, 1973). The Oval Office’s microphones will be voice-activated; the Cabinet Room’s with a switch. Nixon orders his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to see to the installation, and to keep it extremely quiet. Haldeman delegates the installation to aides Lawrence Higby and Alexander Butterfield. Haldeman decides the Army Signal Corps should not install the system because someone in that group might report back to the Pentagon; instead he has the Secret Service’s technical security division install it. The work is done late at night; five microphones are embedded in Nixon’s Oval Office desk, and two more in the wall light fixtures on either side of the fireplace, over the couch and chairs where Nixon often greets visitors. All three phones are wiretapped. By February 16, the system in both chambers is in place. All conversations are recorded on Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders, with Secret Service agents changing the reels every day and storing the tapes in a small, locked room in the Executive Office Building. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 305]
’Newsweek’ cover on the revelation of the White House taping system. [Source: Ideobook.net]White House aide Alexander Butterfield shocks the Senate Watergate Committee with his revelation of a secret recording system in the White House. Butterfield reveals that since 1971, President Nixon has been recording every conversation and telephone call in the Oval Office. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] Butterfield is actually the aide who, at Nixon’s request, had the taping system installed. [Sussman, 1974] He is now the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Taping System Installed in 1970 at Nixon's Behest - Butterfield says the taping system was installed in the spring or summer of 1970, but corrects his testimony after committee chairman Sam Ervin reads him a letter from Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt stating that the first time the system was used was the spring of 1971; Butterfield then says the system was installed at that time (see February 1971). The system was installed and operated by Secret Service agents. Asked why Nixon would have such a system, Butterfield replies, perhaps ingenuously, “There was no doubt in my mind they were installed to record things for posterity, for the Nixon library.” Committee counsel Samuel Dash says the committee will request selected tapes to hear for themselves. Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox is also expected to request some of the tapes. Dash acknowledges that two other Nixon aides, H. R. Haldeman and Lawrence Higby, were also asked about the existence of the taping system, but both have refused to confirm the existence of the device. [Washington Post, 7/17/1973] Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander Haig, also knew of the taping system, but Kissinger himself did not know. Former White House counsel John Dean suspected that such a system existed. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 331]
'Small Fry' - Butterfield is described by one reporter as a “small fry,” the man responsible for keeping Nixon’s schedule and handling paper flow. On July 13, three committee staff members prepare Butterfield for his public testimony of July 16. They ask whether there is a White House recording system, but are not prepared for Butterfield’s answer, or the ramifications of his admission. Butterfield makes the same admission three days later, in open testimony before the committee and the television cameras, and in more detail. [Houston Chronicle, 6/7/1997] Butterfield explains his reluctance to discuss the recording system by saying, “It is very obvious that this could be—I cannot say that any longer—is embarrassing to our government.” [Washington Post, 7/17/1973]
No Longer Dean's Word Against Nixon's - During preparation, when the staff members ask Butterfield how the White House could have such detailed knowledge of the conversations, Butterfield replies: “I was hoping you guys wouldn’t ask me that.… Well, yes, there’s a recording system in the White House.” Nixon had had five voice-activated microphones placed in his desk in the Oval Office and two in wall lamps by the office fireplace, Butterfield reveals. More were in the Cabinet Room, Nixon’s “hideaway” office in the Old Executive Office Building, and even at Camp David, the presidential retreat. Before Butterfield’s testimony, Nixon and his top legal advisers felt they could duck and deny the worst charges against them. They feel that much of the Watergate imbroglio boils down to Nixon’s word against White House whistleblower John Dean (who had informed the committee that he suspected a recording system existed), and as Haig, who succeeded Haldeman as Nixon’s chief of staff, told Nixon: “Nobody in Congress likes [Dean]. We can take the son of a b_tch on.” Few in the White House know of Nixon’s secret and extensive taping system. Although senior Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman had told the few aides who do know of the system to invoke executive privilege and refuse to discuss it, Haig quietly told at least one aide, his former deputy Lawrence Higby, to “tell the truth” if asked under oath. Nixon’s lawyers had effectively rebutted Dean’s earlier testimony when Buzhardt secretly supplied a sympathetic Senate lawyer with highly detailed, nearly verbatim accounts of Nixon and Dean’s private conversations—accounts drawn from the secret tapes. Haig will later claim to be “shocked” at Butterfield’s revelation, saying, “It never occurred to me that anyone in his right mind would install anything so Orwellian as a system that never shut off, that preserved every word, every joke, every curse, every tantrum, every flight of presidential paranoia, every bit of flattery and bad advice and tattling by his advisers.” In reality, Haig had known of the system for months before Butterfield’s testimony, and had advised Nixon to have the tapes destroyed before the Watergate prosecutors could get their hands on them. [Washington Post, 7/17/1973; Werth, 2006, pp. 81-82] “Without the tapes,” reporter Mike Feinsilber will write in 1997, “it was unlikely Nixon would have had to give up the presidency.” [Houston Chronicle, 6/7/1997] Butterfield was considered so unimportant that, had Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein not pressured committee lawyers to interview him, the committee may not have bothered with him. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 330-331]
Entity Tags: H.R. Haldeman, Mike Feinsilber, John Dean, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Lawrence Higby, Alexander Butterfield, Fred Buzhardt, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Richard M. Nixon, Nixon administration
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
White House special counsel Richard Moore, who testifies to the Senate Watergate Committee before former White House aide Alexander Butterfield admits to the existence of a secret White House taping system (see July 13-16, 1973), insists that it is his “firm conviction” that President Nixon knew nothing of the cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy until March 21, 1973 (see March 21, 1973). Moore recalls an April 19 conversation with Nixon, in which Nixon allegedly said that then-White House counsel John Dean had told Nixon of the cover-up on March 21. According to Moore, Dean also told Nixon about the demands for “hush money” from convicted Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt to keep Hunt quiet about his knowledge of the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (see September 9, 1971). Terry Lenzner, one of the committee’s lawyers, reads White House log summaries made by Republican committee counsel Fred Thompson, summaries that have been verified as accurate by White House officials. Moore refuses to acknowledge that those log summaries are accurate reflections of conversations held by Nixon. Moore says that he had concluded on March 20 that Nixon “could not be aware of the things that Mr. Dean was worried about,” including the cover-up and the potential of it being publicly revealed. Lenzner asks: “Mr. Moore, do you agree now that your understanding of the president’s information and knowledge was basically incorrect. That he did, in fact, have information at that meeting… on March 20 concerning [Gordon] Strachan [an aide to Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman] and also possible involvement in Watergate and also involving the Ellsberg break-in?” Moore replies: “You have heard my statement on that, of course, that [Nixon] did not, that it was my judgment that he did not. I know of nothing to change that.” Dean has testified that on March 13 he told Nixon of Strachan’s possible involvement with the cover-up, and on March 17 he told Nixon of the Ellsberg break-in, testimony substantiated by the White House log summaries. Moore suggests that the committee ask someone who was at those meetings. Moore’s testimony will be proven false by the so-called “Nixon tapes.” [Washington Post, 7/17/1973]
Entity Tags: H.R. Haldeman, Daniel Ellsberg, Alexander Butterfield, E. Howard Hunt, Gordon Strachan, Nixon administration, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, John Dean, Fred Thompson, Richard Moore, Richard M. Nixon, Terry Lenzner
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.