When I was a student at the University of Virginia, I interned for the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Program through which I transcribed hundreds of hours of secretly recorded White House tapes. Presidents from the Eisenhower Administration to the Nixon Administration secretly recorded their conversations in the Oval Office, Executive Office Building, and Camp David. I mostly transcribed President Nixon's tapes, but I also transcribed a few of Pres. Kennedy's and Pres. LBJ's tapes.

I mentioned this in a /r/todayilearned thread about Pres. Nixon's secretly recorded tapes and received requests to do a AMA: https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/6at8be/til_richard_nixon_possessed_3700_hours_of_taped/dhhp6xp/

More about the Presidential Recordings Program: https://millercenter.org/about-presidential-recordings-program

My Proof: I'm happy to send my internship offer letter/ other email correspondence with my supervisor to an admin.

Edit: I because I pasted the wrong link earlier.

Comments: 38 • Responses: 12  • Date: 

tellMyBossHesWrong12 karma

So, any news lately seem familiar?

defkatatak14 karma

Haha yes, that's why I decided/ was asked to do a AMA! I think that presidents should secretly record their conversations in the interest of transparency and historical analysis. As far as most know, the secret recordings stopped with Pres. Nixon after Watergate, but I wouldn't be surprised if they continued. That said, the tapes shouldn't be a political tool to be used by a president (like Pres. Trump)- they should be an apolitical, historical tool.

tellMyBossHesWrong4 karma

I'm sure there are many interesting things you heard that you can't talk about! Didn't you have to sign an NDA?

defkatatak8 karma

I didn't have to sign a NDA. :) All of the tapes are public (http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/). There were some sections of the tapes which were redacted before they even got to me, however. I don't remember which agency redacted them, but I can look through my notes/ emails.

Most of the tapes I transcribed had been listened to already, but they hadn't been transcribed for publication. The tapes were most famously used to take down Nixon for Watergate, but recent discoveries have emerged from the tapes as well. For example, 2013 analysis of the tapes showed that Pres. Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War for political gain: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/nixon-prolonged-vietnam-war-for-political-gainand-johnson-knew-about-it-newly-unclassified-tapes-suggest-3595441/

Edit: Added some more detail

tellMyBossHesWrong5 karma

How interesting! What a story to live!

defkatatak8 karma

Thank you! To be fair, most of the tapes I described were pretty mundane. The ones I hated transcribing the most were when Pres. Nixon would meet with VIPs and celebrities. He would give the same spiel about the Oval Office, give them cufflinks or some other small token, point out the presidential seal, and take photos.

tellMyBossHesWrong3 karma

Did you hear the Elvis one?

defkatatak5 karma

Haha nope, but I just looked it up and it is hilarious! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgMTWcfA96E

trapsmightbegay6 karma

How do you feel about privacy and security in civilians and public figures and the difference between the two in those terms?

defkatatak14 karma

I think that public figures have a lesser right to privacy than civilians since they act on behalf of the public. I think that all presidents should record their conversations, but I don't think they need to be made available to the public immediately. They should be used for historical context, not contemporaneous politicking.

trapsmightbegay6 karma

That's a valid position, do you think that they have a right to a private life? The example that comes to mind is Hulk Hogan's scandal because he said a racial slur in his home.

defkatatak7 karma

Fair point, although I think elected officials should be held to a higher standard than celebrities like Hulk Hogan, since electeds serve the public directly. IMO elected officials deserve a private life at home with their family, but not when they are in official meetings.

Also, Pres. Nixon also used lots of racial slurs and anti-Semitic and sexist language, just like many of the other presidents did. Of course in Nixon's case, all of that is overshadowed by Watergate.

trapsmightbegay-9 karma

Fair point, thanks for the discourse. One more question because I ask everybody it: Are traps gay?

defkatatak6 karma

Uh... I'm not sure they have a sexual orientation haha!

amalia_lillian6 karma

Prior to this type of work, did you have a particular mindset, and did it change as a result of the "insider" knowledge, even if it was a "Monday morning quarterback" situation?

defkatatak10 karma

Interesting question! I've always been interested in politics and history, but I admittedly didn't know much about Pres. Nixon before I started transcribing his tapes beyond the Watergate scandal. I learned a lot about the day to day responsibilities of a president, such as meeting with staff members, debating appointees, planning campaign activity, entertaining VIPs in the White House, and trying to spin the news. I still think Pres. Nixon was a bad president, but I have a better understanding of who he was and what his motivations were. I spent so much time listening to his conversations that I consider him a "crazy uncle" type figure. Also, I came to realize how insecure and desperate he was (he would get drunk and talk to White House paintings and was desperate for validation from his staffers) and sort of felt sad for him.

RockNRollMama3 karma

Having seen/heard direct sources of WH information, and knowing that a President essentially has no privacy, what do you think about current (and past) White House "spin" on information? In other words, why do you think anyone would lie to the media knowing that there are recordings that show an exact opposite or different account?

defkatatak6 karma

That's a good question. The lies work in the short term and can deflect immediate attention from the issue. The tapes may eventually prove the president wrong, but they might not be released until after the presidency (unless they are subpoenaed during an impeachment like in Pres Nixon's case).

Regarding current White House spin-- while Pres. Trump has alluded to having recordings of Mr. Comey, it can't be proven. Presidents stopped systematically recording conversations after Pres Nixon, so we can't be sure that Pres. Trump is recording convos. I wouldn't be surprised if Pres. Trump just assumed that he was being recorded, and I also wouldn't be surprised if Pres. Trump just remembers thing differently. I recently read that it is possible that Pres. Obama secretly recorded convos during his time in the WH, but I can't find the article now.

Update: According to the Presidential Recordings Act, a presidential administration can hold on to private recordings for up to 12 years. So lying buys them 12 years at least.

potatoplumber2 karma

Was it a common occurrence that what you were listening to distracted you from transcribing it?

defkatatak5 karma

I transcribed by listening to 10 second segments on loop, so I didn't really see the big picture til the end (and thus couldn't get too distracted). Due to the poor audio quality of most tapes, it took me 1 hour to transcribe just 10 minutes of tapes

todayIact2 karma

Which are the best parts?

defkatatak6 karma

Most famously, the White House tapes helped take down Nixon during Watergate. The Miller Center also lists other important discoveries from the tapes (http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/content/nixon) such as how Pres. Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War for political gain during the election and a behind the scenes look of how Nixon and Kissinger negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) concerning the control of nuclear weapons.

Most of the tapes I personally transcribed were often mundane (meetings with VIPs, discussions with his aids, etc). A couple of conversations that stick out was Pres. Nixon negotiating with other heads of state to remove Taiwan from the United Nation to appease China and Pres. Nixon attempts to form an unusual alliance with labor unions (who usually vote Democratic) when he was up for election. It was also just interesting to hear the daily life of a president, the internal politics, and his insecurities.

amalia_lillian1 karma

I work in a highly politicized field, and know that what the media says isn't always so.

Do you have any examples of this in relation to prior presidents? Something the average person would be surprised to know, regardless of positive or negative?

I would think it's easier to see their humanity in this type of experience.....

defkatatak5 karma

I mostly transcribed Pres Nixon's tapes, so I can only really speak to him. People don't know much about him beyond his role in Watergate. While he undoubtedly was selfish and willing to do anything to stay in power, he also had a lot of insecurities. Listening to him for so long, I came to sympathize with him in a way. He wanted to be liked and stay in power, and there are some times when it was so obvious that he just wanted the approval/ validation of this aides.

The Miller Center has some cool examples of positive and negative things scholars have learned from the tapes (http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/content/nixon) such as how Pres. Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War for political gain during the election but also a behind the scenes look of how Nixon and Kissinger negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) concerning the control of nuclear weapons.