Associated Press
January 22, 2002

Trouble Can Lead to Shredding Impulse

By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON -- G. Gordon Liddy remembers "shredding stuff left and right" after the Watergate break-in.

Oliver North says he fired up a shredder within earshot of top Justice officials as they pored over Iran-Contra documents.

Now comes the image of Enron employees furiously shredding on Christmas Day. Inside government and out, when there's a whiff of trouble, the impulse to shred is powerful.

"There is an almost instinctive urge to try to cover one's trail," said Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

That urge often leads to more trouble, feeding perceptions of guilt and raising questions about obstruction of justice.

Three decades after Watergate, people still speculate about what might have been spoken on the mysterious 18 1/2-minute gap in President Nixon's White House tapes.

In the case of Enron, lawyers for laid-off workers say the company began shredding hundreds of thousands of documents last fall after the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was investigating the company's finances. The alleged shredding went on seven days a week - even on Christmas, they claim. Enron says it had a strict anti-shredding policy in place.

New York University law professor Stephen Gillers says a lawyer's first advice to someone facing investigation ought to be "freeze."

"Nothing gets destroyed that is in any way connected with the subject of the proceeding," he said.

Oh, the intrigues America might have missed had such advice always been given and heeded.

Liddy, who planned the 1972 Watergate break-in, later told of hunting around his office for a higher-capacity shredder the next morning because a small one was too slow. "I was shredding stuff left and right," he said last year.

North testified during the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 that he was shredding documents even as Justice officials were reviewing papers in his office. "They could hear it," he said. "The shredder was right outside the door."

His secretary, Fawn Hall, testified that she and North fed a foot-and-a-half-tall stack of memos into the shredder one day, dumping in so much stuff that the machine jammed.

Nowadays, with the increasing use of e-mail and other electronic documents, it's easier than ever to destroy evidence - and harder than ever.

"One can certainly delete an enormous amount of electronic information at the push of a button," said Aftergood. But, he added, electronic records also leave footprints that can often be recovered.

Government investigators, in fact, are now making a new effort to retrieve the lost words from that 18 1/2-minute gap.

Nixon came to regret that he hadn't destroyed the audiotapes outright.

"The fat was in the fire," wrote Leonard Garment, who worked in the Nixon White House. "To Nixon's everlasting regret, the tapes were not."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press