WASHINGTON - The National Archives is bringing together investigators to search for scribbled secrets from the early days of the Watergate scandal as the chain of events began that destroyed Richard Nixon's presidency.
The elusive goal is to find out what Nixon and an aide discussed during the infamous 18½-minute gap in a White House tape recording of a meeting held three days after burglars linked to the president's re-election committee broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex, then an office building in Washington.
Experts have failed to unlock mysteries from the erased tape itself over the years.
Now, scientists are turning their attention to two pages of notes taken during that June 20, 1972, meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman.
They will search for clues that incriminating pages are missing and try to reconstruct what Haldeman, a prolific note-taker on yellow legal pads, might have written on them.
Nixon's longtime personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, testified in court that she inadvertently erased the 18½-minute segment from the tape. It was widely believed to have included evidence of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate event.
The questions of what Nixon knew and when were central in the investigation of the Watergate coverup, and it caused a sensation when special prosecutors learned of the gap in one of the recordings they had subpoenaed.
The archives said Wednesday it is convening a forensic team from the Library of Congress, the Treasury Department's inspector general's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to do the detective work. Test results are expected to be known early in 2010.
Among the advanced tools for the task is electrostatic detection analysis. The technology is capable of detecting and highlighting indented images, such as those left on a sheet of paper when a pen has written on a sheet above it. This might show evidence that certain pages were destroyed and even point to words long lost to history.
Nixon historians are excited about the prospect of confirming whether a gap exists in the notes that corresponds with the gap in the recording.
"My best scholarly guess - and there has certainly been a lot of speculation in the past 35 years about what is on the gap - is that Nixon asked Haldeman if anyone in the White House had advance knowledge of the Watergate break-in," said Luke A. Nichter, a Texas A&M University assistant history professor who is a leading authority on the Nixon White House recordings.
Techniques known as hyperspectral imaging and video spectral comparison also will be used to study the ink and look for hidden clues to missing material.
The first page of Haldeman's notes is routine, mostly concerning a letter to be written to South Dakota's governor.
The other page reflects Nixon's fear that the Executive Office Building office where they were meeting might be bugged.
It goes on to deal with Nixon's critics during the first blush of the scandal when the president asked: "What is our counterattack?" and demanding a public relations "offensive to top this."
"Hit the opposition w their activities," say the notes. "We shld be on the attack - for diversion."
The existing notes roughly correspond with portions of the tape that can be heard, historians say.
The question is whether missing notes, if any, can be gleaned from those papers and whether they will clear up one of enduring mysteries from that time.