Haig said the fears were aired at a White House meeting on the evening of Nov. 20, the day before the President’s lawyers apprehensively reported the erasure to U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica.
At that point, Haig said, the lawyers were convinced that President Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, could not have caused the two-toned humming noise that obliterated the tape for an 18 1/4-minute interval.
Miss Woods has testified that she might have caused a five-minute gap in the recording, but, she insisted, no more than that.
The erasure obliterated a June 20, 1972, discussion of the Watergate scandal between the President and former White House chief of staff H.R. (Bob) Haldeman. The 18 1/4-minute segment was drowned out by a long humming noise that drops noticeably in volume after the five-minute mark.
Haig said this was “a source of great distress” to White House lawyers.
As a result, he said, they discussed the possibility that “perhaps there had been one tone applied by Miss Woods . . . and then perhaps some sinister force had come in and applied the other energy source and taken care of the information on that tape.”
Judge Sirica broke in and asked Haig: “Has anyone ever suggested who that sinister force might be?”
Haig said, “No, your Honor.” He said he told the lawyers that they should first find out who had been given access to the recording.
White House records indicate that only Miss Woods and presidential assistant Stephen Bull were given the tape since it was subpoenaed last July. They got the recording last Sept. 29 after Mr. Nixon asked Miss Woods to summarize the highlights for him. Bull was told to help her.
Miss Woods said she might have caused a five-minute gap in the tape when she accidentally pushed the wrong button on a recording machine in her office Oct. 1 during the course of a short phone call.
Haig made clear to newsmen after yesterday’s hearing that he now thinks Miss Woods was responsible for the entire erasure -- despite her testimony that the phone call lasted only about 5 minutes. She said she noticed her mistake as soon as she hung up the phone.
“I’ve known women who think they’ve talked for five minutes and then have talked for an hour,” Haig said.
Miss Woods began reviewing the recording on Sept. 29 at Camp David. At one point, she has said, Mr. Nixon came in for a few minutes and monitored a few excerpts, “pushing the buttons back and forth.”
Haig was asked by reporters whether he had ever asked the President if he could have erased anything.
Haig, looking somewhat pained, shook his head negatively.
During his testimony, Mr. Nixon’s chief of staff also admitted that White House officials hesitated to disclose the 18 1/4-minute erasure when it was first discovered, partly because of fears of how it would look to the American public.