In the year before Watergate, President Richard M. Nixon became so obsessed with information leaks from his administration that a system was set up to track down leakers and punish them, according to documents released for the first time yesterday.

And at the height of the scandal, Nixon suggested that the Internal Revenue Service audit all members of Congress and was ready with a cover story if questions were raised, the papers show.

Nixon discussed the tax audit scheme in a March 12, 1973, "eyes only" memorandum to White House aide H.R. Haldeman.

"What happened to the suggestion that the IRS should run audits on all members of the Congress?" Nixon wrote.

"What I have in mind is that the IRS run audits of all top members of the White House staff, all members of the Cabinet and all members of Congress," Nixon wrote. "It could be said, if any questions are raised, that this is what we are doing because of letters we have received indicating that people in government do not get IRS checks because of their special position."

On the issue of leakers, Haldeman agreed that in severe cases "direct means, FBI, polygraphs, etc." be employed.

Fred Malek, a White House aide, was put in charge of the "leaks project" by Haldeman in September 1971 after Nixon complained about leaks, the documents show.

Three months later, he reported that "12 leaks were uncovered in the last two weeks" and were being tracked.

The documents were among 800,000 pages of Nixon administration papers opened yesterday by the National Archives at a warehouse in Alexandria.