Former president Richard M. Nixon backed away from forcing aging FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover from office in late 1971, in part because he feared Hoover would disclose the secret, White House-ordered wiretaps of reporters and National Security Council aides suspected of leaking information.

The wiretaps later became a basis for one of the impeachment counts against Nixon that the House Judiciary Committee adopted in 1974.

The apprehension about Hoover was part of 60 hours of tapes of Nixon White House conversations made public yesterday by the National Archives. The recordings underscore Nixon's direct and detailed involvement in the scandals that tarred his presidency.

All of the recordings had been delivered to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force in the 1970s, but approximately 28 hours of the conversations were never previously released to the public.

The tapes illustrate Nixon's intimate involvement not only in the coverup of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee offices here, which became known as the Watergate scandal, but also in other controversies that eventually led to his resignation.

The tapes, for example, show Nixon directing strategy in the 1972 Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney General-designate Richard G. Kleindienst as they bogged down in controversy over the settlement the previous year of an antitrust case against the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.

Nixon had ordered Kleindienst "to drop the goddamn thing" in an April 19, 1971, phone call because, as he said, trust-busters in the Justice Department were equating bigness with badness in seeking the breakup of burgeoning conglomerates.

"I don't know whether ITT is bad, good or indifferent. But there is not going to be any more antitrust action as long as I am in this chair," Nixon told aides just before talking with Kleindienst.

The Justice Department announced a settlement favorable to ITT in July 1971, triggering charges that the arrangement stemmed from an ITT pledge of $400,000 to help finance the 1972 Republican National Convention.

Ironically, the tapes support Nixon's version that he ordered settlement of the ITT case on principle, but show he then created another problem for himself in 1972 as he orchestrated strategy for the Kleindienst hearings.

On March 30, 1972, Nixon was warned by White House aide Charles W. Colson that documents Colson had unearthed could tie Nixon to the settlement and cause "an explosion."

"I've looked at every shred of paper and . . . it scares the living daylights out of me," Colson said.

"There's no problem," Nixon insisted at one point, saying he had decided the case on its merits.

Haldeman, who was present, agreed, then had second thoughts. He said "it's a hell of a problem" because Attorney General John N. Mitchell and other witnesses had testified under oath that Nixon was not involved in the settlement.

What was worse, Nixon was told, was that a memo from White House aide John D. Ehrlichman implicated the president in "the agreed-upon ends in the ITT case."

"Does John always write memoranda to people . . . ? " Nixon asked in apparent exasperation. "He shouldn't. He should use the goddamned phone."

ITT's files, Colson said, had been delivered to the Securities and Exchange Commission and were also "damaging" because they "contradict testimony we've given so far . . . . "

Haldeman: "Teddy {Kennedy (D-Mass.)} knows that the SEC has those files."

Colson: "He's asked for them."

Nixon: "What does the SEC say?"

Colson: "Well, Bill Casey {then SEC chairman, later CIA director under President Ronald Reagan} says he's got it under control."

Haldeman: "Glad we got Casey there."

Instead of sending the files to Capitol Hill, Casey had them transferred to the Justice Department, a gambit that led congressional Democrats to complain for years, without effect, that it amounted to obstruction of justice.

Another tape, in October 1971, showed that Nixon wanted to get Hoover out but was afraid to try to force his resignation for fear the 77-year-old FBI director would "pull down the temple with him, including me."

At an Oct. 8, 1971, meeting devoted to trying to think of ways to get Hoover to resign, Mitchell told Nixon and Ehrlichman that the FBI director was "tearing the place up over {at the Justice Department} trying to get at" tapes and logs of the wiretapped conversations.

Ehrlichman said Hoover wanted them because they would give him "leverage with Mitchell and with you . . . because they're illegal."

If Hoover had copies, Ehrlichman told the president, "He'll beat you over the head with it."

The wiretaps on reporters came up again on Oct. 25, 1971, when another Oval Office conversation turned to what to do about Hoover.

This time, Nixon described Hoover as a man who was being unfairly attacked by liberal critics rather than as a problem to liberals and conservatives alike. While admitting that "Hoover upsets me," Nixon failed to decide what to do about him.

During the Oct. 25 meeting, Nixon gave a clear indication of the fear he felt about any public disclosure of the wiretaps.

The name of William Sullivan, who had been No. 3 in the FBI, in charge of investigative activities, enters the conversation. Sullivan was, according to Ehrlichman, "the man who executed all of your {the president's} instructions for the secret taps." Hoover had forced Sullivan to retire earlier that month.

After being assured that Sullivan "knows all of them {the taps}," Nixon asked: "Will he rat on us?"

"Uh, it depends on how he's treated," Ehrlichman replied.

Nixon then responded: "Can we do anything for him? I think we better."

After leaving the FBI, Sullivan worked briefly in the private sector, then returned to the Justice Department the next year as director of a drug enforcement project.

Hoover remained in office until his death on May 2, 1972. And he looked much better to Nixon after he was gone.

On March 1, 1973, the transcripts of the White House tapes show, the president was almost beside himself over testimony that Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray had just given at his Senate confirmation hearings about Watergate-related matters.

Gray said that as far as he was concerned, FBI records were "available to any senator" who wanted them.

"For Christ's sake, he must be out of his mind," Nixon declared. The FBI had never been so generous when he, Nixon, was a House member investigating the activities of State Department official Alger Hiss.

"Hoover also felt this -- the government never, it wouldn't allow Hoover even to talk to me," Nixon protested.

If Gray provided records to the Senate, Nixon said, "the House will insist on the same rights . . . {and} you'll have Bella Abzug {a New York Democrat and vocal critic of Nixon} asking for FBI stuff . . . . What the hell is he going to say? . . . . Some of those congressmen are, are damn near under communist discipline. That's the reason Hoover would never do it."

White House counsel John W. Dean III interjected: "Some of them are from the Mafia, no doubt they're backed by the Mafia."

"You know," Nixon reflected a few minutes later, "Hoover was the guy . . . . Even at the later times, there was senility and everything . . . . He wasn't perfect, but he ran a tight ship. Goddamn it, that's the way."

The transcripts include some material previously disclosed. In a May 5, 1971, meeting, for example, Haldeman told Nixon about some of the "dirty tricks" that had already been played against his top potential 1972 Democratic opponent, then-Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine). Amid laughter, Haldeman talked about "Chapin's crew," a reference to Dwight L. Chapin, Nixon's appointment secretary, who had hired Donald H. Segretti as one of his political saboteurs.

Several tapes in early 1973, when the Senate Watergate Committee was gearing up for its hearings, show Nixon and his aides in lengthy meetings trying to limit likely political damage from open hearings.

They also show how aware Nixon was of the details of the attempted coverup and his constant fears that those under investigation would "crack" and implicate him and senior administration officials in that effort.

On Feb. 14, Nixon told Ehrlichman: "Now damn it, we just can't have the appearance of a coverup." But a few minutes later, worried that investigators would uncover other White House misdeeds, he asks Ehrlichman, "How did you get {Watergate burglar E. Howard} Hunt's safe?"

He is told that Ehrlichman and Dean took an envelope "full of stuff" from the safe and turned it over to Gray with instructions to get rid of it.

Nixon wonders whether Gray, whom he later nominated for FBI director, will reveal this if asked about it at his confirmation hearings.

"But really the problem is that one of these guys {under investigation} could crack," Nixon observed. "One of them could. The one, the one that could crack that it would really hurt would be Hunt . . . . "

Nine days later, he again tells Ehrlichman, "The coverup is worse than whatever comes out. It really is . . . . Unless, unless somebody is gonna go to jail. I'm not going to let anybody go to jail. That I promise you. That is the worst."

Staff writer Al Kamen and staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Mary Lou White contributed to this report.