A Brief History Of Secret Recordings

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the latest victim in what has become a tradition in American politics. i i

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the latest victim in what has become a tradition in American politics. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

itoggle caption J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the latest victim in what has become a tradition in American politics.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the latest victim in what has become a tradition in American politics.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Secret recordings are becoming a tradition in American politics.

Like buttons, bunting and backslapping at barbecues, surreptitious audio and/or video surprises continue to pop up in political settings — with more and more frequency.

The latest is an unauthorized recording of a tough-talking strategy session held by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his 2014 re-election campaign staffers. A focal point of the covert recording — a copy of which was leaked to Mother Jones — was potential McConnell opponent Ashley Judd.

The McConnell camp says the eavesdroppers were engaged in "Watergate-era tactics" and the FBI is looking into the matter.

We here at NPR (no strangers to being secretly recorded) are also reminded of the clandestine tapings by President Nixon and a timeline of other undercover episodes. Here is a sampling.

Taped In Secret, Told In Headlines

  • 1971-1973: President Richard Nixon

    President Richard Nixon
    Charles Tasnadi/AP

    Nixon installs hidden, voice-activated audiotaping equipment in the White House. Over a period of two years, he keeps tabs on hundreds of conversations. Many of the secret Nixon tapes — some 3,700 hours, with at least one famous gap — eventually come to light and are available to the public.

  • 1990: Washington Mayor Marion Barry

    This frame from an FBI videotape used during his trial shows then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a hotel room on Jan. 18, 1990. i i

    This frame from an FBI videotape used during his trial shows then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a hotel room on Jan. 18, 1990. Barry Thumma/AP hide caption

    itoggle caption Barry Thumma/AP
    This frame from an FBI videotape used during his trial shows then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a hotel room on Jan. 18, 1990.

    This frame from an FBI videotape used during his trial shows then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a hotel room on Jan. 18, 1990.

    Barry Thumma/AP

    "Bitch set me up," Barry says when he discovers he has been secretly videotaped — by the FBI and the D.C. police — while allegedly smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with a gal-pal. Barry goes to prison, then is re-elected mayor.

  • 1996: House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
    Tyler Mallory/AP

    A circle of House Republican bigwigs, including Gingrich of Georgia and John Boehner of Ohio, join a conference call about an ethics committee investigation of Gingrich. Unbeknownst to them, two people secretly record the confab. The listeners-in pass a copy on to Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and he leaks it to the world. Boehner eventually sues McDermott, who is forced to pay damages.

  • 1998: Pentagon Employee Linda Tripp

    Linda Tripp secretly taped phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky, which ultimately led to President Clinton's impeachment. i i
    Mark Wilson/Reuters/Landov
    Linda Tripp secretly taped phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky, which ultimately led to President Clinton's impeachment.
    Mark Wilson/Reuters/Landov

    Without consent, Tripp records lots of phone chats with friend Monica Lewinsky, who is involved in an inappropriate relationship with President Clinton. "You know what's really weird? I keep hearing these double-clicks," Lewinsky says in the recordings. "That's my gum," Tripp replies. The tapes lead to impeachment for Clinton and illegal recording charges against Tripp that are eventually dropped.

  • 2008: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    When federal agents suspect Blagojevich of corruption, they tap his telephone. Unwittingly, Blagojevich speaks of many things, including his power to appoint someone to Obama's soon-to-be empty Senate seat: "I've got this thing and it's f - - - - - - golden and I'm just not giving it up for f - - - - - - nothing." The Democrat is eventually impeached, removed from office and sent to jail.

  • 2008: Sen. Barack Obama

    Then-Sen. Barack Obama i i
    Brennan Linsley/AP
    Then-Sen. Barack Obama
    Brennan Linsley/AP

    Speaking privately to wealthy backers, the Democratic presidential hopeful says some small-town Americans are upset. "And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." A blogger records the remarks; Obama regrets them.

  • 2012: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney

    Former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. i i
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
    Former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

    The Republican presidential candidate is caught on camera at a closed-door Florida fundraiser, opining that "47 percent" of voters would never support him and that they are "dependent upon government ... believe that they are victims ... believe the government has a responsibility to care for them ... [and] pay no income tax." The "47 percent" quip haunts Romney's campaign.

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