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Are Court Proceedings Taped?

Updated: Mar 18

President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation from the White House. He had numerous secret recording devices installed in the Oval Office.

Senator Thompson: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?”

Alexander Butterfield: (five-second pause) “I was aware of listening devices, yes sir”

Thompson: “When were those devices placed in the Oval Office?”

Butterfield: (six-second pause) “Approximately the Summer of 1970, I cannot begin to recall the precise date…”


-          Testimony of Alexander Butterfield before the Senate Watergate Committee, 16 July 1973.



Taking names


“I’ve got a little black book” a District Court Judge once told me with a smile, “and into that book I put the name of every solicitor that has taken me to the High Court”.


He wasn’t kidding. The man’s memory was elephantine. He never forgot a face or a slight. He also had a volcanic temper.

The combination was combustible.

As a lawyer if you 'complained' one of his decisions to the High Court he never forgot.

Ever. You had nowhere to hide.

The sight of that head swiveling towards you in open court, like the rotating turret of a tank, spelled your imminent doom.


Judges dislike being ‘Judicially Reviewed’ (JR) by their brethren in the High Court over decisions they have made. Some see it as a form of playground “tattle-tales”, running with stories.

 Others look on it as a personal insult. Resentments are not uncommon.

Some have been known to bear a grudge so fierce against a lawyer that has ‘reviewed’ them in the High Court that it burns with an intensity that years cannot blunt.


“Look at them” one Judge was heard to mutter pointing to an extra 'T' in his surname on a High Court decision “they can’t even spell my name right”. 

Nobody wanted to be the first case he dealt with that day when he came out of his chambers.


Judicial Review is a mechanism to challenge decisions of lower courts and public bodies in the High Court.


The usual argument is that the judge has said something they should not have said or didn’t say something they should have said.


But the need to keep an accurate record of the spoken word has a long history that stretches far beyond the courtroom.

"There are some guys I just don’t trust...
and I want to have myself protected
so that they can’t later report that I said something else”.  



 When the President does it, it’s not illegal.


According to presidential historian James Schlesinger, the deeply suspicious Richard Nixon felt that people, “were out to get him”. The President insisted on the installation of electronic recording devices in the White House.

Just like Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy before him the listening devices were installed so that Nixon would not be misquoted.


But these very devices would ultimately lead to his doom when they were discovered to contain material about Nixon’s knowledge of the infamous Watergate break-in. The Watergate Senate hearings droned on uneventfully until a low-level White House staffer Alexander Butterfield gave evidence.

He casually declared that he had installed the recording systems in the White House, something completely unknown up to that point. That explosive revelation hastened Nixon's demise. He resigned in disgrace, destroyed by his own paranoia.


But as presidential libraries began to be searched, another revelation was exposed. Presidents had been secretly recording conversations long before Nixon.  

President Franklin D. Roosevelt next to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The desk in front of Churchill's knees contained a switch that the president operated to start secret recordings.



IN 1939 THE Supreme Court of the United States banned the use of wiretapping. The court had grown increasingly worried about the rapid growth and technological power now possessed by the FBI. The court felt that individual rights had been eroded and that this needed to be checked.


In May 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt politely ignored this ban and sent an authorisation to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to use “listening devices” against people suspected of espionage or subversion.


Three months later the first bugging devices were installed in the Oval Office of the White House, in contravention of the Supreme Court ruling the year before.


Roosevelt’s reasons for bugging the White House were precisely the same reasons that district courts around Ireland began installing audio recording devices: he was tired of being misquoted.


In 1940 Roosevelt was fighting a bitter re-election campaign. His Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, attacked him as a war-mongering near-dictator. Willkie was gaining on Roosevelt in the polls.


Roosevelt panicked that a single misquoted comment might trigger a political disaster.


The previous year as war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was misquoted by the media. In 1939 an article was published that quoted Roosevelt as saying -falsely- that America’s ‘defence frontier’ was the Rhine River in Germany.


This statement would have committed the United States to intervene immediately if Germany attacked (which it later did) France.

So the president ignored the Supreme Court and began taping his conversations in the Oval Office.


Different folks, same strokes


When his Cabinet entered the Oval Office for a July 1954 meeting President Dwight Eisenhower flipped a concealed toggle switch on his desk. This triggered an electrical current that lit up a light panel on his secretary’s desk next to the Oval Office. On this signal the secretary turned on a machine hidden in a nearby storage closet.


According to presidential historian William Doyle’s Inside the Oval Office the machine “was a two-foot high, forty-five pound machine designed for police, fire, emergency and courtroom recordings”. 


None of Eisenhower’s cabinet knew that their confidential discussions were being recorded by hidden microphones the president had installed in the walls around them.


Eisenhower could be heard laughing and giving his own opaque reasons for having things recorded.

“You know boys” the President began in one recording, “it’s a good thing when you’re talking to someone you don’t trust to get a record made of it. There are some guys I just don’t trust in Washington, and I want to have myself protected so that they can’t later report that I said something else”.  




THIS IS PRECISELY the same reason that court proceedings are recorded in Ireland: not to inhibit frank advocacy, but to cut down on litigation based on conflicting accounts of what someone has or has not said.


The recording devices in courts are very evident. A large digital rectangular box is prominently displayed at the front of the court. The system is easy to understand. When the court is in session the digital display lights up indicating that recording is now taking place. When the judge has left the bench, the display switches off.

President Dwight Eisenhower. His predecessor President Harry Truman refused to bug the Oval Office but Ike had no such scruples.



Caribbean catastrophe


When the Bay of Pigs operation to remove Fidel Castro ended in disaster President John F. Kennedy felt that he had been betrayed by the military. The behaviour of the Joint Chiefs of Staff enraged him. “Those sons-of-bitches with [their] fruit salad just sat there nodding saying it would work” he complained bitterly.


After the failed Cuban operation some of the military claimed -falsely- that they had been against the operation all along. Kennedy wanted to guard against this in future.


As William Doyle writes, Kennedy ordered the Secret Service to turn the White House “into a private recording studio”. The agent appointed was Robert Bouck. The Secret Service agreed to plant microphones all around the Oval Office. But there was one catch: they insisted that control over the recording system would be the presidents.


The Secret Service wanted to avoid all responsibility if something went wrong.


Nobody knew that Kennedy was recording them, not even his brother Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General.

To keep the secret system completely secret Bouck ordered the Army Signal Corps to buy a recording machine from an electronics dealer in Washington. The purchase was to be made in cash so no record of it would ever exist.


The on/off switch for the machine was disguised in the pen and pencil set on Kennedy’s desk. When the president pressed down the recorder began. When he pressed it again it stopped.


Concealed microphones were placed on the coffee table near the Oval Office fireplace and a switch on a nearby lamp. When the recording tapes were full Bouck would replace them, place them into an envelope and hand them to Kennedy’s secretary who stored them in a special safe.

Nobody knew that Kennedy was recording them,
not even his brother Robert Kennedy,
the Attorney General.




WHAT’S SAID IN court may not result to geopolitical conflict, but the clashes that can result are real enough. The actual words used in court can be a source of heated debate.


Mistakes can be costly.


I once spoke to a judge about a solicitor who the media reported had earned more than €300,000 from the criminal legal aid scheme in one year. The judge and the lawyer were not very fond of one another, resulting in frequent litigation. “He” the judge snorted ‘probably made about EUR200,000 of that against me”.


Having a record that can be checked by others is ultimately in the public good. It helps build faith in our public institutions.





WHEN AGENT ROBERT Bouck got the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas just after 1p.m. on November 22, 1963, he knew what he had to do.

Bouck immediately ran to the West Wing of the White House.

He entered the Oval Office and began dismantling all of the president’s secret recording systems.


While the nation was overcome with grief Bouck worked speedily through the afternoon in the Oval Office, disconnecting the recorders, microphones and ripping out the wiring.


When he had finished his work Bouck slipped away quietly, never to return.  


“By the time the president’s body returned to Washington that night” writes Doyle “almost all traces of his taping system had vanished”.   




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