By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 36 years later, the secret grand jury testimony of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal was ordered released on Friday by a federal judge because of its significance in American history.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted a request by historian Stanley Kutler, who has written several books about Nixon and Watergate, and others to unseal the testimony given on June 23 and 24 in 1975.
Nixon was questioned about the political scandal during the 1970s that resulted from the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
The scandal caused Nixon to leave office on August 9, 1974, the only resignation of a U.S. president. The scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and imprisonment of a number of his top officials.
Lamberth ruled in the 15-page opinion that the special circumstances, especially the undisputed historical interest in Nixon's testimony, far outweighed the need to keep the records secret. Grand jury proceedings typically remain secret.
"Watergate significance in American history cannot be overstated," Lamberth wrote, adding that the scandal continues to attract both scholarly and public interest.
"The disclosure of President Nixon's grand jury testimony would likely enhance the existing historical record, foster scholarly discussion and improve the public's understanding of a significant historical event," he said.
The Obama administration's Justice Department had opposed releasing Nixon's testimony, citing the privacy interests of individuals named in the testimony, among other reasons.
But Lamberth said those privacy interests were minimal.
He said Nixon died 17 years ago, many other key figures likely to be mentioned were deceased and most of the surviving figures have written about Watergate, given interviews interviews or testified under oath about their involvement.
Allison Zieve, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the lead attorney for those seeking the testimony, said releasing the transcript will be a significant step toward completing Watergate's historical record.
"President Nixon's knowledge of the events and role in the cover-up remains a subject of speculation for historians, journalists and others," she said in a statement.
According to news reports at the time, Nixon answered questions about the 18-1/2 minute gap in a White House recording of his conversation with a top aide after the break-in; altering White House tape transcripts turned over to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; using the Internal Revenue Service to harass political enemies, and a $100,000 contribution from billionaire Howard Hughes.
Nixon's grand jury transcript will not be released immediately because the government will have the opportunity to appeal. A Justice Department spokesman said government lawyers were reviewing the ruling.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Philip Barbara)