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Court weighs privacy of Nixon tapes

Nearly 24 years after President Nixon resigned, the government has returned to court to argue that snipping his private conversations from the 3,600 hours of secret tapes he left behind would ruin them, leaving "the lessons of history as cuttings on the editing floor."

But a lawyer for Nixon's heirs told the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday that the law compels the government to cut out the personal material - and the three-judge panel appeared to agree."It can't be done without violating other sections of the tape; there is a serious risk of harm," argued Justice Department lawyer Freddi Lipstein, appealing a lower court decision that tapes containing personal conversations must be returned.

Interrupting her, the judges said the lower court was right and the law compels the return of the private sections of the tapes - about 800 hours' worth. Their ruling will come later.

So far, the public has heard only about 350 hours of the tapes, and Nixon's estate is in court to make sure no one hears the 800 hours that contain personal conversations.

Lipstein, arguing on behalf of the National Archives, custodian of the tapes since Congress ordered them seized after Nixon left office, said developing technology may one day make discernible words on the tapes that cannot now be heard. Many of the tapes are difficult to understand.

But Chief Judge Harry T. Edwards scoffed at Lipstein's contention. He summarized it as: "There might be some technology 30 years from now with which you can hear someone breathing heavily (on an enhanced segment of tape) and we would have lost that."

Edwards said the law under which the tapes were taken and a subsequent Supreme Court decision made it clear that segments carrying personal conversations lack historical importance and therefore must be returned.