MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Some of the last secrets from the Watergate scandal may soon be revealed. A federal judge in Washington has ordered the National Archives to review key documents and prepare for their release. The papers helped advance the impeachment effort aimed at President Richard Nixon. And scholars say they are relevant today as another special counsel investigates the current administration. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A few years after the resignation of Richard Nixon, the special prosecutor who investigated him recalled a critical moment in that probe.
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LEON JAWORSKI: One of them was when we succeeded, which was a first in history, to get the courts to permit the grand jury report to go to the House Judiciary Committee because the committee would have had real difficulty in doing its work. It was way behind. It hadn't gotten off the ground.
JOHNSON: Leon Jaworski told an interviewer in 1977 the document contained a detailed list of the evidence the Watergate prosecution team had gathered.
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JAWORSKI: We called it a road map in our office because it was just that.
JOHNSON: For 44 years, that road map remained a secret, under seal by the federal district court in Washington on orders of the judge who presided over the Watergate cases. That secrecy persisted to protect the grand jury's work but not for lack of trying. In 1997, Stephen Bates was working for the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton. Bates was looking for precedent for how a special prosecutor might send an impeachment referral to Congress.
STEPHEN BATES: The National Archives let me see a lot of stuff from the Watergate special prosecutor that was very interesting. But when I asked to see the road map that was sent up to the House by Leon Jaworski, they said no.
JOHNSON: Bates tried again years later, but the answer was the same - no. Last month, he and others petitioned the court to release the Watergate road map. Their lawyer is Larry Schwartztol.
LARRY SCHWARTZTOL: It's relevant to historians. It's relevant to the intrinsic ongoing interest in Watergate. That alone would be sufficient to justify releasing this material. But there's real urgency in this instance to getting the road map onto the public record.
JOHNSON: Urgency because another special counsel is on the job now investigating the Trump campaign. And one of the big questions about the end of Robert Mueller's investigation is whether he'll try to send a report to Congress or the public. Jon Sale worked on Watergate as a young lawyer.
JON SALE: Some 21st-century variation of the so-called road map is something that the Mueller team has very likely considered.
JOHNSON: Sale's boss on the Watergate team was James Quarles, who now serves as Mueller's deputy. But he says unlike Richard Nixon, Donald Trump's legal team is likely to object to any such material going to Congress. Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has already signaled he would fight in court to stop lawmakers from seeing that document. Meanwhile, the battle over the Watergate roadmap could soon come to an end. This week, Judge Beryl Howell ordered the National Archives to review it and directed the Justice Department to get ready for its release. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.