Decades before Enron's employees and auditors plunged head-first into the document-shredding business, the practice had become a predictable response to scandal and subpoenas. Document destruction, though, is as old as civilization. During the Inquisition, the Vatican urged the destruction of books that presented ideas with which it disagreed for religious or philosophical reasons. The modern paper shredder was the inspiration of a German inventor aiming to protect the secrets of rival, small-time merchants he supplied.
Shredding didn't become de rigeur in the United States until the onset of the cold war, when a new sense of impending doom and paranoia set in. Today, thanks to Watergate and other high-profile scandals, paper shredding has a slightly seedy air. "A lot of people think I'm like a Nixon character, toiling away in a dark room to destroy information," says Steve Papai, who has run a paper-shredding company since 1979. "Paper shredding has a pejorative connotation. But in almost every instance I can think of it's a protective endeavor." NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley tracks the storied history of the art of document destruction.
Manufacturer, printer and amateur inventor Adolph Ehinger develops the first electric paper shredder by modeling his design after Bavarian pasta-making machines. The idea occurs to him because of his need to protect the privacy of competing clients.
Whitaker Bros., one of the largest shredding firms in the world and a leading supplier of the U.S. government, is founded. The firm supplied the shredder G. Gordon Liddy would use to destroy Watergate files and the 007-S model shredder that Oliver North used to shred Iran-Contra documents. Whitaker still owns both shredders and has stored them in company warehouses for posterity.
Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy, drives to the Pennsylvania Avenue office of the Committee to Reelect the President and begins a massive shredding campaign. Liddy's efforts are meant to cover up the botched burglary at the Watergate the night before.
Columnists Jack Anderson and Brit Hume report that a lobbyist for International Telephone and Telegraph wrote a memo suggesting that the company would raise $400,000 for that year's Republican National Convention to help sway the Justice Department as it considered an antitrust case against the firm. But the morning after Anderson's column appeared-complete with a copy of the memo-IT&T's shredder reportedly munched on as many as 32 bags' worth of the company's internal documents.
Staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran rush to shred secret documents before the Iranian National Guard can seize the building. The staffers, who would be held hostage for 63 weeks, only partially succeed in destroying the files because several of the shredders cut paper into easily reassembled strips. Magnifying-glass wielding Iranian women are able to paste together several of the documents, which subsequently becomes public. The incident leads to embassy adoption of crosscut machines, which can cut a single piece of paper into as many as 10,000 chads, each no bigger than a closed staple.
The Data-Grater, one of the country's first paper-shredding trucks, hits streets across the Northeast. Customers include banks, book publishers, sneaker manufacturers wary of competitors and private citizens eager to destroy love letters. The company charges 20 cents a pound (with a $100 minimum) for house calls.
Aides to ousted Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle testify that they removed documents from her office shortly after her February dismissal. Lavelle and her EPA colleagues were accused of shredding subpoenaed documents sought in a federal investigation into Superfund, a congressional program designed to clean up toxic waste dumps. Lavelle is accused of lying about ordering the removal of the documents and other indiscretions. Lavelle was found guilty of lying to Congress.
National Security Adviser Vice Adm. John Poindexter resigns after admitting that he destroyed sensitive documents sought by investigators in the Iran-Contra affair.
The Dallas Morning News takes crosstown rival, the Dallas Times Herald, to court, charging that the smaller paper sends 25,000-40,000 newspapers to a shredding firm daily in an effort to artificially inflate circulation numbers.
Former White House aide Oliver North's testimony that he shredded key documents pertaining to the Iran-Contra affair in November 1986 hits newsstands. Fawn Hall, North's beautiful blond secretary, testifies through tears that she helped North shred a 11/2-foot-thick pile of documents at his office in the Executive Office Building. The televised hearings become the summer's most-watched soap opera.
The Supreme Court rules that people do not have a right to privacy based on what they throw in the trash. Investment banks and law firms will be held accountable for client information that is abused because it has been disposed of without being shred or otherwise destroyed. The case, California v. Greenwood, leads to a run on shredders.
Couriers for the Rose Law Firm, where Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster worked before coming to the White House, testify that they were ordered to shred documents belonging to the late White House counsel Vince Foster in the months after his suicide.
The director of the National Archives is denounced for authorizing all government agencies to erase their electronic mail and other computerized records without considering the records' contents. The government-watchdog group Public Citizen leads a group of plaintiffs in a suit to overturn the two-year-old rule. "It's the electronic shredder," said one plaintiff, author Scott Armstrong. "It's the Fawn Hall statute." A few months later a judge rules that the Archives must rescind the order permitting government agencies to discard electronic versions of government records without seeking clearance first.
An internal investigation into charges that Texaco executives shredded documents sought by plaintiffs in a racial-discrimination suit turns up no evidence. In November of the previous year Texaco settled the class-action case for $176 million following publicity about tapes in which employees used racial slurs and reportedly discussed shredding potentially damaging documents. Lawyers hired by Texaco found that fewer than 10 documents could not be accounted for, but one acknowledged that "the problem with proof of destroyed material is that it's destroyed."
Handwritten notes and minutes from meetings held by senior management at the prominent Salt Lake City law firm representing the Olympic-bid committee disappear. The documents are thought to have been shredded, but no one knows for certain what happened to them. James S. Jardine, the firm's managing director and the bid committee's chief lawyer, asserts that the firm's computer records do not show who ordered the documents be destroyed. The missing notes reportedly detail the final months of the committee's actions in their journey toward an Olympic bid.
David Chang, a major donor to and alleged "good friend" of Sen. Robert Torricelli, is accused of shredding 10 bags of documents in an effort to obstruct a federal investigation into fund-raising improprieties. Chang's indictment was the result of a massive investigation during which government agents spent four months examining the trash disposed of at one of his firms. Despite Chang's testimony that he gave the senator several gifts and cash in exchange for his help in lobbying the North and South Korean governments, federal prosecutor Mary Jo White ultimately closes the investigation. Numerous fund-raising experts conclude that White lacked the proof she needed for to indict "the Torch."
California's insurance commissioner resigns after staffers testify that he ordered them to shred documents relating to earthquake settlements. The official is accused of funneling money intended for state earthquake victims to his own political slush funds.
Procter & Gamble agrees to pay Unilever about $10 million after being sued for sending spies to go through their rival's trash. The consumer-goods giant also signs on to an unusual audit by a third-party monitor whose job it is to confirm that P&G does not use any stolen ideas for new product launches.
The National Security Agency begins to prepare new standards for paper-shredding dimensions. Under consideration: requiring machines that create chads at least 50 percent smaller than those currently in use.
Enron employees and auditors at Arthur Andersen are said to have shredded mounds of documents related to the company's accounting practices.