E. Howard Hunt

Spy novelist and CIA officer who was sent to prison for his part as Nixon's 'plumber' in Watergate


Everette Howard Hunt, novelist and intelligence officer: born East Hamburg, New York 9 October 1918; married first Dorothy Wetzel (died 1972; two sons, two daughters), second 1977 Laura Martin (two sons); died Miami 23 January 2007.

'Good God." Such was the brief and horrified reaction of E. Howard Hunt - spy novelist, sometime CIA operative and now White House dirty tricks supremo - on the morning of 18 June 1972, when he received a call from the reporter Bob Woodward informing him that his name had been found in the address book of one of the burglars arrested the previous day at the Democratic party headquarters, in the Watergate building in downtown Washington, DC.

Hunt's shock was entirely justified. The presence of his name, alongside the jotted "W. House" and "WH", was the crucial link in the chain that led from what Republican spokesmen dismissed as a "third-rate burglary" directly into Richard Nixon's re-election campaign that year, and ultimately to the resignation of the President himself.

In the end, Hunt would serve 33 months in prison for his part in the crime, as his life hit rock bottom. In December 1972 his wife was killed in an air crash. He subsequently suffered a stroke, while his Watergate legal fees of $1m would later bankrupt him. "I am alone, nearly friendless, ridiculed, disgraced, and destroyed as a man," he told the judge who sentenced him. It was a fair summary of a career that had started so auspiciously a quarter of a century earlier.

Born in 1918, the son of a lawyer and a classical pianist, he enjoyed an Ivy League education at Brown University before serving as an intelligence officer in China, and as a Hollywood scriptwriter, writing some promising spy thrillers on the side before joining the CIA in 1949. A year later Hunt became chief of station in Mexico City, where he helped plot the overthrow of the Guatemalan President Arbenz Guzman in 1954.

However Hunt the intelligence officer was more bungler than master-spy. He saw himself as something of a James Bond but a colleague's view was very different. Hunt, wrote Samuel Hart, a former US diplomat who met him in Uruguay in 1950, was "totally self- absorbed, totally amoral and a danger to himself and anybody around him".

That judgement was if anything vindicated by Hunt's role in the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, the abortive, semi- farcical invasion of Cuba by a group of Florida exiles that he helped plan. Hunt's reputation never recovered, and in 1970 he left the CIA, muttering later that that the organisation was "just infested with Democrats".

But the Cuban fiasco would lead indirectly to Watergate itself. Four of the 1972 burglars recruited by Hunt had worked for him in the Bay of Pigs adventure. Subsequently he maintained that the reason for the break-in was the belief they would find records proving the Democrats had received illegal campaign contributions from the Castro regime.

Hunt worked briefly for a public relations agency, before Chuck Colson, another old Brown man who had become special counsel for President Nixon, called with a job offer as "security consultant" to the White House, paying the then very decent sum of $100 a day. Soon, he was running the infamous "plumbers unit", set up to seal leaks from a paranoid administration, and to carry out acts of sabotage against perceived Nixon opponents.

After returning to the CIA to kit himself out with a red wig, a voice-altering gadget and other accoutrements of the secret agent, Hunt set about his new business. His first job - in many ways a dress rehearsal for Watergate - was the burglary of the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the secret "Pentagon Papers" about the Vietnam War. At the White House, Hunt could indulge his taste for fantasy: another scheme, never executed, was to bomb the august Brookings Institution in Washington, also a suspected nest of anti-Nixon intrigue.

Hunt was released from prison on his 60th birthday, and retired to live in Florida with his second wife. He briefly hit the headlines when he was awarded $650,000 in damages for an article alleging he had a part in the 1963 Kennedy assassination. But the verdict was overturned on appeal, and Hunt never received a penny.

In the end, he was a better novelist than undercover operator, writing some 80 thrillers over the course of his life (his pseudonyms including John Baxter, Gordon Davis, Robert Dietrich, P.S. Donoghue and David St John). About Watergate he was unrepentant. Having long worked for the CIA, he assumed that the President's wishes were the law of the land, he told People magazine in 1974. "I viewed this [Watergate] like any other mission. It just happened to take place inside this country."

Rupert Cornwell

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