E. Howard Hunt (1918–2007), a U.S. intelligence officer and writer, organized the 1972 Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. A former agent for the Central Intelligence Agency, Hunt made a career out of political dirty tricks, including burglaries that targeted political figures and plots to overthrow foreign governments, such as the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Born Everette Howard Hunt, Jr., in Hamburg, New York, on October 9, 1918, E. Howard Hunt graduated from Brown University in 1940 and became a writer for Life magazine. He joined the Naval Reserve in 1941 and served as an officer on a destroyer in the North Atlantic during World War II. After an injury while on Navy duty, he wrote East of Farewell, one of the first novels about the war written by a veteran. Hunt's father, a lawyer and lobbyist, set up a meeting between Hunt and Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the United States' first spy agency. “From that meeting blossomed Hunt's often thrilling career in clandestine service,” wrote James Rosen in Politico, “uncovering a double agent in Calcutta; sabotaging Japanese units behind enemy lines in China's Yunnan province; rescuing American POWs from starvation.”
After World War II ended, Hunt wrote screenplays and more novels. He joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the spy agency that succeeded the OSS, in April 1949. The CIA assigned Hunt to train new spies in political and psychological warfare, despite his lack of experience in those subjects. In 1950, he was named chief of the CIA's Mexico City station, where he planted false newspaper stories about politicians the agency opposed. Hunt served in Mexico City with William F. Buckley, Jr., a CIA agent who became a prominent conservative intellectual and was the godfather and guardian of Hunt's four children.
Hunt next served in Uruguay and Japan, where his reputation among other American spies and foreign service officers was checkered at best. He was described as “totally self-absorbed, totally amoral and a danger to himself and anybody around him” by former U.S. ambassador Samuel F. Hart, who met Hunt in Uruguay and shared his views in a State Department oral history quoted by Weiner in the New York Times. “As far as I could tell, Howard went from one disaster to another.”
In 1960 and 1961, Hunt took part in planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion, a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba aimed at overthrowing the Soviet-supported Communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Two U.S. presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, had authorized the CIA to disrupt or overthrow Castro's government. The CIA responded by organizing a small army of Cuban exiles to enter Cuba and invade the country.
Hunt organized a would-be provisional government, meant to take over Cuba if the invasion succeeded. It did not. Castro's army of 60,000 easily defeated the 1,500 invaders who landed in Cuba's Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
The CIA's failure at the Bay of Pigs ruined the careers of many of its officers, among them Hunt. For the rest of the 1960s, he was assigned minor roles distributing propaganda, such as working for news services and arranging funding for books. Hunt now moonlighted as an author, churning out spy novels filled with sex and intrigue. One of his recurring fictional characters, Peter Ward, became a sort of alter ego. “We become lawless in a struggle for the rule of law,” Ward declares in Hunt's 1965 novel Hazardous Duty (as quoted by Weiner in the New York Times), “semi-outlaws who risk their lives to put down the savagery of others.” Ward's embrace of lawlessness reflected Hunt's own career trajectory.
In 1970, Hunt resigned from the CIA and went to work at a public-relations firm in Washington, D.C. In 1971 he received a fateful phone call from White House special counsel Charles Colson. President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, had told his aides he wanted “a small group of tough guys” to dig up embarrassing information on Democrats. “I really need [someone] who will work his butt off and do it dishonorably,” Nixon said (as quoted by John A. Farrell in Richard Nixon: The Life). Colson tapped Hunt, hiring him at $100 per day as a “security consultant.” His actual job was to conduct political dirty tricks for the Nixon administration.
Hunt was assigned to look for evidence that the late president Kennedy had ordered the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem during a military coup. Unable to find any, he forged State Department cables to try to implicate Kennedy in the murder, and Colson passed these forgeries to Life magazine. In fact, on a November 1963 recording, Kennedy can be heard acknowledging that his administration had suggested the coup, but said he was shocked to learn Diem had been killed in the midst of it.
Soon, Hunt was assigned to respond to federal government leaks, a task that led him and his fellow saboteurs to acquire the nickname of “plumbers.” An early target was Daniel Ellsberg, a disillusioned military consultant who had given a copy of the Pentagon Papers, a classified 7,000-page military history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. In 1971, Hunt and fellow plumber G. Gordon Liddy used CIA equipment to break into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, hoping to find information about Ellsberg's treatment that might discredit him. While casing the office prior to the burglary, “Hunt donned a cheap red wig and wore a device that altered his gait,” wrote Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post. The burglars trashed the office, attempting to make it look like an ordinary break-in, but obtained no information on Ellsberg. Two years later, when the burglary became public knowledge, the government's criminal case against Ellsberg on charges of leaking classified information was dismissed because of the invasion of his privacy.
In May and June of 1972, Hunt and Liddy planned and executed two break-ins at Democrat National Committee (DNC) offices. On May 28, they took photographs, searched files, and installed two wiretaps. One wiretap was put on the phone of DNC chairman Lawrence O'Brien, whom Nixon considered an effective political strategist and a threat to his reelection. (Hunt later claimed he was investigating a rumor that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had donated money to Democrats.) The tap on O'Brien's phone did not work, and the other revealed no useful information.
On June 17, 1972, five burglars returned to DNC headquarters again, this time carrying cameras, 40 rolls of film, listening devices, and burglary tools. Their plan was to photograph Democratic Party files and fix the broken tap on O'Brien's phone. Instead, they were detected by a security guard and arrested. Hunt watched the failed burglary from a nearby building and fled, leaving incriminating evidence behind. He had recruited four of the five burglars arrested, and his name and phone number, together with the notations “W. House” and “WH,” were found in address books left by the burglars in their rooms at the Watergate Hotel. That major mistake quickly helped investigators and reporters connect the burglary to the Nixon White House.
Six days after the burglary, on June 23, 1972, Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that he would order the CIA to disrupt the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe into the burglary, using national security as a pretext. “This fellow Hunt, ah, he knows too damned much,” the president told Haldeman, as recorded by Nixon's White House taping system and quoted by Rosen in Politico. In March 1973, after Hunt threatened to approach a book publisher with his Watergate story, he figured prominently in another taped White House conversation. “We're being blackmailed,” White House counsel John Dean told Nixon (as quoted by Sullivan in the Washington Post). “Hunt now is demanding another $72,000 for his own personal expenses; another $50,000 to pay his attorneys' fees.” Nixon responded, “If you need the money, I mean you could get the money.”
Conversations involving Hunt that were recorded by the White House taping system became key to Nixon's downfall and were cited in the articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee that accused the sitting U.S. president of obstructing justice. Faced with his likely impeachment and removal from the presidency, Nixon resigned in August of 1974.
Meanwhile, in September 1972, Hunt was indicted on federal criminal charges in connection with the Watergate burglary. Nixon's personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, arranged for cash payments to Hunt and the burglars in exchange for their silence. He promised that, if they were convicted, Nixon would free them in an act of presidential clemency after they served short sentences. Hunt and his wife, Dorothy Hunt, helped distribute the hush money, using code names and leaving cash bundles in airport lockers. Then, on December 8, 1972, Dorothy died in an airplane crash in Chicago that killed 43 people. More than $10,000 in cash was found in her handbag and was widely believed to be part of the hush money.
In January of 1973, Hunt pleaded guilty to burglary, wiretapping, and conspiracy in connection with the Watergate burglary. In court, he described himself as “alone, nearly friendless, ridiculed, disgraced, destroyed as a man,” according to Weiner. Facing a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison, he agreed to testify about the plumbers' operation before both a criminal grand jury and a congressional committee investigating the Watergate scandal. Hunt ultimately served 33 months in prison, during which time he suffered a stroke, was beaten and robbed, and performed hard labor on a cattle farm.
After his release from prison at age 59, Hunt moved to Miami and married Laura E. Martin, a teacher. He resumed writing spy novels and would ultimately complete more than 80 books, many which were published using pseudonyms. He also wrote nonfiction books about Watergate and the Bay of Pigs affair. In 1981, Hunt won a $650,000 libel judgment over an article accusing him of being involved in the 1963 assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, although the verdict was overturned on appeal. Hunt declared bankruptcy in 1997, blaming Watergate-related legal bills of more than $800,000.
Hunt died of pneumonia at a Miami hospital on January 23, 2007, at age 88. His memoir, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate & Beyond, was published two weeks after his death. Writing in Politico, Rosen pointed out some of the book's many inaccuracies but concluded that it “preserve[d] the valuable memory of Hunt as he really was: passionate patriot; committed Cold Warrior; a lover of fine food, wine and women; incurable intriguer, wicked wit and superb storyteller.” Writing for the New York Times, Weiner was more critical. “He was a liar, a thief and a con man,” the journalist wrote, “all admirable qualities for C.I.A. officers who served overseas during the cold war, … [but] dangerous when put to work in Washington.”
Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward, All the President's Men, Simon & Shuster, 1974.
Farrell, John A., Richard Nixon: The Life, Doubleday, 2017.
Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2007, Carol J. Williams, “E. Howard Hunt, 88; Cold War Spy Was Watergate Break-in Mastermind.”
New York Times, January 24, 2007, Tim Weiner, “Howard Hunt, Agent Who Organized Botched Watergate Break-in, Dies at 88,” p. C13; May 13, 2007, Tim Weiner, “Watergate Warrior.”
People, May 20, 1974, Clare Crawford, “Watergate's Hunt.”
Washington Post, January 31, 1973, Lawrence Meyer, “Last Two Guilty in Watergate Plot”; January 24, 2007, Patricia Sullivan, “Ex-Spy Crafted Watergate, Other Schemes.”
Politico, http://www.politico.com/story/2007/02/howard-hunts-final-mission-002649 (February 6, 2007), “Howard Hunt's Final Mission.”
UVA Miller Center, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/jfk-memoir-dictation-assassinationof-diem (August 29, 2017), “JFK's Memoir Dictation on the Assassination of Diem.”□