Melodramatic and devious in character, resembling the actor Gene Hackman in appearance, Hunt donned a cheap red wig and wore a device that altered his gait while casing another burglary site -- the office of a psychiatrist to Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the classified Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War.
Hunt recruited four of the five Cuban exiles who broke into the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. He was watching the burglary from an adjacent building when the group was discovered and arrested, and it was his phone number in their address books that let investigators and reporters connect the break-in to the president and his reelection campaign.
Hunt’s covert background included some 20 years in the CIA, where he helped overthrow the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in 1954. As the CIA station chief in Mexico City, he planted false newspaper stories about politicians who were out of favor. In 1961, he was the planning director for a group of Cuban exiles who unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro by invading the island at the Bay of Pigs. That’s where he met Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis, whom he would recruit for a covert group of “plumbers” whose job it was to fix the “leaks” that threatened the Nixon administration.
Their first job was in Los Angeles, where they broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Back in Washington, Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy hatched the Watergate plan.
“What we were looking for is the same thing every congressional committee is looking for today, which was evidence of illegal foreign contributions,” he told the Miami Herald in 1997. “That was the rationale for going in there. We’d heard rumors that both the Vietnamese and Fidel Castro were inserting funds illegally into the Democratic National Committee. And the idea was to look at the books, photograph them, in and out, and that’s it. It didn’t seem like such a deal to me. You know, I’d been doing that stuff for years, a ‘black-bag job’ into other embassies. But you know, I didn’t have skilled people.”
Hunt didn’t let his loyalty to Nixon prevent him from pressuring his bosses for money. In a secretly recorded conversation in March 1973 that became one of the key pieces of evidence of the White House cover-up, White House Counsel John Dean told Nixon that “we’re being blackmailed. . . . Hunt now is demanding another $72,000 for his own personal expenses; another $50,000 to pay his attorneys’ fees.”