By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Bernard L. Barker, an unrepentant Watergate burglar whose arrest at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972, helped set in motion the chain of events that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, died June 5 of lung cancer at a Miami veterans hospital. He was 92.
Mr. Barker, who was born in Cuba, was a onetime undercover operative for the CIA and helped organize the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an ill-fated attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. During the planning for the Bay of Pigs, he met E. Howard Hunt, a CIA officer who later became a central figure in the Watergate conspiracy.
In 1971, Hunt hired Mr. Barker and others to break into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who released documents known as the Pentagon Papers, divulging secrets about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A year later, Mr. Barker recruited three Miamians for the Watergate caper, in which they planned to place electronic eavesdropping devices in telephones at the Democratic headquarters.
Plainclothes police officers found them hiding behind a desk at 2:30 a.m. Mr. Barker was carrying $5,000 in crisp $100 bills. A fifth man arrested with them, James W. McCord Jr., was a security consultant to Nixon's campaign organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Mr. Barker served 13 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to wiretapping and theft.
"It's the only felony I was ever convicted of," he later said.
After his release, investigators learned that Mr. Barker had deposited more than $100,000 in his Miami bank account from Nixon fundraisers. He spent 33 days in a Florida jail for misusing his notary public's seal in cashing one of the checks.
At Senate hearings in 1973, Mr. Barker testified that he thought he was sent to the Democratic offices to find records of illegal contributions from foreign countries. He said Hunt, who died in 2007, led him to believe that he would ultimately receive support for efforts to free Cuba from Castro's control.
Mr. Barker, who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, never apologized for his Watergate involvement.
"I see no difference between this and being a bombardier in World War II," he said in 1992. "I was doing my duty."
Bernard Leon Barker was born in Havana on March 17, 1917. His father was an American living in Cuba, and the younger Mr. Barker spent his teens in the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen in the 1930s.
He returned to Cuba to attend the University of Havana and was said to have been the first Cuban to volunteer for the U.S. military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a member of the Army Air Forces in World War II, he flew 10 missions as a bombardier before being shot down and held captive for 17 months.
He later became a police and intelligence officer in Cuba and, according to some accounts, briefly joined Castro's revolutionary movement in the 1950s before growing disenchanted. He fled to Miami in 1960.
It is not known when Mr. Barker began working with the CIA, but he said he had to demonstrate his nerve and skills by breaking into the offices of Radio City Music Hall in New York without being detected. He said CIA officials debriefed him afterward to make sure he had actually entered the offices, which were monitored by cameras.
He met Hunt in 1961 while organizing Brigade 2506, a group of Cuban exiles hoping to overthrow Castro. Although 1,100 members of the poorly trained Bay of Pigs force were captured by the Cuban army, Mr. Barker remained a hero among Miami's staunchly anti-communist Cuban emigres.
After Watergate, he worked as a housing inspector and zoning consultant in Miami. In 1983, he was acquitted of perjury on a technicality after being charged with making payoffs to zoning commissioners.
Survivors include his fourth wife, Dora Maria Barker of Miami; and a daughter from his first marriage, to Clara Elena Fernandez, Marielena Harding of Miami Lakes, Fla.
Conspiracy theorists sometimes linked Mr. Barker to the Kennedy assassination, but he said such speculation was ridiculous.
Never shy of publicity, Mr. Barker often gave interviews about Watergate. The only thing he resented was that the operation was often called a burglary.
"To me, a burglar is a guy who goes into your bedroom at night and steals your family jewels," he said. "I could never do that."