Conspiracy fans and students of the Watergate saga want A. J. Woolston-Smith to answer the same questions once asked of Richard Nixon: What did he know and when did he know it? And one more question: How did he know it?

Woolston-Smith is the New York City private eye who warned the Democratic National Committee that someone intended to bug its offices about three months before the caper was uncovered. His prescience intrigued such people as Fred Thompson, chief minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, who still is dissatisfied with Woolston-Smith's explanation of his special knowledge.

And among those who suspect that the bugging of the DNC was deliberately bungled to ruin Richard Nixon, Woolston-Smith's low profile is in danger of making him to the Watergate scandal what the famous "umbrella man" is to the JFK assassination: a historical footnote of a character about whom conspiracy lovers are whispering. If Woolston-Smith knew so much so early, runs this theory, why didn't he shout it from the rooftops and spare the country the agony of Watergate?

All of this draws a hearty laugh from Arthur James Woolston-Smith.

"Listen, mate," he says in his New Zealand accent, "after Watergate there were a whole slew of stories around. I never heard such twaddle."

He is sipping a drink in the place he calls his "club" -- British Airways' $25-a-year Speedbird Club in midtown Manhattan. He is in his 50s, dressed in a three-piece dark suit, a gold watch chain draped over his ample belly. He puffs on a pipe as he dodges questions about his exact age, background and family status. A New Zealand native who had some intelligence experience during World War II, he says he is still a British subject though he's a permanent U.S. resident. No, he really doesn't want to pose for a photograph, thank you, mate.

Woolston-Smith is a partner in a security consulting firm, Science Security Associates, Inc., with drab offices across from Grand Central Station. The offices feature scuffed linoleum floors, walls painted industrial yellow and, hanging in the anteroom, a framed portrait of her Britannic majesty Elizabeth II. Over the past several years he has worked as an investigator on contract for the New York state assembly, helping the legislators assess blame in the pollution of Love Canal, exploring the feasibility of legalizing gambling in New York and investigating the misuse of funds by executives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"He's deductive, informative and finds things out that other people can't," says William Haddad, who often used Woolston-Smith's talents when Haddad was director of the New York state assembly's office of legislative oversight and analysis. "His could pick up a phone and get me a report out of Paris in a few hours. He could give me a complete rundown on a company in 24 hours. I know zilch about his family. He keeps that private. I only know he lives on Staten Island and keeps a boat with a British flag there, a metal boat like a PT boat that he almost built with his own hands."

It was to Haddad, who was then publishing a community newspaper in Manhattan, that Woolston-Smith took his tip that someone had evil designs on the DNC. Haddad had capital connections, having worked during the Kennedy administration for the Office of Economic Opportunity and made the acquaintance of then-DNC chief Lawrence O'Brien.

Woolston-Smith is charmingly vague about how he came by his insider's knowledge. He "just put a lot of things together." He simply wanted "to warn the victim and now I'm more or less the victim, eh?" (Big guffaw at that.) He's "just a chap that people tell things to."

In fact, Woolston-Smith says he had heard James McCord had bought a sophisticated scanner for monitoring bugs. And he heard from "intelligence sources," according to Haddad, that the Republicans were developing some kind of intelligence-gathering capability with the help of some anti-Castro Cubans.

On March 23, 1972, Haddad wrote a letter to O'Brien warning of "some very disturbing stories about GOP sophisticated surveillance techniques." John Stewart, the DNC communications director, went to New York to meet with Woolston-Smith and Haddad, who also tipped Jack Anderson off to his suspicions. (The columnist did not print the allegations.) No one in Washington seemed to take the threat very seriously, perhaps because no hard information was available.

Over a year later, when the Senate began investigating the break-in and White House cover-up, investigators questioned both Haddad and Woolston-Smith in executive session. Fred Thompson learned little more about Woolston-Smith than anyone else had.

"It was obvious that he had been around," Thompson wrote later. "He was a most mysterious person; there were indications that he had connections with both British and Canadian intelligence, although we could never determine the exact relationship." When Thompson got tough and demanded Woolston-Smith tell him everything he knew, the private eye "merely smiled," Thompson said. "In a good-natured way, he was telling me that I was not dealing with a gumshoe. I got nowhere."

"With me," says Haddad, "Smitty is always 50 percent up front, 50 percent back; he'll give you 50 percent but you've got to reach for the other. We have kind of a game going back and forth. You know those old intelligence types -- they put a lot together with intuition and supposition . . . Ever been to that club of his? I call it the spy club. Went once and every other guy was a cop. But I've found Smitty to be incredibly interesting, a perpetual enigma wrapped in a mystery or whatever that phrase is."

Woolston-Smith professes annoyance at speculation that the Democrat's advance warning of the Watergate break-in (no matter how sketchy the details) proves the whole affair was a well-planned trap. But, come on, Smitty, down deep don't you get a kick out of the attention paid the hunch that came true, mate?

"Oh, I get a certain amount of pleasure," he admits. "I do like the humorous side. Two hundred years later and another Britisher comes along and there's trouble."