E. Howard Hunt, 88, the shadowy former CIA man who organized the Watergate break-in and other “dirty tricks” that ultimately brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, died of complications from pneumonia yesterday at a hospital in Miami.
The Watergate episode was the most notorious caper in a colorful career that included the overthrow of a Guatemalan president, oversight of a group of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and such over-the-top ideas as firebombing the Brookings Institution to distract guards while his crew burglarized the think tank.
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.”
After some further discussion, Nixon said: “If you need the money, I mean you could get the money. . . . I mean it’s not easy, but it could be done.”
Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned Aug. 9, 1974.
Hunt spent 33 months in prison for his role in the Watergate burglary. He was bitter that Nixon did not stand up for him. President Ronald Reagan rejected a pardon request for Hunt in 1983.
He was born Everette Howard Hunt in Hamburg, N.Y., on Oct. 9, 1918. He graduated from Brown University in 1940 and was commissioned as a Naval Reserve officer the following year. A talented writer, he worked as a correspondent for Life magazine until he was called to active duty during World War II. He served as a gunnery officer on a destroyer.
After the war, he received a Guggenheim fellowship and worked as a screenwriter before joining the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. He retired from the CIA in 1970 because “I found out the CIA was just infested with Democrats,” he told Slate magazine in 2004.
Throughout his life, he wrote more than 80 spy novels and thrillers, usually under such pseudonyms as John Baxter, Robert Dietrich, David St. John, P.S. Donoghue, Gordon Davis or David St. John. He described one of his leading characters, Peter Ward, who shares some of his background as a Washington-dwelling Brown graduate, as “the secret agent with the taste and the talent for fine living.”
Tad Szulc, a former New York Times reporter, wrote in the 1974 book “Compulsive Spy: The Strange Career of E. Howard Hunt” that Hunt was a relatively low-level CIA officer not well thought of by most of his colleagues and superiors. Hunt’s autobiography, “American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate & Beyond,” has a March publication date.
Hunt declared bankruptcy in 1997, largely blaming his Watergate fines and legal fees. A $650,000 libel settlement he was awarded in 1981 stemming from an article alleging his involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was overturned, and he received none of that money.
In the past few years, Hunt lost a leg to complications from atherosclerosis, battled lymphoma in his jaw and used an electric wheelchair to get around.
Hunt’s first wife, Dorothy Wetzel Day Goutiere, was killed in the Dec. 8, 1972, plane crash of United Airlines Flight 533 in Chicago. Congress, the FBI, and the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash, but they did not find any basis for determining that the crash was not purely accidental. The more than $10,000 in cash found in Dorothy Hunt’s handbag was generally regarded as part of the “hush money” paid to Watergate defendants in an attempt to procure their silence regarding White House involvement.Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Laura Martin Hunt of Miami; and six children.