E. Howard Hunt, a mastermind of the 1972 Watergate break-in that brought down the Nixon presidency and afflicted U.S. politics with its most notorious scandal, died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia at North Shore Medical Center. He was 88.
Hunt was a strident anti-communist and architect of U.S. covert operations throughout a career that began with World War II military service and saw the right-wing militant play crucial roles in the fight against leftist movements throughout the Western Hemisphere.
A founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, Hunt spent almost three decades organizing actions against Soviet allies in the United States’ perceived sphere of influence. In 1961, he was tasked with organizing the Pigs invasion, aimed at deposing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Hunt proudly took credit for orchestrating a 1954 coup against Guatemala’s elected leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, as well as the 1967 killing of Castro ally Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Conspiracy theorists also alleged that he was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy, whom he held in contempt for failing to send U.S. forces to bail out the Bay of Pigs invaders when Cuban troops had them surrounded.
But it was Watergate that marked Hunt as an ideological spymaster and devoted servant of President Nixon, who was forced to resign amid voter outrage at the criminal intrusion into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate building in Washington.
Hunt relied on his circle of militant Cuban contacts from the Bay of Pigs invasion to carry out the break-in, recruiting four of the five “plumbers” sent in to plug leaks from the administration to Nixon’s political rivals. The Cuban burglars rifled campaign files and financial records in search of evidence to back Hunt’s suspicion that Castro had given money to Nixon’s rival, Democratic nominee George McGovern.
“According to street gossip both in Washington and Miami, Mr. Castro had been making substantial contributions to the McGovern campaign,” Hunt told CNN in February 1992. “And the idea was ... that somewhere in the books of the Democratic National Committee those illicit funds would be found.”
The four Cubans recruited by Hunt, along with senior Nixon campaign official James W. McCord Jr., were arrested at the Watergate building during the June 17, 1972, break-in. Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who had masterminded the operation and watched it unravel from within the Watergate’s hotel, were indicted on federal charges three months later.
Hunt spent 33 months in federal prison for burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping, pleading guilty to evade what could have been a 35-year sentence if convicted at trial. Two dozen other men also served time for the bungled break-in. Nixon was forced to abandon his second term on Aug. 9, 1974, becoming the only U.S. president to resign.
Hunt and Liddy also were involved in burglarizing the office of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, a defense analyst who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. The government was forced to drop its case against Ellsberg because of its invasions of privacy.
After his release, Hunt turned full time to writing the spy novels he began putting out in the 1940s, drawing on his cloak-and-dagger days to produce about 80 titles before illness forced him to give up the six-hour writing stints.
He underwent gall bladder surgery in the late 1990s and had a leg amputated after arteriosclerosis developed, spending his last years in a motorized wheelchair. He declared bankruptcy in 1997, blaming the legal costs of the Watergate case for his financial ruin.
A memoir by Hunt, “American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond,” is due to be released next month.
Born in Hamburg, N.Y., on Oct. 9, 1918, Everette Howard Hunt graduated from Brown University before serving in World War II as a Navy officer aboard a destroyer. He was injured at sea and honorably discharged.
Hunt was a founder of the OSS, then became a CIA operative for two decades, which spanned the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was that operation that put him in touch with militant Cuban exiles on whom he depended for future actions, including the Watergate break-in.
In an interview for Slate magazine in October 2004, Hunt told writer Ann Louise Bardach that he had been doubtful of the invasion’s prospects for deposing Castro because of State Department interference in the CIA operation and the Kennedy administration’s insistence on keeping it low-key.
An unapologetic critic of communists and Democrats alike, Hunt helped right-wing Bolivian troops ambush Guevara and his guerrillas by tracking their movements through the Bolivian mountains by monitoring radio transmissions.
Through his CIA connections, Hunt had arranged for the radios to be supplied to the guerrillas during their quixotic Bolivian operation.
Che was executed in 1967, and both Bolivian soldiers and a CIA operative claimed to have pulled the trigger. Hunt told Slate it didn’t matter who had executed Guevara after the ambush -- only that “it was just important that it was done.”
After he resigned from the CIA in 1970, Hunt freelanced his skills as a spymaster and covert operations master, serving as a White House advisor to the Nixon administration at the time of the Watergate mission.
Hunt’s first wife, Dorothy, died in a plane crash in 1972, provoking various conspiracy theories as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In 1977, he married teacher Laura E. Martin, who survives him along with their son and daughter and four adult children from his first marriage.