Remembering Watergate's field commander

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You might call him the field commander of Watergate. E. Howard Hunt died on Jan. 23, leaving his imprint on the annals of conspiracy.

When the Nixon campaign committee needed someone to organize a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate office building, they turned to this former CIA operative thought to be well versed in the dark art of breaking and entering.

Mr. Hunt assembled a team of mainly Cuban exiles whom he had commanded in the CIA's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. To motivate them, he told them that the mission was to unearth evidence of Fidel Castro's bankrolling of George McGovern's campaign. The theory was that such documents might be found in the files of the DNC.

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This was the cover story. The real reason for the DNC operation may have been that President Nixon had accepted illegal campaign contributions from the eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes and later learned that a consultant of Mr. Hughes, Lawrence O'Brien, had become chairman of the DNC. Mr. Nixon apparently feared that his association with Hughes would be exposed by Mr. O'Brien and that documents to prove as much might be found in DNC files.

The fear was unwarranted. O'Brien later said that if he had known of a Nixon-Hughes deal, he would have shouted the news from the rooftops.

So in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, Hunt's band of five broke into the Democratic offices while Hunt, the commander, monitored the operation by walkie-talkie from the Howard Johnson hotel across the street. Or at least, he tried to monitor the operation.

The walkie-talkies failed at the crucial moment, and Hunt was unable to warn the burglars when he saw police vehicles drive up to the Watergate building.

More than a decade after the Bay of Pigs, Hunt served more than 2-1/2 years in prison for his second botched operation.

I was fascinated to learn that Hunt completed a memoir before his death. Titled "American Spy," it is scheduled for release this spring. In it, Hunt notes that he wants the world to know that he had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination, as some have speculated.

Second, Hunt explains that he originally advised against breaking into the Democratic offices in the Watergate building because he thought it was too risky. Third, he writes that he did not, as reported, blackmail the White House for money in an effort to buy the imprisoned team's silence about the involvement of higher-ups.

Hunt tells most of his Watergate venture fairly straight, without lingering resentments.

Except for one: Nixon.

Nixon could have pardoned those who had served him before he resigned and was himself pardoned by President Ford. Of Nixon, Hunt wrote that he was troubled that, "Nixon, the man who was conspirator in chief would somehow rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of his ignominy and become an elder statesman whose funeral would draw every living American president including President Clinton. No other Watergate figure would fare quite as well."

In the end, Hunt indicated no regrets for his Watergate role or prison sentence. He wrote, "If our Watergate team had found that the Democrats were indeed being financed by the Communist enemies, then our criminal actions might have been judged heroic."

From his experience, Hunt drew conclusions for the present. He wrote, "Like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, our Watergate team was subject to faulty intelligence. We were wrong, and we took our punishment. Bush should have admitted his mistakes early on and taken the rap."

"My adventuresome life as a secret agent," Hunt called it. Maybe it was one adventure too many.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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