Study Guide

E. Howard Hunt in United States v. Nixon

By Supreme Court of the United States

E. Howard Hunt

Being in both the Army and Navy, serving in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in WWII then as a CIA Officer, and writing successful spy novels, E. Howard Hunt lived a life worthy of a spy movie. Matter of fact, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible is named after him (source).

While at the CIA, Hunt was involved with coups d'états in South America and helped plan the execution of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara (the bearded guy on every college freshman's T-shirt).

A published author of spy novels, Hunt joined the CIA in 1949, imagining a glamorous and exciting life. It didn't quite turn out that way. His assignments were mostly political in nature, mucking around in the activities of foreign governments, and trying to build a shadow government in Cuba that would take over after the planned Bay of Pigs invasion. When the invasion turned out to be an epic fail, Hunt's CIA career went down the drain. He resented Kennedy's attempts at co-existence with the Castro regime and eventually resigned from the CIA in 1970.

After he quit practicing spy craft for the CIA, Hunt went on to practice it for the Nixon Administration, organizing break-ins and burglaries and being invited to join the White House Special Investigation Unit—the guys known as "the plumbers" for their job of plugging leaks about the president's shenanigans.

As an ex-CIA guy, Hunt specialized in secret ops, dirty tricks, and sabotage. He would do anything to advance the interests of the president, whom he saw as having limitless power. Sam Hart, a former ambassador who knew Hunt in the 1950s, described him as "totally self-absorbed, totally amoral and a danger to himself and anybody around him" (source). In other words, perfect for the Nixon White House.

His first big job was to orchestrate the break-in at the office of a psychiatrist to dig up dirt on his patient Daniel Ellsberg, Ellsberg being the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971. This was his M.O. Hunt's other capers included:

  • Forging documents suggesting that JFK had ordered the assassination of the president of South Vietnam
  • Digging up dirt on Ted Kennedy after the Chappaquiddick incident
  • Trying to plant campaign material from George McGovern's presidential campaign (the guy running against Nixon in 1972) at the home of the guy who shot George Wallace

You get the idea.

So it isn't surprising that Hunt was the guy who hired the burglars who broke into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate—a couple of Cuban exile friends from his Bay of Pigs days along with some former government operatives. When the burglars were caught in May 1973, one of them had Hunt's White House phone number on him.

Oops.

Police arrested Hunt soon afterwards, charging him with conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping in the Watergate break-in. He didn't go quietly. To pay his mounting legal bills, he threatened to expose the whole story—including, presumably, Nixon's role—unless his contacts in the White House paid him and the other burglars to plead guilty and shut up. Whatever happened next is murky, but we know that his wife Dorothy was killed in a plane crash in December 1972, and was found to have $10,000 on her at the time of her death.

Hunt ultimately spent 33 months in prison for his role in Watergate. Although he pleaded guilty, he thought he was being unfairly punished. "I cannot escape feeling," he told the Senate committee investigating Watergate, "that the country I have served for my entire life and which directed me to carry out the Watergate entry is punishing me for doing the very things it trained and directed me to do" (source). Ronald Reagan turned down Hunt's request for a presidential pardon in 1983.

After his release from prison, Hunt moved to Florida and remarried. He continued his writing career until his death from pneumonia in 2007. You can read his deathbed "confession" here.

It's juicy.

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