American Spy: My Life in the CIA, Watergate, and Beyond
by E. Howard Hunt with Greg Aunapu
Wiley and Sons
During his years as a former Naval Officer, and later as a member of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its successor agency, the infamous Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Everette Howard Hunt (1918-2007) has made significant contributions to America. But he is best-remembered today as the ill-fated leader of the crew arrested for breaking into the Watergate in 1972, an event that precipitated the eponymous scandal that collapsed the administration of Richard Nixon. His memoir is a surefire page-turner, and some of it may actually be true. We’ll never know.
Any expectations of scores being settled, of big names being stretcher-jobbed with long-suppressed classified data, are quashed before the table of contents: the CIA’s “Publications Review Board” vetted the text before production, so if you’re wondering who really killed JFK, you’ll have to stick with the Warren Report for another decade. But that’s okay, because Hunt delivers no shortage of skullduggery, and the “Oh” factor is there. What comes through most starkly, in the book’s first half, is the sheer range of experience he had, geographically and operationally speaking. What comes through in the second is how deeply pissed he was about the end of his public career. Some might say he deserved it, given what he did, and one wonders if part of him agreed.
The book begins with an introduction written by the very first agent cultivated by Hunt while directing the CIA office in Mexico: conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, it turns out, was among the very few to stick by Hunt during his darkest years in the 1970s. Hunt notes that a favorite cover used by agents of all sides during the Cold War was as foreign service liaisons, diplomatic aides and embassy staff; he also speaks often of how journalists, academics and government employees served as active participants in numerous operations during his years at the CIA. There is isclosure of the existence of “Project Mockingbird,” in which perhaps dozens of print and broadcast media players were used for both propaganda and active intelligence gathering inside the United States, in direct violation of what was then its technical legal function.
The presence of Hunt among the Plumbers was among the crucial facts that set the subsequent Watergate investigations in motion. He was a known quantity throughout government by 1972, and his name was connected to more shady business than any ten rappers one could name. And once his cover was actually blown, and the depth of his involvement with the agency was part of public record, the earliest conspiracy theories about JFK included his name. Nixon’s reference to the “Bay of Pigs thing” is viewed as one of the more cryptic utterances from an otherwise highly explicit set of White House tapes (which could really use a good remixing).
Would Hunt have been involved in something small-time at the Watergate? Not likely, so his name tipped off people in the know early. Indeed, despite his formal exit from the CIA prior to joining Nixon, Hunt’s presence in that crew may have been interpreted as evidence of domestic operations by the agency itself, and handled more harshly than a typical case of dirty tricks, a partial list of which would exceed the available space. The agency’s rivals inside and outside of government—including members of the House and Senate, the Beltway press, elements of the FBI, Supreme Court and military, as well as millions of regular citizens, some of whom were rich—took the opportunity that Nixon’s sloppiness presented to annihilate his Administration.
Watergate was a key incident in the driving of a wedge between the FBI and CIA, leading ultimately to the sort of information gaps that resulted in the 9/11 debacle. Nixon was either a) looking for something so important that its exact nature remains unknown, or b) he was too paranoid to just relax and win an election he couldn’t lose. McGovern, his Democratic opponent, had already blown it by pushing two bad runningmates, and Nixon was well ahead in polls at the time of the incident. After the CIA, Hunt signed on as a White House consultant under Chuck Colson. The disclosure of Pentagon records related to Vietnam sent a chill through their halls, and Hunt was tasked with organizing what was effectively a counter-espionage team for the use of the President. These operations included break-ins, buggings, copying of records and so forth, centered around the circle of Daniel Ellsberg, who’d leaked the papers. This later expanded to spying on the Democratic Party itself and some of its candidates.
Hunt’s colleague in organizing this stuff was G. Gordon Liddy, who consistently comes off as the kind of character novelists dream of creating: a cold, ruthless loyalist with a sense of humor. Hunt recruited several of his Cuban friends from the Bay of Pigs days to do the actual break-ins. The weak link was James McCord, a former CIA man who was entrusted with aspects of the work pertaining to electronics. His mistakes were the group’s undoing, compounded with inept management of the crisis from above. As a politician, Nixon was no punk when it came to sabotage, but he expressed no taste for unnecessary risk. His underlings, unfortunately, were not so smart, and many of them, including Hunt, spent parts of the 1970s in prison. That incident certainly changed the course of human history, in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate but could hardly call “better." Writing about those years, especially the plane crash that killed his wife Dorothy in 1972, Hunt makes no attempt to hide his bitterness.
Curiously, there is an unexplained gap of about 40 years in the pictures section, where Hunt's visual history stops during preparations for the Bay of Pigs, only to pick up with one shot from 2006. No pictures of Dorothy, who emerges as the heroine of the book, or his kids, or any of the persons who would figure in the events of his life. Hunt testified to Congress that he destroyed many old documents during a move in the 1970s; indeed, things get burned, sunk, shredded and spirited away throughout the book.
After all those years of silence, Hunt only wrote his memoirs after the identity of “Deep Throat”—former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, the leak who provided the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein lots of information for their Watergate reporting, which helped bury Nixon and won Pulitzers for the paper—was finally revealed. Hunt’s book is much better than Felt’s, but Hunt did not live to see its publication. It may be ironic that he died just days before publication of what will be his testament to history, and that his son is now peddling purported tape of Hunt claiming involvement in the Kennedy hit. It almost seems like a conspiracy of some type.