Alex Constantine - July 23, 2009
Watergate 'plumber' dies
July 7, 2009
Bernard Leon Barker, one of the last surviving "plumbers" who broke into the Watergate building in a scandal that led to the 1974 resignation of president Richard Nixon, died in Florida at age 92, the Miami Herald reported Saturday.
Barker and four colleagues working for a special White House office were caught breaking into Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington in June 1972.
The team known as the "plumbers" -- tasked with stopping information leaks -- broke into the DNC office to plant microphones. The "burglars" however were surprised and later charged and convicted along with two White House advisers.
Profile: Bernard Barker
Bernard Barker was a participant or observer in the following events:
March-April 1972: CREEP Raises $20 Million in Unreported Cash, Launders It through Foreign Banks President Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, delivers over $900,000 in secret campaign contributions to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). He has collected the money on Nixon’s orders, passing along Nixon’s instructions to donors, one of which is “Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must give at least $250,000.” In total, CREEP collects nearly $20 million, $2 million in cash. CREEP reports none of this money—and because the new campaign finance laws do not go into effect until April 7, the organization is not legally bound to declare it until that time. Some of the contributors are executives and corporations in trouble with the IRS or the Justice Department. Some are Democrats openly contributing to Democratic candidates and hedging their bets with contributions to Nixon and other Republicans. Much of the money is “laundered” through Mexican and Venezuelan banks. “Plumber” G. Gordon Liddy moves $114,000 through fellow “Plumber” Bernard Barker’s Miami bank accounts (see April-June 1972 and June 21, 1972). More money resides in safety deposit boxes in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Miami. “Plumber” E. Howard Hunt uses money from the campaign fund to recruit dozens of young men and women to spy on Democratic campaigns and report back to CREEP. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 462-463]
April-June 1972: ’Plumbers’ Plan for Watergate Burglary According to Watergate burglar Eugenio Martinez (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), White House aide E. Howard Hunt, whom he calls by his old CIA code name “Eduardo” (see September 9, 1971), is ratcheting up the activities of the White House “Plumbers” operation. Martinez is not yet aware of the nature of the team’s operations, but believes he is part of a black-ops, CIA-authorized organization working to foil Communist espionage activities. Hunt gives team member Bernard Barker $89,000 in checks from Mexican banks to cash for operational funds, and orders Barker to recruit new team members. Barker brings in Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, and Reinaldo Pico, all veterans of the CIA’s activities against Cuba’s Fidel Castro. On May 22, the six—Hunt, Barker, Gonzalez, Martinez, Pico, and Sturgis—meet for the first time at the Manger Hays-Adams Hotel in Washington for Hunt’s first briefing. By this point, Martinez will later recall, G. Gordon Liddy, who had been involved in the burglary related to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, is involved. Hunt calls Liddy “Daddy,” and, Martinez recalls, “the two men seemed almost inseparable.” They meet another team member, James McCord, who unbeknownst to Martinez is an official with Nixon’s presidential campaign (see June 19, 1972). McCord is introduced simply as “Jimmy,” an “old man from the CIA who used to do electronic jobs for the CIA and the FBI.” McCord is to be the electronics expert.
Plans to Break into McGovern HQ - Martinez says that the group is joined by “a boy there who had infiltrated the McGovern headquarters,” the headquarters of the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. According to Hunt, they are going to find evidence proving that the Democrats are accepting money from Castro and other foreign governments. (Interestingly, Martinez will write that he still believes McGovern accepted Cuban money.) Hunt soon aborts the mission; Martinez believes “it was because the boy got scared.”
New Plans: Target the DNC - Instead, he and Liddy begin planning to burglarize the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate hotel and office complex. They all move into the Watergate to prepare for the break-in. Martinez will recall: “We brought briefcases and things like that to look elegant. We registered as members of the Ameritus Corporation of Miami, and then we met in Eduardo’s room.” The briefing is “improvised,” Martinez will recall. Hunt says that the Castro funds are coming to the DNC, not McGovern’s headquarters, and they will find the evidence there. The plans are rather impromptu and indefinite, but Martinez trusts Hunt and does not question his expertise. [Harper's, 10/1974]
May 27-28, 1972: ’Plumbers’ Install Surveillance Bugs in Democratic National Committee Offices
Frank Sturgis, one of the Watergate burglars. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]A covert unit of President Nixon’s “Plumbers” installs surveillance equipment in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex. The Washington police report an attempt to unscrew a lock on the door of the Committee’s office between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., but do not know as yet who tried to force the lock. Some of the five men caught burglarizing the same offices six weeks later (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) are currently registered at the Watergate Hotel, according to subsequent police investigations. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Change of Plans - According to one of the burglary team (see April-June 1972), Eugenio Martinez, the original plan centers on a fake “banquet” in the Watergate hotel for their fake company, the Ameritus Corporation, to be held in a private dining room that has access to the elevators. While team leader and White House aide E. Howard Hunt hosts the banquet, Martinez and the other burglars will use the elevator to go to the DNC offices and “complete the mission.” Virgilio Gonzalez, a locksmith, will open the door; Frank Sturgis, Reinaldo Pico, and Felipe de Diego will act as lookouts; Bernard Barker will get the documents; Martinez will take photographs; and James McCord will “do his job,” apparently involving electronics that Martinez does not understand.
First Time Failure - Apparently they do not follow their plan. Instead, Hunt and the seven members of what Martinez calls “McCord’s army” enter the Watergate complex at midnight, and they enter and sign in under the eye of a policeman. McCord explains that they are all going to work at the Federal Reserve offices on the eighth floor, an explanation Martinez feels is shaky. They are unable to get in through the doors of the sixth floor, and are forced to cancel the operation. Martinez recalls that while the others attempt to get in to the sixth floor, McCord is busy doing something else on the eighth floor; at 2 a.m., he sees McCord on the eighth floor talking to two guards. What McCord is doing, Martinez does not know. “I did not ask questions, but I thought maybe McCord was working there,” he will later recall. “It was the only thing that made sense. He was the one who led us to the place and it would not have made sense for us to have rooms at the Watergate and go on this operation if there was not someone there on the inside.” Hunt is furious at the failure to get into the DNC offices, and reschedules the operation for the next night. Gonzales flies to Miami and brings back his entire set of lockpicking tools. Martinez questions the laxity of the plan—the lack of floor plans, information about the elevators, knowledge of the guards’ schedules, and no contingency plans for failure. Hunt tells him, through Barker: “You are an operative. Your mission is to do what you are told and not to ask questions.”
Success - The second try is successful. Gonzalez and Sturgis get through the doors and usher everyone in, with one of them calling over their walkie-talkie, “The horse is in the house.” Martinez recalls taking “thirty or forty” photographs of campaign contributor documents, and McCord plants three phone taps, telling the others that while the first two might be discovered, the third will not. They return to their hotel rooms about 5 a.m. [Harper's, 10/1974]
Mid-June 1972: Watergate Burglars Have Film Developed at Commercial Photo Shop
Mug shot of Bernard Barker. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]About two weeks after the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters (see May 27-28, 1972), burglar Eugenio Martinez is startled when fellow burglar Bernard Barker bursts into his Miami real estate office. Martinez is talking with fellow burglars Felipe de Diego and Frank Sturgis when Barker comes in, according to Martinez, “like a cyclone.” Team leader E. Howard Hunt had been in Miami and given Barker some film to develop. The film was shot during the burglary of the DNC offices. Barker, unaware of the film’s source, took it to a public business, Rich’s Camera Shop, to have it developed. Barker wants everyone to go with him to retrieve the film. Martinez and the others “cover the door,” as Martinez later recalls, while Barker is inside the shop. “I do not think he handled the situation very well,” Martinez will recall. “There were all these people and he was so excited. He ended up tipping the man at the store $20 or $30. The man had just enlarged the pictures showing the documents being held by a gloved hand and he said to Barker: ‘It’s real cloak-and-dagger stuff, isn’t it?’ Later that man went to the FBI and told them about the film.”
Martinez is angered by the amateurishness of the operation, but does not feel he can confront Barker, his close friend, on the issue. Barker is “just blind” about Hunt, Martinez recalls, and does not see how poorly the plans are going. Barker has been Hunt’s “principal assistant at the Bay of Pigs, [Hunt’s] liaison with the Cubans, and he still believed tremendously in the man.” Martinez decides to quit, but before he can do so, Barker tells Martinez that there is another Watergate operation in the works. Not wanting to jeopardize the new operation, he agrees to go on one “last mission.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
June 17, 1972: White House, Nixon Campaign Mobilizes in Response to Watergate Burglary Though the five Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) are not yet allowed to make telephone calls, phones begin ringing at 5 a.m. at the CIA, the White House, the offices of the Nixon re-election campaign (CREEP), and Nixon’s home in Key Biscayne, where White House aide H. R. Haldeman is. By 3:30 p.m., when the five appear for arraignment (see June 17, 1972), lawyers are waiting to represent them. At CREEP, accused burglar G. Gordon Liddy, released on bail, is busily shredding files; fellow burglar E. Howard Hunt is doing the same at his office. White House aide Charles Colson orders all White House phone directories listing Hunt as a White House employee destroyed. CREEP deputy director Jeb Magruder speaks to his boss, CREEP director John Mitchell, by phone, then begins burning his copies of the “Gemstone” files (see January 29, 1972). Later in the day, Liddy bursts into Attorney General Richard Kleindienst’s office saying that Mitchell wants the five burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, James McCord, and Frank Sturgis—released from prison immediately (see June 17, 1972). Kleindienst does not believe Liddy, and has no authority to release them anyway. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 501]
June 17, 1972: Five ‘Plumbers’ Arraigned for Watergate Burglary
Prosecutor Earl Silbert. [Source: Washington Post]The five men caught burglarizing the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate hotel (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) are arraigned in a Washington, DC, city court on charges of felony burglary and possession of implements of crime. All five originally gave the police false names.
[Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The real identities of the five are:
Bernard Barker of Miami, a Cuban-American whom Cuban exiles say has worked on and off for the CIA since the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Barker was one of the principal leaders of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, the exile organization established with CIA help to organize the Bay of Pigs invasion. Barker’s wife reportedly told attorney Douglas Caddy, one of the team’s lawyers, that, as Caddy says, “her husband told her to call me if he hadn’t called her by 3 a.m.: that it might mean he was in trouble.” [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Washington Post, 6/19/1972] Barker owns a Miami real estate firm, Barker & Associates. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 ]
Virgilio Gonzalez, a Miami locksmith of Cuban extraction. Gonzalez’s boss, Harry Collot, says Gonzalez came to the US about the time Fidel Castro became well-known, and is an ardent opponent of the Castro regime. Collot describes Gonzalez as “pro-American and anti-Castro… he doesn’t rant or rave like some of them do.”
Eugenio Martinez, a real estate agent from Miami, who authorities say is active in anti-Castro activities in Florida, and violated US immigration laws in 1958 by flying a private plane to Cuba.
James W. McCord, the security director for the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP). McCord initially identifies himself as “Edward Martin,” a former CIA agent and “security consultant” who resides in New York City and possibly the DC area. Neither the police or the press are aware, at the moment, of McCord’s true identity (see June 19, 1972).
Frank Sturgis, a former Cuban army intelligence officer, mercenary, and now the agent for a Havana salvage firm in Miami. Sturgis uses the alias “Frank Florini” during the arraignment. “Fiorini” was identified in 1959 by the Federal Aviation Agency as the pilot of a plane that dropped anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Previous news reports describe “Fiorini” as a “soldier of fortune” and the former head of the International Anti-Communist Brigade, an organization formed after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1962.
The Brigade trained and ferried 23 Cuban exiles into Cuba, where they began guerrilla operations against Castro. “Florini” reportedly fought with, not against, Castro during the Cuban revolution and was originally slated to be named overseer of Cuba’s gambling operations before Castro shut down Cuba’s casinos. Apparently, Sturgis is involved in trying to orchestrate Miami Cubans to demonstrate against the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Miami in July. Sturgis is also involved in the John Birch Society and the Reverend Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade.
During their arraignment, one of the burglars describes the team as “anti-Communists,” and the others nod in agreement. Prosecutor Earl Silbert calls the operation “professional” and “clandestine.” The court learns that four of the five, all using fictitious names, rented two rooms at the Watergate, and dined together in the Watergate restaurant on February 14. A search of the two rooms turns up $4,200, again in sequential $100 bills, more burglary tools, and more electronic surveillance equipment, all stashed in six suitcases. Currently, FBI and Secret Service agents are investigating the burglary. Caddy, who says he met Barker a year ago at the Army Navy Club and had a “sympathetic conversation [with Barker]—that’s all I’ll say,” attempts to stay in the background during the arraignment, instead having another attorney, Joseph Rafferty Jr, plead before the court. Caddy is a corporate lawyer with no criminal law experience. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Washington Post, 6/19/1972] Interestingly, Caddy shows up at the arraignment apparently without any of the burglars contacting him (see June 17, 1972). [Woodward, 2005, pp. 35] Silbert argues unsuccessfully that the five should be held without bail, citing their use of fictitious names, their lack of community ties, and the likelihood that they would flee the country after they post bail. “They were caught red-handed,” Silbert tells the court. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Washington Post, 6/19/1972]
June 17, 1972: Lead Burglar Cleans out Watergate Listening Post, Alerts Lawyer to Arrests While the police are arresting the five Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), the team leader, E. Howard Hunt, goes to the hotel room in which Nixon campaign aide Alfred Baldwin has been monitoring the electronic surveillance devices surreptitiously installed in Democratic National Committee headquarters (see May 27-28, 1972). Baldwin was to monitor the burglars and warn them of trouble, but the burglar with the walkie-talkie, Bernard Barker, had his unit turned off and Baldwin was unable to warn them of police arriving on the scene. From Baldwin’s hotel room, Hunt phones a lawyer, Douglas Caddy; Hunt and Caddy both work at a public relations firm, Mullen Company, which some believe is a CIA front organization. Baldwin can hear Hunt talking about money, bail, and posting bonds. Hunt instructs Baldwin to load a van belonging to burglar James McCord with the listening post equipment and sensitive operational documents (the “Gemstone” file—see September 29, 1972), and drive to McCord’s house in Rockville, Maryland. Baldwin will soon tell his story to a lawyer, Robert Mirto; the information will soon find its way to DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. This is how O’Brien so quickly learns that White House aides such as Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy were involved in the Watergate burglary (see June 20, 1972). [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]
FBI Finds Information Connecting Burglars to White House Aide - Within hours of the burglary, FBI agents searching the Watergate hotel rooms of the burglars find a check with the name “E. Howard Hunt” imprinted on it. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 ] In October 1974, burglar Bernard Barker will write: “When we went on the mission, I had put all our identifications and wallets in a bag in the hotel room, and I told Howard that if something happened he would have everything, including my address book with the White House phone number. But when he left the room, he was in such a big hurry that he left everything there. This was a very bad mistake, of course, because [the FBI] immediately established the connection with Hunt and me. They had the connections on a silver platter. But I guess Hunt had enough things to worry about then.” [Harper's, 10/1974] The agents, quickly learning that Hunt is a White House employee, interview Hunt at his Potomac home; Hunt admits the check is his, but denies any knowledge of the burglary. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974]
June 22, 1972: Nixon Denies White House Role in Watergate Burglary; Post Reporters Find Connections President Nixon tells a gathering of reporters regarding the Watergate burglary (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), “The White House has no involvement in this particular incident.” Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward find the phrasing—“this particular incident”—interesting. They have already unearthed numerous connections between the White House and the Watergate burglars, some more tenuous than others, but all pointing to a larger, if indistinct, pattern:
Burglar Frank Sturgis is one of the men who attacked Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see March 1971) outside a memorial service for the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in May 1972.
The address book of one of the burglars contains sketches of the hotel rooms to be used by the campaign of Democratic candidate George McGovern during the Democratic National Convention in Miami.
A Miami architect says that burglar Bernard Barker tried to obtain blueprints of the Miami convention hall and its air-conditioning system.
Burglar E. Howard Hunt’s boss at the public relations firm he works for (see June 17, 1972), Robert Bennett, has organized over 100 dummy campaign committees that have been used to funnel millions of dollars into the Nixon re-election campaign.
Burglar James McCord (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) was carrying an application for college press credentials for the Democratic convention when he was arrested.
Three of the Watergate burglars, all Miami residents, had been in Washington at the same time the offices of some prominent Democratic lawyers in the Watergate had been burgled. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 29]
July 25, 1972: Post Reporter Finds Financial Connection between Watergate Burglar, Nixon Campaign The New York Times publishes an article alleging that Watergate burglar Bernard Barker (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) made at least 15 telephone calls to the office of G. Gordon Liddy, then working as a lawyer for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Barker made the calls between March 15 and June 16, 1972, with the last call coming the day before the Watergate break-in. Using sources inside the Bell telephone system, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein learns that the Times story is accurate. Further, he learns that Barker’s phone records have been subpoenaed by Miami district attorney Richard Gerstein. Gerstein’s chief investigator, Martin Dardis, confirms that Barker’s bank account contained $89,000 from a Mexico City bank account, money that FBI investigators believe originated from Nixon campaign funds (see August 1-2, 1972). In fact, Bernstein learns, Barker’s account contained over $100,000 from the Mexico City source. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 35-37]
August 1-2, 1972: Nixon Campaign Check Found in Watergate Burglar’s Account; Indications of Huge Campaign Fund The Washington Post reports that a $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for the campaign to re-elect President Nixon, found its way into the Miami bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, Bernard Barker (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Origin of Check - The check, drawn on a Boca Raton, Florida bank, was made out to Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the finance manager for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Dahlberg says that in early April, he gave the check to “the treasurer of the Committee [Hugh Sloan, who has since quit the committee and is cooperating with the FBI investigation] or to Maurice Stans himself.” Stans, formerly Nixon’s secretary of commerce, is CREEP’s finance chief. The money is made up of “[c]ontributions I collected in my role as Midwest finance chairman,” Dahlberg explains. “In the process of fund-raising I had accumulated some cash… so I recall making a cash deposit while I was in Florida and getting a cashier’s check made out to myself. I didn’t want to carry all that cash into Washington.”
Watergate Connections - Barker withdrew much of the money from the same Boca Raton bank account, in $100 bills. 53 of those bills were found on the five Watergate burglars after their arrest. Clark MacGregor, who replaced former Attorney General John Mitchell as the head of CREEP (see July 1, 1972), says he knows nothing about the check or the money found on Barker and the other burglars: “[T]hese events took place before I came aboard. Mitchell and Stans would presumably know.” The Post also learns that another $89,000 in four separate checks were deposited in Barker’s Miami bank account in May (see June 23, 1972). The checks were originally made out to Mexican lawyer Manuel Ogarrio Daguerre, on an account at Mexico’s Banco Internacional. While looking over the story before publication, Post editor Barry Sussman says: “We’ve never had a story like this. Just never.”
[Washington Post, 8/1/1972; Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 43-44]
GAO Will Investigate Nixon Campaign Finances - Stans’s secretary says her boss cannot comment on the story because he is “agoniz[ing] over the confusing circumstances” and does not want to say anything that might compromise his integrity. Philip S. Hughes, the director of the Federal Elections Division of the General Accounting Office (GAO, the investigative arm of Congress), says that the story reveals “for the first time [that] the bugging incident was related to the campaign finance law.… There’s nothing in Maury [Stans]‘s reports showing anything like that Dahlberg check.” Hughes says his office intends to fully audit the Nixon campaign finances. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 45-47]
August 29, 1972: Watergate Burglar Says ‘They’ are ‘Paying for My Attorneys’ In a Washington Post story about a press conference held by President Nixon (see August 29, 1972), reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward report a conversation with Enrique Valledor, president of the Florida Association of Realtors and the former boss of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Valledor recalls asking about Barker’s potential liability in the million-dollar lawsuit filed by the Democrats over the Watergate break-in (see June 20, 1972). Barker replies: “I’m not worried. They’re paying for my attorneys.” Valledor asks, “Who are they?” and Barker responds, “I can’t tell you.” It is the first public hint of direct monetary payments to the burglars by either White House or Nixon campaign officials. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 57-58]
September 15, 1972: Watergate Burglars Indicted
Accused Watergate burglar Bernard Barker after being arraigned in June 1972. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The first indictments against the five men accused of burglarizing Democratic National Headquarters (see June 17, 1972)—James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, and Virgilio Gonzalez—are handed down. White House aides G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt are also indicted. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] The indictments are for conspiracy, interception of communications, and burglary. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974]
Washington Post Investigation - In its story of the indictments, the Washington Post will note that the indictments do “not touch on the central questions about the purpose or sponsorship of the alleged espionage” against the Democrats. Post reporter Carl Bernstein asks a Justice Department official why the indictments are so narrowly focused, as the FBI has certainly unearthed the same information as the Post investigation. After the source admits that the Justice Department knows about the campaign “slush fund” and the White House connections to the electronic surveillance, an indignant Bernstein asks why the Post should not run a story accusing the department of ignoring evidence. The official responds that the department does not intend to file any future indictments, and that the investigation is currently “in a state of repose.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 69-70]
FBI Continues to Probe - FBI spokesman J. W. Hushen says that the indictments have ended the investigation and the agency has “absolutely no evidence to indicate that any others should be charged.” Contrary to Hushen’s statement and the Justice Department official’s comment to Bernstein, the FBI will continue its investigation. A day later, Deputy Attorney General Henry Peterson says that any charges that the FBI has conducted a “whitewash” of the Watergate conspiracy are untrue. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 ; Reeves, 2001, pp. 526-527]
Bay of Pigs Forged Bond - Martinez will later recall Hunt as one of his heroes from the time of the Cuban Revolution. Hunt, a CIA agent using the code name “Eduardo,” endeared himself to Martinez and other anti-Castro Cubans by denouncing the failed Bay of Pigs invasion as the fault of then-President Kennedy and others unwilling to fight against Fidel Castro. Martinez, himself then a CIA agent and an associate of Barker, Sturgis, McCord, and Gonzalez, will later write, “I can’t help seeing the whole Watergate affair as a repetition of the Bay of Pigs.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
December 8, 1972: Wife of Watergate Plumber Dies in Suspicious Plane Crash
Dorothy Hunt. [Source: Spartacus Educational]Dorothy Hunt, the wife of accused Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), dies in a plane crash that claims the lives of 44 others when it crashes just after takeoff from Chicago’s Midway Airport. Some believe that the plane crash may have been planned, though there is no hard evidence to support this contention.
Blackmailing the White House? - Hunt and his fellow “Plumbers” (see Late June-July 1971) have been regularly receiving “hush money” payments from the Nixon presidential campaign to stay quiet about their activities (see March 20, 1971). With the prospect of going to prison, Hunt threatened to reveal juicy details of who exactly paid him to organize the Watergate burglary. His wife helped negotiate a payoff deal with Nixon aide Charles Colson.
Hunt’s fellow Plumber, James McCord, will later claim that Dorothy Hunt said that her husband has information that would “blow the White House out of the water.” She was, Colson later admits, “upset at the interruption of payments from Nixon’s associates to Watergate defendants.” Former Attorney General John Mitchell, the head of Nixon’s re-election organization, arranged to have Nixon aide Frederick LaRue pay the Hunts $250,000 to keep their mouths shut. The day of the crash, Dorothy Hunt had arranged to meet with CBS journalist Michelle Clark, perhaps to discuss the Watergate investigation. Clark, Dorothy Hunt, and Illinois congressman George Collins are aboard the plane, United Airlines Flight 533, when it crashes into a Chicago neighborhood; all three die. Hunt is reported to be carrying $10,000 in cash as a partial payoff for the burglars (see February 28, 1973), but some sources will later claim that she was carrying far more. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Shortly after the crash, White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman tell Nixon that Mrs. Hunt had distributed $250,000 in cash to her husband and the other Watergate burglars. The cash was delivered to Mrs. Hunt by White House courier Tony Ulasewicz, whose standard procedure was to take cash from the White House to Washington’s National Airport and leave the money in a rented locker. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 551] In October 1974, Watergate burglar Bernard Barker will confirm that Dorothy Hunt was the burglars’ connection to the White House. Barker will recall that, months after the burglary, he met her in Miami, where she told him, “From now on, I will be your contact.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
FBI 'Swarms' Crash Site - One reporter, Lalo J. Gastriani, later reports that just after the crash, the downed plane is swarmed by “a battalion of plainclothes operatives in unmarked cars parked on side streets.” The neighbors who report this to Gastriani say that some of the “operatives” look like “FBI types,” and one neighbor recognizes a “rescue worker” as a CIA agent. Gastriani’s account sounds like the worst conspiracy theory and is anything but conclusive, but future FBI director William Ruckelshaus will later admit that his agency had over 50 agents at the crash site. Interestingly, one of Colson’s aides directly involved in overseeing Hunt’s “Plumbers,” Egil Krogh, will be named as undersecretary of transportation one day after the crash; the position gives Krogh direct control over the two agencies responsible for investigating the crash. Another Nixon aide, Dwight Chapin, soon becomes a top executive at United Airlines. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]
Early January, 1973: Barker, Other Burglars Remaining Silent to Keep Ellsberg Burglary Secret While awaiting trial, Watergate burglar James McCord (see June 19, 1972) tells his fellow burglars that he is going to get his own lawyer. “I am going to get F. Lee Bailey. He is a big attorney,” McCord tells Bernard Barker. McCord recommends that Barker and the other Cubans—Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—get their own lawyers, too. Barker meets with lawyer Henry Rothblatt, who assures Barker that he will represent all the Cubans for free. “He had [successfully] defended the Green Berets in their big case” (see September 29, 1969), Barker will write in 1974, and this case is, according to Rothblatt, very similar. Protected by the attorney-client relationship, Barker tells Rothblatt about both the Watergate and Ellsberg burglaries (see August 5, 1971). Barker will write, “So he knew we couldn’t use the truth as our defense in the Watergate case, because we could not reveal our recruitment for the Ellsberg case.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
January 8-11, 1973: Trial of Seven Watergate Defendants Begins; Five Plead Guilty
A confident G. Gordon Liddy leaves the courtroom. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]The trial of the seven men accusing of breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) begins. Defendant G. Gordon Liddy is confident to the point of exuberance, waving triumphantly to the jurors; the other defendants are more subdued. Prosecutor Earl Silbert’s opening argument presents a scenario in which Liddy had been given money for legitimate political intelligence-gathering purposes, and on his own decided to mount illegal operations. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, observing in the courtroom, is dismayed; Silbert is giving the jury the “Liddy-as-fall-guy” tale Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein had learned of months before, and which Nixon and his aides had discussed in June (see June 21, 1972). After Silbert’s opening argument, Hunt abruptly changes his plea to guilty; the four Miami-based burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—soon follow suit (see January 10, 1973). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 229-231; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
January 10, 1973: Watergate Burglars Claim No Knowledge of Payments, Clemency Promises After the press reports that the Watergate burglars will receive cash payments in return for their guilty pleas and their silence (see January 8-9, 1973 and January 8-11, 1973), Judge John Sirica angrily grills the four Miami-based defendants in court about the claims.
To a man, they deny any pressure to plead guilty, any knowledge of cash payments to themselves or their families, and any knowledge of discussions of possible executive clemency. Defendant Virgilio Gonzalez even denies being a former CIA agent, when evidence has already established that he was on a $100/month retainer by the agency until the day after the Watergate burglary. (Defendant G. Gordon Liddy laughs aloud when Gonzalez makes this claim.) Gonzalez claims that the entire Watergate operation was somehow involved with the Communist regime of Cuba: Gonzalez says he is committed to “protect[ing] this country against any Communist conspiracy.” Sirica rolls his eyes in disbelief. Gonzalez claims not to know any specifics of the supposed connection between the Democrats and Castro’s Cuba, and says that he trusted the judgement of his superiors, Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Fellow defendant Bernard Barker claims that none of them were paid for their actions: “These are not men that sell themselves for money,” Barker states. Barker confirms that he worked for Hunt, and says it was an honor for him to perform such a service. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward later write, “The prosecutors’ assurances that everything would come out at the trial were fading into nothingness, as the defendants ducked into the haze of their guilty pleas.” The five who pled guilty are led off to jail before their bail and sentencing hearings. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 233-235; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] In his Watergate grand jury testimony, White House counsel John Dean will say that President Nixon approved executive clemency for Hunt in December 1972 (see January 10, 1973). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 312] In 1974, Barker will write that while in jail, James McCord is their group leader, but they do not fully trust him, partly because he is “very friendly with Alfred Baldwin, and to us Baldwin was the first informer” (see May 29, 1972). Another disconnection between McCord and the Cubans is his lack of participation in the Ellsberg burglary (see September 9, 1971). [Harper's, 10/1974]
January 10, 1973: Hunt to Burglars: White House Will Take Care of Families If They Plead Guilty, Remain Quiet E. Howard Hunt, the leader of the seven Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) currently on trial, tells fellow burglars Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Bernard Barker (sometimes called the “Cubans”) that if they plead guilty and keep their mouths shut, the White House will financially take care of their families. Hunt will plead guilty the next day; the others will plead guilty days later (see January 8-11, 1973). [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Hunt has been pressuring the White House for executive clemency—in essence, a presidential pardon—for himself in return for his and the burglars’ guilty pleas and subsequent silence. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 557-558] Watergate burglar Bernard Barker will write of the decision to plead guilty in October 1974. He will recall Hunt as being thoroughly demoralized by the death of his wife Dorothy (see December 8, 1972), and telling Barker, “Well, you do what you want, but I am going to plead guilty.” When Barker asks why, Hunt replies: “We have no defense. The evidence against us is overwhelming.” Barker asks, “What about Liddy and McCord?” asking about the two accused burglars, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, who are being tried separately. Hunt replies: “Liddy and McCord are in a different sector. We are in one sector and they are in another. They have their own plan.” Barker then asks the Cubans’ lawyer, Henry Rothblatt, what his strategy is. Rothblatt confirms that they have no defense against the charges (see Early January, 1973), but he intends to “aggravate that Judge Sirica [John Sirica, presiding over the trial] to the point where I am going to drive him out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, and he is going to make so many mistakes with his arrogance that this will be a perfect case for appeal.” Unimpressed, Barker says he will follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt insists that Barker not trust Hunt and the others, saying: “They are a bunch of b_stards. They’ll double-cross you. They’ll sell you down the river.” Nevertheless, Barker and the other three burglars agree to follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt resigns from the case. Apparently, Barker is unaware at this time of Hunt’s negotiations with the White House for executive clemency for himself. [Harper's, 10/1974]
After January 30, 1973: Hunt Tells Fellow Burglars to Remain Silent Due to ‘National Security’ Concerns; McCord Ready to Jump Ship While awaiting sentencing, convicted Watergate burglar James McCord (see January 30, 1973) tells fellow burglar Bernard Barker that he is “not going to jail for these people,” apparently referring to White House officials. “If they think they are going to make a patsy out of me, they better think again.” Barker and his fellow “Cubans” are proud of their stubborn silence throughout the investigation, especially, as Barker will write, “not telling about the Ellsberg burglary” (see September 9, 1971). But, Barker will note, their silence did not pay off as they had hoped. “We were exposed by the very people who ordered us to do it—without their ever being in jail. [Egil] Krogh [the White House supervisor of the ‘Plumbers’] popped, they all popped.” Their lawyer tells them that the Ellsberg burglary is no longer secret, but in the news now, and they had better speak up about their role in that burglary while they still have a shot at gaining immunity for their testimony. But their colleague and putative leader E. Howard Hunt tells Barker and the others: “National security. We don’t talk. None of us talks.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
March 23, 1973: Watergate Burglars Sentenced; McCord Letter Revealed
Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis, former attorney Henry Rothblatt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez, photographed during the trial. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The Watergate burglars are sentenced to jail. G. Gordon Liddy receives between six years eight months to twenty years in federal prison. The actual burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—receive forty years. E. Howard Hunt receives 35 years. Judge John Sirica announces that the prison terms are “provisionary,” depending on whether they cooperate with government prosecutors. Convicted burglar James McCord is to be sentenced, but Sirica delays his sentencing, and reveals that McCord has written a letter to the court (see March 19-23, 1973) about the perjury and concealment that permeated the trial. After news of the letter hits the press, President Nixon writes in his diary that the letter is “a bombshell.” Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert says he will reconvene the grand jury investigating the break-in. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 578-580]
Entity Tags: James McCord, E. Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker, Earl Silbert, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, Richard M. Nixon, John Sirica, G. Gordon Liddy, Virgilio Gonzalez
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
September 24-25, 1973: Hunt Testifies before Watergate Committee
Howard Hunt during the Senate hearings. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Convicted Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee. He has been adamant about remaining silent before the investigators, both when he was interrogated by the FBI and the Watergate grand jury prosecutors, and had inspired the four so-called “Cubans” among the burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—to also remain silent. The “Cubans” are aghast at Hunt’s open testimony in the Senate; among other things, he confirms that former Nixon White House and campaign aides John Mitchell, John Dean, and Jeb Magruder were primarily responsible for the covert actions of the Nixon campaign, and says that the CIA is heavily involved in domestic activities. Hunt’s fellow White House aide, G. Gordon Liddy, who has also remained obstinately silent, is overtly disgusted at Hunt. When Hunt is returned to his jail cell, Liddy asks the guards to transfer him to another block, away from Hunt, and says, “From now on, it’s every man for himself.” [Vanderbilt University Television News Archive, 9/25/1973; Harper's, 10/1974]
Entity Tags: Frank Sturgis, Central Intelligence Agency, Bernard Barker, E. Howard Hunt, Federal Bureau of Investigation, G. Gordon Liddy, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Eugenio Martinez, Jeb S. Magruder, Virgilio Gonzales, John Dean, John Mitchell
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
March 7, 1974: Nixon Aides Charged with Ellsberg Break-In Former White House aides John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy, and three Cuban-Americans, including two of the convicted Watergate burglars (see January 8-11, 1973), Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez, are charged with planning and executing the burglary of the offices of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (see September 9, 1971).
Colson will quickly reach a plea-bargain agreement, promise to cooperate with the prosecution, plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, and serve approximately seven months in prison. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 335; Billy Graham Center, 12/8/2004] He will also be disbarred. In the guilty plea agreement, Colson admits to having devised “a scheme to obtain derogatory information about Daniel Ellsberg,” who himself was facing criminal charges relating to the Pentagon Papers leak. Colson wanted to smear Ellsberg’s reputation in the media, in essence having Ellsberg “tried in the newspapers” even though this would have an “adverse effect on his right to a fair trial.” Colson also admits to having written a “scurrilous and libelous memorandum” about one of Ellsberg’s attorneys. He does not admit to actually taking part in the planning of the Fielding burglary. [Time, 6/17/1974] In 2006, White House counsel John Dean will write that Colson’s promise of cooperation is virtually worthless: “[I]n the end he proved to be utterly useless as a government witness, since the government could not vouch for his honesty.” [Dean, 2006, pp. xxiii]
April 13, 1977: Frost Demonstrates Nixon’s Early Complicity in Watergate Conspiracy In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost moves from the erased Watergate tape (see November 21, 1973) to Nixon’s damning conversation with Charles Colson about “stonewalling” the Watergate investigation. This time around, Frost is far more prepared and ready to deal with Nixon’s tactics of obfuscation and misdirection than in earlier interviews (see April 6, 1977).
Surprise Information - Nixon is unaware that Frost knows about his conversation that same day with Colson (see June 20, 1972). Along with what is known about his conversation with Haldeman, the Colson conversation puts Nixon squarely in the midst of the conspiracy at its outset. More important than Frost’s command of the facts is Frost’s springing of a “surprise card” (Frost researcher James Reston Jr.‘s words) on Nixon at the beginning of the Watergate sessions. Nixon obviously must contend with the questions of what else Frost knows, and how he would ask about it. As Frost details excerpts from the Colson conversation, about “stonewalling” and “hav[ing] our people delay, avoiding depositions,” Reston watches Nixon on the monitor. Reston will later recall: “His jawline seemed to elongate. The corners of his mouth turned down. His eyes seemed more liquid. One could almost see the complicated dials in his head turning feverishly. It was a marvelously expressive face. The range of movement both within the contours of the visage and with the hands was enormous.” Frost concludes with the question, “Now, somewhere you were pretty well informed by this conversation, weren’t you?” After some fumbling and half-hearted admissions of some knowledge, Nixon begins justifying his actions in the conspiracy: “My motive was not to cover up a criminal action, but to be sure that as any slip over—or should I say slop over, a better word—any slop over in a way that would damage innocent people or blow it into political proportions.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 124-126]
Pinning Nixon down on CIA Interference - Frost asks about the conversations of June 23 (see June 23, 1972), when Nixon told his aides to have the CIA interfere with the FBI’s investigation of the burglary. Nixon tries dodging the point, emphasizing how busy he was with other matters that day and quibbling about the definition of the phrase “cover-up,” but finally says that he had no criminal motive in ordering the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the matter of the Mexican checks found in Watergate burglar Bernard Barker’s bank accounts. He was merely engaged in political containment, he says, and besides, two weeks later, the FBI traced the checks to a Mexican bank anyway (see Before April 7, 1972 and August 1-2, 1972). Nixon emphasizes his instructions to then-FBI director L. Patrick Gray to move forward on the investigation (see July 6, 1972). (Later, Nixon staff member Jack Brennan will admit that they had almost convinced Nixon to admit to the illegality of the June 23 orders, but Nixon had demurred.)
'You Joined a Conspiracy that You Never Left' - It now falls to Frost to confront Nixon with the strictures of the law and the evidence that he had broken those laws. Frost says, “But surely, in all you’ve just said, you have proved exactly that that was the case, that there was a cover-up of criminal activity because you’ve already said, and the record shows you knew, that Hunt and Liddy [E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the leaders of Nixon’s “Plumbers”] were involved… you knew that, in fact, criminals would be protected.” Nixon protests, “Now just a moment,” but Frost says, “Period.” Frost lectures Nixon on obstruction of justice, saying: “The law states that when intent and foreseeable consequences are sufficient, motive is completely irrelevant.… If I try to rob a bank and fail, that’s no defense. I still tried to rob a bank. I would say you tried to obstruct justice and succeeded in that period” between June 23 and July 6. Nixon retorts that he does not believe Frost knows much about the details of the obstruction of justice statutes, but fails to move Frost, who has been carefully instructed in the obstruction statutes all week. Frost eventually says: “Now, after the Gray conversation, the cover-up went on. You would say that you were not aware of it. I was arguing that you were part of it as a result of the June 23 conversation.” Nixon repeats, “You’re gonna say that I was a part of it as a result of the June 23 conversation?” Reston later writes, “It was a crucial moment, a moment that took considerable courage for David Frost.” Frost replies: “Yes.… I would have said that you joined a conspiracy that you never left.” “Then we totally disagree on that,” Nixon retorts. Reston later writes: “No journalist in America, I concluded, would have had the courage of Frost in that vital moment. But therein lay the failing of American journalism. For Frost here was an advocate. He was far beyond the narrow American definition of ‘objective journalism.’” [Time, 5/9/1977; Reston, 2007, pp. 124-126]