E. Howard Hunt and the Watergate Break-In

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The key Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt died this week. The man who planned the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters was also the first to be sent to prison for the crime.

DANIEL SCHORR: The field commander of Watergate, you might call him. E. Howard Hunt, who died last week at 88, leaves his imprint on the conspiracy that went awry.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

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

Hunt assembled a team of mainly Cuban exiles whom he had commanded in the CIA's disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion into Cuba in 1961. To motivate them, he told them that the mission was to unearth evidence of Fidel Castro's bankrolling of the McGovern campaign. The theory was that such documents might be found in the files of the Democratic National Committee. Actually, that was the cover story for what may have been the real reason for the operation.

Nixon had received illegal campaign contributions from the eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes. A consultant to Hughes was Lawrence O'Brien, who had become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And so Nixon feared that this association would lead to exposure of the illegal campaign money and that documents about this 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 office while the commander monitored the operation by walkie-talkie from the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street. Or at least he tried to monitor it. At the crucial moment, the walkie-talkies failed and Hunt was unable to warn the burglars when he saw police vehicles drive up to the Watergate building.

Hunt served two and a half years for his botched operation. Indeed, you might say his second botched operation, going back to the Bay of Pigs.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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