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4 Decades Later We Still Don’t Know What the CIA’s Role in Watergate Was

E. Howard Hunt testifies before the Watergate Committee

The release of a 42-year-old Central Intelligence Agency history of its role in the Watergate break-in answered some old questions about the scandal and filled in some nagging gaps, but it left some equally troubling questions unanswered.

Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog group, obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act and released it August 30. While the report was considered a draft by the CIA inspector general, it contains rich detail about the agency's activities leading up to and following the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.

In short, the CIA went to great lengths to distance itself from involvement in the Watergate break-in, although five of the seven men involved either worked for the agency at the time or had in the past.

A longtime CIA official, E. Howard Hunt, is at the heart of the report, which highlights a greater degree of cooperation between agency officials and Hunt than previously admitted. But the CIA failed to address some deeper questions about Hunt's work after he "retired" in April 1970.

For example, why would the agency spend so much time and effort on a supposedly retired operative when he was working in the private sector?

The report notes that Hunt met on October 15, 1971, with Thomas Karamessines, the chief of the CIA's covert operations division, to discuss Hunt's job at Mullen and Company, a Washington public relations firm that was a CIA front. “The purpose of the meeting actually involved a cover problem with the Mullen Company and neither Hunt nor Karamessines mentioned Hunt’s prior contacts” with the agency’s Technical Services Division.

Such an explanation strains credulity. Why would the head of the unit meet to discuss a routine cover with Hunt unless he was still working for the agency in some capacity? Author Jim Hougan, in his groundbreaking 1984 book Secret Agenda, wrote that Karamessines was Hunt's case officer. That makes far more sense than the story offered in the CIA report.

Hunt, the report shows, had access to virtually the entire agency. He called upon friends and former associates in multiple departments for help. He hired at least three former agents for jobs. He knew how to evade the ways the agency tracked visitors to its headquarters.

He was no ordinary "retiree."

The report posits that the agency's right hand did not know what the left was doing, so no one, not even Director Richard Helms, knew all of the ways Hunt used the agency. For example, while the agency was helping the White House's special investigative unit obtain psychological profiles on Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, officials did not realize that Hunt was involved. Therefore, the report claims, they did not connect the profiles with the other assistance the agency was providing Hunt.

How many secret projects was the CIA helping the White House with anyway?

All of the CIA assistance of Hunt and the White House came during the second half of 1971, when President Richard Nixon was exerting pressure on the agency to turn over its records on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The meeting between Karamessines and Hunt came a week after Helms met Nixon at the White House. Nixon intended to fire Helms for his lack of cooperation on the Bay of Pigs file, but, as I wrote in Nixon’s Gamble, Nixon caved in and vowed to protect the CIA.

Helms knew Hunt was working with the White House on secret projects, and that he was hiring Cuban exiles with CIA ties to work with him. One, Rolando Martinez, one of the Watergate burglars, was on a $100-a-month retainer to tell the agency about developments in the Cuban community, the report said.

Again, the report said, no one at the CIA put it all together.

What seems much more believable is that Helms knew everything that Hunt was doing at the White House and that it was going to blow up on Nixon eventually. When the Watergate break-in failed and FBI investigators were following the leads supplied by Hunt's address book, Helms told the FBI not to question Karl Wagner, the executive assistant to deputy director Robert Cushman.

Wagner had facilitated much of the agency's help for Hunt. Wagner only recommended withdrawing that support when he learned that Hunt had broken secrecy by bringing an outsider, G. Gordon Liddy, into the operation. “I see two problems: 1) Hunt has brought a stranger into the picture who is now privy to TSD’s role in this affair,” Wagner wrote. “The White House should have cleared this with us and we must be told who the fellow is. He could embarrass us later. … The Agency could suffer if its clandestine gear were discovered to be used in domestic secret operations.”

After Watergate, the agency would give Wagner a commendation for blowing the whistle on the whole affair. The report, however, shows his concern was about the violation of tradecraft, not the propriety of helping Hunt.

No one has ever proved that the CIA ordered the Watergate break-in, and the evidence suggests the directions came from the White House counsel John Dean and Nixon campaign official Jeb Magruder. But the agency's fingerprints were all over much of the actual operation.

Hunt's retirement from the agency was a carefully constructed sham. Martinez was on the CIA payroll. An interview of Martinez by author Len Colodny and attorney Benton Becker in 1990 shows that Hunt gave Martinez the key to the desk that Martinez was hiding under when the Watergate burglars were arrested. That interview is now in the Colodny Collection at Texas A&M University.

An organization interested in learning what actually happened would have discovered these details and put them in a report aimed at providing the truth. The CIA history, intent on covering its tracks, fails to do that. It does, however, show that Helms and others had ample reasons to hide what they knew about their help to Hunt and the White House team.