MIAMI, Aug. 25, 2004—E. Howard Hunt is one of the most notorious spies of the 20th century. The son of an influential Republican leader in upstate New York, Hunt began his career as a founding member of the OSS, the precursor of the CIA in the 1940s. After beginning as an intelligence operative in China, Hunt trailblazed the path for the CIA in Latin America from 1950 to 1970, ever on the lookout for the Communist menace. By his account, he was the architect of the 1954 U.S.-backed coup ("Operation Success") in Guatemala that deposed democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. Adept at psych ops (propaganda and subversion) and running "black flights" (covert operations), he also played a role in the Bay of Pigs: He was responsible for propaganda operations and the organization of a post-Castro government. Such exploits and excesses led to the scaling back of the CIA's prerogatives following hearings by the Church Committee in 1976.
In July 1970, Hunt went into "private practice," taking with him the tools he acquired during his 25 years in the intelligence business. His most famous black-bag jobs were breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and, later, Watergate, where Hunt's "plumbers" cadre, recruited from among his Cuban exile comrades, rifled and bugged the offices of the Democratic Party in May and June of 1972.
Since pleading guilty to his role in Watergate and spending "33 months in 13 federal prisons," Howard Hunt has lived in Miami where he met and married his second wife of 27 years, Laura. An expert storyteller, Hunt has had a second career as a spy novelist. The couple live in a modest ranch house at the end of a cul-de-sac in north Miami. Posted around his door are warnings against trespassing, which seems somehow appropriate for a man with a history of illegal entry.
Hunt answered the door in a wheelchair. One of his legs has been amputated due to atherosclerosis, and for the past few months, he's battled lymphoma localized in his jaw (it is now in remission). He wears a hearing aid and sports rimless, bifocal glasses. While no longer the dapper spymaster, he remains salty and unremorseful.
As a general rule, Hunt said, he doesn't talk about Watergate or "the old days." But with his 86th birthday soon to occur on Oct. 9, he was feeling a bit more chatty.
Slate: You started the CIA's first bureau in Mexico in 1949. Did you first start working on Guatemala from there?
Hunt: In Mexico, I had a few agents from Washington with me, and I had recruited a few others … [including] a young Catholic priest. So the priest came to me one time, and he said, "I'm sending down several young men to Guatemala to get a view of the situation there. It's not good." He said, "My people were beaten up and put into jail, and then exiled from the country." And he sort of sat back expectantly. And I said, "That's certainly not right. I'll let Washington know what's going on in Guatemala." So I retold the story of Guatemala and the treatment of my young Catholic friend. I found that there was a lot of intense interest in what I had to say.
Slate: We're talking about the time after 1952, the year Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala.
Hunt: He was in power then, yes. But his wife was by far the smarter of the two and sort of told him what to do. She was a convinced communist. … I waited for orders [from Washington]. A couple of [CIA and military] officers came down to join me, and it became apparent that there was going to be an effort to dislodge the communist management [laughs] of Guatemala. Which indeed happened. We set up shop and had some very bright guys working against Arbenz, and the long and short of it was that we got Arbenz defenestrated. Out the window. [Laughs]
Slate: But President Arbenz ended up in exile—not really out the window?