E. Howard Hunt talks about Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, and what really happened to Che.
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?
Hunt: Yeah. In Czechoslovakia. With his very bright and attractive wife.
Slate: So it seems you were the architect for the Guatemalan operation?
Hunt: It was mine because nobody else knew more than I did. I would say that I had more knowledge about it than anybody did. I knew all the players on both sides.
Slate: How did you run the Guatemalan operation?
Hunt: We set up the first Guatemalan operation/shop at Opa-Locka [airport in Miami, formerly an Army base]. There were three barracks, and we used the airstrip to fly in people from Guatemala and to send our people into Guatemala. These were known as "the black flights." They always occurred at night; they are a secret and officially do not exist as having happened.
Slate: Do you think the Guatemala coup went well?
Hunt: Yes—it did. And I'm glad I kept Arbenz from being executed.
Slate: How did you do that?
Hunt: By passing the word out to the people at the airport who had Arbenz to "let him go."
Slate: To whom did you give the word?
Hunt: It was a mixed band of CIA and Guatemalans at the airport and their hatred for him was palpable.
Slate: You were worried they would assassinate him right there?
Hunt: Yeah. … And we'd [the CIA and the United States] get blamed for it.
Slate: Some 200,000 civilians were killed in the civil war following the coup, which lasted for the next 40 years. Were all those deaths unforeseen?
Hunt: Deaths? What deaths?
Slate: Well, the civil war that ensued for the next 40 years after the coup.
Hunt: Well, we should have done something we never do—we should have maintained a constant presence in Guatemala after getting rid of Arbenz.
Slate: Did you ever actually meet Jacobo Arbenz?
Hunt: They [he and his wife] were neighbors of mine—years later—on the same street in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Slate: What were you doing there?
Hunt: I was the CIA chief of station.
They had come from [exile in] Czechoslovakia, and nobody in Washington had told me they were coming and so it was a big surprise to me, to my wife and me. We went to the country club for dinner one evening and lo and behold, the Arbenzes were seated a few tables away.
Slate: What did you do?
Hunt: Well, nothing. I sent a cable to Washington saying, "In the future when we have important arrivals, please let me know." It's the least they could do.
Slate: I'd like to talk about Cuba now. Did you have a lot of responsibility during Bay of Pigs?
Hunt: Leading up to it.
Slate: How so?
Hunt: I came to Miami, and of course there were [Cuban] exiles, all anxious to take weapons in hand and charge back [to Cuba]. And the CIA was given the responsibility of a twofold action against Cuba. There was the psychological warfare branch which I headed [propaganda, covert operations], and the paramilitary which oversaw the training [of Cuban exiles] that took place in Guatemala.
My [other] responsibility was to form and manage the future government of Cuba. At that point I formed the Cuban government-in-exile with Manuel Artime [Bay of Pigs veteran designated by the United States to succeed Castro]. I had told them [the exile trainees] to meet me in my safe house in Coconut Grove. An FBI guy whom I knew came to me and he said your neighbor has reported you to the police saying that men are coming and going at all hours of the night. … He said he thought it was a gay brothel.
Slate: Did you go to Cuba after Castro took power in January 1959?
Hunt: I did go to Cuba. I went there under a very flimsy cover. Batista was out—it was 1959. I'd been sent to Havana to nose around and get a grass-roots feeling and talk to the proverbial taxi drivers and find out what their likely response would be to a possible U.S. invasion. And I did. And I told them don't count on it because it's not going to happen. But that is exactly what happened.
Slate: Did you help in the planning of Bay of Pigs?
Hunt: Not the military [planning]. And I couldn't find anybody who thought that it was a good plan.
Slate: What were the objections?
Hunt: There was an objection on the part of Dean Rusk, secretary of state under Kennedy. He didn't want a "go-and-see invasion"—that was the term he used. And our people [CIA planners] had planned an invasion that combined both a seaborne assault and an airlift. Dean Rusk was a great naysayer—he was not a fellow with useful ideas. When our plan was submitted to Rusk for his OK, he said, "This is too noisy, you gotta do something else." So the assault point was moved to the Bahia de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. Which had nothing in its favor. It was a beach that came down from the jungle. A lot of mosquitoes. Our people made that beach landing and they were scooped up pretty soon thereafter.
Slate: Did you ever think there was a way to get rid of Castro, short of a military coup?
Hunt: No. When Castro went into Cuba and took over, this was the moment—with all the chaos and disorganization—that our forces could have gone in and unseated him. But we always confronted this dreadful organization called the Department of State. Who needs it?!
Slate: What was your feeling about Batista?
Hunt: Well, I thought he ran a good government there. There was a lot of corruption, but there's always been corruption in Latin America. We can't be too purist about these things.
Slate: Let's talk about the finals days and execution of Che. Do you know what the real story was there?
Hunt: I do. El Che was becoming a popular threat to Castro. Castro was a gradualist; his view was that great changes couldn't take place immediately. But El Che had a different idea—he had wanted the entire continent of Latin America to become Communist. And Castro, sort of to get rid of him, said, "Take a band down to Bolivia. Here's money, and radio phones, and all that." So Che went down there. But Che's very first [radio] transmissions were picked up by our people at the National Security Agency. The agency was able to track him wherever he went with his little forlorn band. The Bolivians wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible, and our people kept the Bolivian army informed as to where he was.
Slate: So you knew where he was all the time?
Hunt: Yes. There was no question about where he was or what he was trying to do. The Bolivians had gone through this kind of BS before, and they wanted to put an end to it as soon as possible. Eventually they just said, "We're gonna put an end to this farce," and they rounded up this little band of Che's, and they didn't kill anybody except Che.
Slate: I thought it was Felix Rodriguez, the Bay of Pigs Cuban exile, who says he killed Che.
Hunt: No, the Bolivians did.
Slate: What did the Americans want to do with Che?
Hunt: We wanted deniability. We made it possible for him to be killed.
Slate: Do you think anybody back then was thinking this guy would become a cult figure, that he might be more trouble dead than alive?
Hunt: No, nobody had the foresight for that. … What I thought was great foresight was that the Bolivian colonel had Che's hands cut off.
Slate: Why did he do that?
Hunt: So he couldn't be identified by fingerprints. That was a pretty good idea—if you don't want somebody identified. People still shiver a little when they think about hands being cut off.
Slate: Did that idea come from the Bolivian colonel or from the CIA?
Hunt: I have no idea. But I talked with Felix about it. I said, "You were there when Che expired." He said they had taken him into this room, and they shot him there and killed him. And they had kind of a medical examination table. They put his body on that and cut off his hands. They fooled around for a day or so before they disposed of the body. And that was done in a very sloppy fashion. The colonel had a shallow grave dug and his remains were dumped in there.
Laura Hunt: [Interjects] For all we know, Felix [Rodriguez] did shoot him.
Hunt: It was just important that it was done.
Slate: Maybe Rodriguez arranged for the Bolivians to do the killing and then took credit?
Hunt: What we certainly didn't want was a public monument to Che. We wanted his memory to vanish as soon as possible. But it never did. Even my son goes on about Che.
Slate: What do you think of Felix Rodriguez campaigning these days against John Kerry, who questioned him at the Iran-Contra hearings?
Hunt: I think that's great! Felix can do no wrong in my book.
Slate: What led you to leave the CIA?
Hunt: I found out the CIA was just infested with Democrats. I retired in '70. I got out as soon as I could. I wrote several books immediately thereafter.
Slate: I still don't understand how you get involved in Watergate later. Through the CIA?
Hunt: I had been a consultant to the White House. I greatly respected Nixon. When Chuck Colson [special counsel to Nixon] asked me to work for the administration, I said yes. Colson phoned one day and said, "I have a job you might be interested in." This was before Colson got religion.
Slate: How long were you in prison for the Watergate break-in?
Hunt: All told, 33 months.
Slate: That's a lot of time.
Hunt: It's a lot of time. And I've often said, what did I do?
Slate: Did you get a pardon?
Hunt: No. Never did. I'd applied for one, and there was no action taken, and I thought I'd just humiliate myself if I asked for a pardon.
Laura Hunt: He was sort of numb because all of this happened to his wife and his family, his children went into drugs while he was still in prison.
Slate: Wasn't your first wife killed in a plane crash?
Laura Hunt: She was killed when her plane crash-landed at Chicago's Midway Airport. And there was all this speculation from conspiracy buffs that the FBI blew the plane up or something … so that she would never talk, all this ridiculous stuff.
Slate: How do you feel about Chuck Colson?
Hunt: He failed to come to my assistance, which would have helped Nixon and me.
Slate: Do you hold anyone responsible for Watergate?
Hunt: No, I don't.
Slate: And you didn't apologize?
Hunt: No. It never occurred to me to apologize.
Slate: Should Nixon have resigned?
Slate: I know there is a conspiracy theory saying that David Atlee Phillips—the Miami CIA station chief—was involved with the assassination of JFK.
Hunt: [Visibly uncomfortable] I have no comment.
Slate: I know you hired him early on, to work with you in Mexico, to help with Guatemala propaganda.
Hunt: He was one of the best briefers I ever saw.
Slate: And there were even conspiracy theories about you being in Dallas the day JFK was killed.
Hunt: No comment.
Laura Hunt: Howard says he wasn't, and I believe him.
Slate: Any regrets?
Hunt: No, none. [Long pause] Well, it would have been nice to do Bay of Pigs differently.
Ann Louise Bardach has written the "Interrogations" column for Slate and is the author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington,to be published in April, and CubaConfidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana.
Photograph of E. Howard Hunt by Paul Marschall/Vivien Lesnik Weisman. Photograph of Hunt on the Slate home page by Michael Brennan/Corbis.