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2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972: Five ‘Plumbers’ Caught Burglarizing Democratic Offices in Watergate Hotel

Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police.Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file]
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” [Harper's, 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/7/2007]
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” [Washington Post, 5/1/1973] The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 19]
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Howard Simons, Lawrence O’Brien, James McCord, Martha Mitchell, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, Washington Post, Ron Ziegler, George S. McGovern, Miles Copeland, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, Frank Sturgis, Carl Oglesby, Bob Woodward, Andrew St. George, Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Bernstein, Democratic National Committee, Daniel Ellsberg, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Wills

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

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