Who Were the ‘White House Plumbers’ Behind Watergate?

Woody Harrelson’s E. Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux’s G. Gordon Liddy are a couple wrenches short of a set on White House Plumbers.

Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson in White House Plumbers
Photo: Phil Caruso | HBO

This article contains details from real life events that will likely spoil upcoming episodes of HBO’s White House Plumbers.

Having learned most of what I know about the Watergate scandal from MAD magazine, it took me a while to realize White House Plumbers is a satire. The five-part HBO series telling the true story of the secret unit inside President Richard M. Nixon’s White House begins with The New York Times, not necessarily renowned for its comedic prowess. The story got the paper labeled as scions of “liberal media,” another term seemingly rendered spoof by the stringent journalistic standards of the periodical. The White House Plumbers pulled out their tools to stop the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, and hit a water main. It appears predestined they would get clogged at a place called the Watergate.

The limited series begins with a disclaimer warning none of the names have been changed because most were found guilty. While this is supposed to signal the satiric nature of the show, it only reinforces its truth. The Committee to Re-Elect the President, normally shortened to the CRP, was really called CREEP, and the creepers were led by E. Howard Hunt, heartfully portrayed by Woody Harrelson, and G. Gordon Liddy, played with extreme restraint by Justin Theroux. Anyone who thinks his portrayal of the maniacal toy soldier with the Nazi fetish and masochistic candle compulsion is over-the-top hasn’t read his autobiography, Will. Liddy’s commitment to duty cannot be overstated, nor any reasons this man should not be committed.

As far as Gordon running off to execute a journalist, or pointing a revolver at Hunt’s son and proclaiming “all the guns at my home are real,” that is probably both true and a real reason why the former FBI agent would make a lousy plumber. Newspaper clippings of the time say Liddy loved guns. His fellow agents remember he rode around with a gun strapped to his shoulder, fired a pistol into the ceiling to foil a robbery case, and outdrew a named public enemy after jumping out of a moving car to make the shot. If his faucet was dripping, Liddy might shoot it. If a plumber suggested putting in a washer, Liddy might shoot him. Or pay someone to do it, it must be worth a carton of Winstons to someone.

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And yes, they called themselves “The Plumbers” because they fixed leaks. They were a very literal bunch. The sign announcing their intentions was nailed to the office door by Hunt, Liddy, and David Young (Joel Van Liew) shortly after Thanksgiving, 1971. It was almost immediately taken down as a tip-off to the top-secret nature of the operations being handled in the basement of the Executive Office Building next door to the White House. You can see how HBO calling it a “satirical drama” is problematic. It is based on the memoirs of one of the perpetrators who did jail time for hiring the plumbers in the first place, and possibly sealed the last drips. 

The series is based on Egil “Bud” Krogh’s 2007 memoir Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House (co-written by his son, Matthew Krogh). Egil, played by Rich Sommer in the series, was summoned to a closed-door meeting by Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman on July 17, 1971, and ordered to take charge of the Special Investigations Unit, or SIU, called the Special Intelligence Unit in the series, to which Harrelson’s Hunt demurs because it sounds like they are “special needs” personnel. Their first job sounds crazy: break into the Beverly Hills office of Dr. Lewis J. Fielding, a psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the sensitive material on the Vietnam War to The New York Times, and needed discrediting.

Hired on July 6, 1971, as a $100‐a‐day White House consultant, Hunt was given an office on the third floor of the Executive Office Building. For the job, he put together a team of Bay of Pigs operatives, that gig having worked out so well. The team may or may not have partially reassembled to assassinate John F. Kennedy, who they blamed for the invasion’s failure. Rumors that Hunt and Frank Sturgis, played by Kim Coates in White House Plumbers, were spotted among the “tramps” hanging around behind the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza have been circling since the president’s brain was lost en route to Washington.

Hunt was a storied spy, he wrote 46 espionage novels, that we know of. He used as many pen names as code names, like David St. John, John Baxter, Gordon Davis, and Robert Dietrich, so it could have been as many as 78. The books recount the grunt work spies like himself did in Paris, Vienna, Mexico City, Madrid, and Montevideo. At the time of the break-ins, his latest novel, The Coven, based its featured character, Senator Newbold Vane, on President Kennedy. Hunt’s own narrative is a strange mix of fact and fiction, but all his books put together don’t carry the weight of one letter.

Freed from prison just before his 60th birthday, Hunt moved to Miami. Toward the end of his life, a wheelchair-bound Hunt allegedly scribbled what has been called a deathbed confession which he left with his son Saint John, played by Liam James in the series. At the top of the paper were the initials “LBJ,” overtly naming then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson as the top in a chain of command. Hunt drew a line connecting LBJ to CIA Agent Cord Meyer, whose wife was murdered after an alleged affair with President Kennedy in a still-unsolved case. The line then moves to the names of two CIA black op specialists, David Morales, and “America’s James Bond,” Bill Harvey. Under all that, in a frame, are the words “French Gunman Grassy Knoll.” I mentioned how literal the Washington Plumbers were.

Hunt’s son took the paper to The Los Angeles Times, which balked at publishing because they had to ask what does it all mean? You could ask the same question about the continuing operations requested by the president’s men. When the Plumbers ransacked Fielding’s office, they told the White House they couldn’t find Ellsberg’s file. Fielding found the file on the floor of his office on the morning after the burglary. He also said it was obvious someone looked through it. The Plumbers found Ellsberg’s file, but it apparently did not contain the potentially embarrassing information they sought, as they left it on the floor, sprinkled drugs around it, and let the police blame it on very stupid junkies and their highly unlikely habit of dumping drugs, which they would normally be stealing, in doctors’ offices.

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The White House Plumbers, sometimes called the Room 16 Project, should have hung up their plungers when they bungled the Ellsberg break-in, but the White House liked the way they snaked their drains. It turns out they couldn’t solder the pipes and wound up in the joint. They got caught because they used the wrong kind of tape.

On June 17, 1972, Sturgis, Bernard L. Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and James W. McCord Jr., were arrested for burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. An overnight shift security guard named Frank Wills spotted some duct tape on a door latch, and called it in. He played himself in the film All the President’s Men, the classic film about how The Washington Post tracked down the source, a scene in Washington Plumbers shows Hunt getting a call from Bob Woodward. He followed the money. It paid off seemingly endless intelligence dividends. After the break-in, four of the buglers were paid $50,000 each from Nixon’s 1972 campaign fund to settle civil lawsuits.

James McCord, played by Toby Huss in the series, was in charge of keeping all the money safe at Nixon’s fundraising organization. His official title was Security Director for CREEP, but he was an electronics expert with a reputation for seamless wiretapping. McCord was an ex-FBI agent and longtime CIA counterintelligence operative. The ultimate Watergate trial wound down on March 23, 1973, when McCord read a letter testifying political pressure was applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent, that he and they had committed perjury, and there were more, and bigger, fish to fry. McCord served four months in prison.

One of the first men arrested at the scene in the Watergate was the lookout, Frank Sturgis, who really should have seen it coming. It was his only job that night. Well, it was also spotter Alfred Baldwin’s duty, but he was watching the 1958 movie Attack of the Puppet People at the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street. Sturgis was a soldier of fortune, and got paid by the CIA, the Mafia, and E. Howard Hunt. One of his aliases was Attila F. Sturgis, and he was part of the Bay of Pigs operation, after working as Castro’s Minister of Gaming, and had ties to Lee Harvey Oswald. As noted before, one of the men named by Hunt as part of the Kennedy assassination crew was Frank Sturgis, and he would go on to publicly say he was surprised the same thing didn’t happen to Nixon.

The document photographer, Eugenio “Muscolito” or “Little Muscle” Martinez, played by Tony Plana, is also named in connection to the Kennedy assassination. He was both a Cuban exile and a CIA agent. Based in Miami, he supplied the agency with intelligence about other Cuban exiles. Martinez was the only Watergate burglar to ask why anyone taped up the door in the first place, when the plumbers signed in at the front desk of the Watergate complex, and had keys to the sixth-floor offices, including one for the desk of DNC secretary Ida “Maxie” Wells. Martinez was also the only burglar to get a presidential pardon. Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1983. Several researchers theorize Martinez was the spotter for the gunman in the Dal-Tex building at the Kennedy assassination. A source claims Virgilio Gonzalez was the gunman.

Virgilio “Villo” Gonzalez, played by Nelson Ascencio in the miniseries, is the locksmith who brings the wrong tools to the Watergate. He was also on the 1962 Operation Tilt team which may have misplaced defecting Red Army soldiers based in Cuba who wanted to pass on details about atomic warheads and missiles still on the island after the Cuban Missile Crisis agreement. During the time of the Plumber operations, Gonzales was a Cuban exile living in Miami. He worked with the CIA on the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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Bernard “Macho” Barker (Yul Vazquez) was Hunt’s deputy during the failed April 1961 plot, Operation Zapata, which could have led to Castro’s assassination just prior to the landing of the Bay of Pigs brigade. He served in the US Army Air Corps in WWII, became a police captain in Havana, working with the Cuban secret police, and as a CIA contractor, starting in 1959. Barker carried many damaging secrets about continued Black Ops. He helped organize the Bay of Pigs invasion with Hunt. According to Lamar Waldron’s The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination, two eyewitnesses identified a photograph of Barker as the armed man behind a fence at the grassy knoll. But Hunt had a more dangerous sleeper agent, much deeper under his covers.

Hunt’s wife Dorothy, portrayed by Lena Headey, had been a CIA agent since the end of World War II, holding posts such as liaison between the American Embassy and the Economic Cooperation Administration, a CIA front operating in Paris. When Howard Hunt threatened to drop dime on the higher ups who paid him to organize the Watergate break-in, Dorothy took part in the negotiations with Charles Colson.

According to papers posted in Dorothy, “An Amoral and Dangerous Woman”: The Murder of E. Howard Hunt’s Wife – Watergate’s Darkest Secret by St. John Hunt, the Hunts were “a C.I.A. couple” who were both “threatening to blow the lid off the White House … if Nixon didn’t pay heavy to suppress the documents they had showing he was implicated in the planning and carrying out, by the FBI and the CIA, of the political murder of President Kennedy.”

Dorothy met with Michelle Clark, CBS News’ first African American woman television correspondent, who was working on a story on the Watergate case. They, along with Chicago Congressman George Collin, were among the 45 people killed when United AirLines Flight 553, a Boeing 737-222, crashed in a Chicago neighborhood while on approach to Midway International Airport on Dec. 8, 1972. Officially declared pilot error, the tragedy became known as “the Watergate crash.”

Dorothy Hunt did take out a $200,000 life insurance policy before boarding, and was carrying at least $10,000 in $100 bills in her purse. Many think the cash was to pay for the Watergate defendants to keep silent. As the series points out, the FBI arrived at the crash scene unusually fast. While The Chicago Tribune concluded there was not enough proof to substantiate the charges, the conspiracy theory persists.

On December 9, the day after the crash, Egil Krogh, who put together the team involved in the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, was appointed Undersecretary of Transportation. This made him supervisor of both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA, the two agencies investigating Flight 553. Krogh wrote the book White House Plumbers is based on. In 1994, he published the book The Day Elvis Met Nixon.

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Hunt was convicted of masterminding and supervising the Watergate burglary. Sentenced to 35 years in prison, he served 33 months. Liddy’s sentences added up to 35 years in prison. He served four-and-a-half years. Krogh got to meet Elvis.

New episodes of White House Plumbers premiere Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.