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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Hermes Notebook

From Washington Lawyer, March 2007

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Newspapers keep stock obituaries on file in contemplation of the inevitable death of those who, one way or another, are or were public figures. These obituaries are subject to revision as events occur. Glancing over obituary files, the one published and the ones held in reserve, demonstrates what 10 years can do to a person’s reputation. If Richard Nixon had died after returning from China, his obituary when published would have been very different, in tone and substance.

If the subject has been out of the news for many years, the obituary as written years before is published with only minor changes.

These thoughts came to mind as I read the New York Times obituary of E. Howard Hunt, who died on January 23. The Times gave Hunt three columns topped with two pictures of Hunt during his Watergate days. Hunt had been out of the news for at least 20 years.

I will summarize the interesting events recorded in the Times obituary, and then I will say a few words about my meeting with Hunt in the United States District Court.

Hunt graduated from Brown University and then from the Naval Academy. During the war he did intelligence work in China. He also sold a thriller novel to Warner Bros. During his lifetime he wrote some 50 novels.

He joined the CIA in 1949. In 1961 he had his first connection with bad luck, the bad luck that haunted him in his professional and personal life. He joined in the Bay of Pigs endeavor to remove Fidel Castro. It was a disaster. He left the CIA in 1970 and joined a public relations firm. A year later he was invited to join the Nixon White House and do things that later were called the White House dirty tricks, such as the burglarizing of the office of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers.

His luck became really bad when he supervised the White House’s June 17, 1972, effort to obtain information from the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex. The break-in was botched. Hunt and others were arrested. Hunt pled guilty to the break-in charge rather than expose the full White House involvement. He spent 33 months in prison.

Hunt had demanded that the White House provide money to be used for attorney’s fees and living expenses. He threatened to expose the coverup unless the money was forthcoming.

When the main Watergate trial took place in 1974, the defendants included John Mitchell, Nixon’s one-time attorney general, and H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s closest allies. Hunt found himself in the odd role as witness for the prosecution.

He was the center of attention in a packed courtroom. He described his loyalty to his break-in people, who faced long prison sentences, and how the White House did not help as it promised to do.

Hunt was self-assured and adept at ambiguity, giving something for everyone depending on one’s point of view.

Hunt said that when the Watergate break-in turned bad, he shred his secret collection of telephone numbers of his agents. His telephone numbers were in a Hermes notebook he kept in his upper right-hand pocket.

When I heard the words Hermes notebook, I whispered to Plato Cacheris, who was sitting close by at counsel’s table representing John Mitchell, that someone had given me a Hermes notebook. I took it from my own upper right-hand pocket and showed it to Plato. He noted that the notebook had a rigid metal spine.

Plato suggested that when I cross-examined Hunt I should show him my own Hermes notebook and then ask how a metal spine could go through a shredder.

I took Plato’s suggestion. The cross-examination, as I recall it, went this way:

Q. You said that you shredded your Hermes notebook?

A. Yes.

Q. Did you ever put metal in a shredder?

A. No. It would break the shredder.

Q. With the permission of the court, I will give my own Hermes notebook to the clerk and I will ask the clerk to place it before you. Mr. Hunt, please look at the notebook. Don’t you see that the spine is metal?

A. Yes.

Q. Would you agree with me that a notebook such as this should not be put in a shredder?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you wish to change your testimony that you put your Hermes notebook in a shredder?

A. No. Your Hermes notebook is not the top of the line. It is a knockoff. Mine was the real thing.

Hunt enjoyed the exchange.

The defense team had somehow obtained Hunt’s unpublished autobiography. It had some things helpful to the defense.

Here is how Hunt got me again:

Q. Mr. Hunt, you have an unpublished autobiography, is that correct?

A. Yes.

Q. I am placing before you a photocopy of that unpublished autobiography and I ask you if this is your autobiography.

A. It is.

Q. Is it truthful?

A. Sir, it is flecked with truth.

During a court recess, I passed Hunt in the corridor. He winked at me.

The Times says that Hunt’s last book, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond, is to be published on March 16 with a foreword by his old friend, William F. Buckley Jr. I certainly would like to write a review of that book, no doubt flecked with truth.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.