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Issue Date:  February 2, 2007

Howard Hunt, model for today's ethics

E. Howard Hunt, famous as the mastermind of the “third-rate” burglary that ultimately brought down a president, will likely pass into history as a footnote, one of those oddities that haunt the background of the past, a Forrest Gump of the cloak-and-dagger set.

However, Hunt, who died Jan. 23 at age 88, provides a view of an angle on American politics and international intrigue that is often missing from day-to-day news accounts. Though he may have been, as former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein recently put it, one of those “small bore but dangerous” characters that seemed drawn to the Nixon presidency, his ilk is necessary to carry out the “big bore” designs, crazy as they may sometimes seem.

If there is a description of “American character” around which a consensus might gather, it would certainly include many of the qualities ascribed to Hunt: funny, high-spirited, acerbic, ambitious, loyal, aspiring to wealth and power. But there was always a dark side to Hunt, the side that apparently never questioned the “dirty tricks” tactics he first learned in the CIA and later used against President Nixon’s political enemies. There was an amorality to his approach to service of country, which included his participation in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He had a willingness to propagandize lies and to sabotage not only the truth but governments and individuals in America’s undeclared wars.

This novelist of sorts and CIA agent for some 20 years organized a coup in Guatemala in 1954. It is a line that shows up in nearly all of the references to him. The allusion usually stops at that line, a bullet point on a resume, something CIA agents do. What is not normally spelled out is the fact that the United States was deeply involved in the coup, that it overthrew a duly elected, democratic government, that the coup set in motion the guerrilla movement in Latin America and that what followed for Guatemala was nearly four decades of brutal and bloody civil war. During much of that war, the United States knew precisely what was going on. For most of it we provided arms and trained the military and propped up as noble leaders the likes of Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, who oversaw a genocide of Mayans in the Guatemalan countryside. Human rights workers are still opening hidden, shallow graves. Approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, mostly civilians, most by the government military and government-sanctioned death squads. Many of the victims were women and children.

Hunt, strangely enough, provides us with an illustration of what upsets us, of what we’re willing to investigate. Hunt spent 33 months in jail for his role in the bungled scheme to wiretap the Democrats’ Watergate headquarters.

No official that we know of, however, had ever suggested that he be prosecuted for his role in undermining a government.

Is that because a botched burglary is easier to grasp and prosecute? Or because as a society we give assent to subverting the Constitution and undermining democratic processes when those in authority deem it in our best interests?

In its obituary of Hunt, The New York Times noted: “He drew no distinction between orchestrating a black-bag job at a foreign embassy in Mexico City and wiretapping the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. He recognized no lawful limit on presidential power, convinced that ‘when the president does it,’ as Nixon once said, ‘that means it is not illegal.’ ”

Hunt’s ethics echo loudly today and in brazenly new ways: Now the government secretly wiretaps citizens’ phones, secretly delves into private bank records, spies on citizen library records, justifies the use of torture, holds prisoners without charge or promise of legal proceedings or representation, suspends the basic right of habeas corpus, and feels no need to explain itself or subject itself to scrutiny. It is all being done, we are told, in the best interests of citizens and of the country.

This is big bore stuff; no small bore characters need apply anymore. Hunt’s ethics have risen to the top and gone global.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2007

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