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Watergate Plotter and Spy E. Howard Hunt Dead at 88

Everette Howard Hunt, the man who helped plan the Watergate break-in and wiretapping operation, is dead at age 88, FOX News has learned.

Hunt, who worked as a White House consultant for former President Richard Nixon, died Tuesday after a lengthy bout of pneumonia at North Shore Hospital in his hometown of Miami.

A veteran of World War II and a storied CIA officer in the post-war period, Hunt has a history of undercover operations. The Tom Cruise character Ethan Hunt in the "Mission Impossible" series is partly based on Hunt's real-life exploits.

In real life, Hunt bristled at the moniker of "Watergate burglar," for the covert operator never actually burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters, only plotted the operation with G. Gordon Liddy and recruited the Cuban Bay of Pigs veterans who did execute the break-in.

According to Liddy's 1980 memoir "Will," he and Hunt also collaborated on early plans — never carried out — to assassinate syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, who broke numerous damaging stories against the Nixon administration.

In September 1971, nine months before the Watergate operation, Hunt and Liddy plotted and managed a break-in at the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis J. Fielding, the psychiatrist to former Pentagon consultant Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Hunt's involvement in the Watergate affair was instrumental in the House Judiciary Committee's approval of impeachment articles against Nixon. On the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972 — the public release of which in August 1974 triggered Nixon's resignation from office within three days — the president could be heard approving a plan to order CIA officials to block the FBI's six-day-old Watergate investigation on national security grounds.

This was mostly because Nixon feared the effects of public disclosure of Hunt's involvement and past covert work for the country.

Up through March 1973, Hunt, who pleaded guilty to wiretapping and conspiracy charges in the original Watergate break-in case and served 33 months in various prisons, was demanding that Nixon's men observe the "rules" of the spy game and provide money for Hunt's legal fees and support for his family.

White House counsel John Dean described Hunt's demands as "blackmail" — another term at which Hunt bristled for the rest of his life. On the tape of the meeting, Nixon can be heard vacillating on the decision of whether Hunt's demands should be met, at times strongly approving doing so, at other times suggesting it would be "wrong" and even pointless. Once again, prosecutors and congressional investigators later pointed to this tape as evidence of Nixon's involvement in obstruction of justice. Later tapes showed Nixon never fully made up his mind on the question of whether Hunt should be paid.

Hunt was the author of nearly 70 spy novels, under his own name and various pseudonyms, and his final book, "American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate & Beyond," co-authored with Greg Aunapu, is due for release by Wiley in April 2007. The foreword to his new book is written by William F. Buckley, Jr., the godfather to Hunt's children from his first marriage, and Hunt's CIA employee in Mexico City in 1951.

With his involvement in Watergate and the Bay of Pigs, Hunt became a magnet for conspiracy theorists of all kinds. Those researching the assassination of President John F. Kennedy began claiming in the mid-1970s that Hunt and Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis appeared in photographs dressed as tramps and being arrested by Dallas policemen near the site of the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. Hunt vigorously contested the charges publicly and in court, and he and his second wife, Laura, whom he met while serving his prison sentence, were deeply upset by the allegations.

Hunt's health had declined greatly in recent years. Interviewed at his home in Miami four years ago, Hunt had lost a leg to amputation and was confined to a wheelchair.

FOX News correspondent and Watergate expert James Rosen is the author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon and Watergate," to be published by Doubleday this December.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."