Tuesday, 8 May 2012


When I wrote Charles Colson's obituary for the Guardian (link here, or check the IT piece linking to it last month), I had mentioned to them a few conspiracy theories I avoided for their benefit, the most prominent of which was the death in a plane crash of Dorothy Hunt, wife of Colson's college friend E. Howard Hunt. Dorothy was carrying cash which CREEP was paying to ensure the silence of the Plumbers and some of the other characters attached to the CIA and the Cuban exile movements who keep turning up whenever the boulders of conspiracy theory get rolled over.

As it happened, I'd forgotten this when, Sunday morning, I picked up Carl Oglesby's book, The Yankee And Cowboy War, which I'd referenced while writing his obituary for the Independent (link to that here, or check the IT link 29 September 2011 to it) intending to return it to its shelf. I opened it at random, to the first page of Chapter 7, 'The Watergate Plane Crash' and found this quote staring back at me:

'I don't say this to my people. They'd think I'm nuts. I think the CIA killed Dorothy Hunt'.
 -Charles Colson, Time, July 8, 1974

Dorothy Hunt, on behalf of her husband, and the operatives for whom he felt responsible, had been threatening (blackmail is such a nasty word, but it's the one Nixon and his aides use on the White House tapes) the Nixon administration to the effect that their silence had to be bought at the right price. Watergate burglar James McCord, who by the autumn of 1972 had disassociated himself with the payoffs from the White House, to leave himself free to bargain with the Watergate prosecutors, said in November that Dorothy told him her husband had dictated to his lawyers a letter which would 'blow the White House out of the water'. On Saturday, December 2, Nixon and Bebe Robozo met, while Dorothy Hunt continued to try to get through to Colson, who appears to have been dodging her. Just as John Sirica was telling America he wanted to find out who was behind Watergate, CREEP made either $250,000 or $350,000 available to pay for silence. On Friday December 8, United 553 from Washington to Chicago crashed. Dorothy Hunt, carrying $10,000 in case to give to one of Hunt's Cuban operatives, died.

There were a number of suspicious occurrences around the crash of United 553, and even more in how the investigation was handled, particularly in the quick way the FBI flooded the crash site before any other investigators could arrive. But I couldn't recall what precise role Colson had played in it, merely that part of the Nixon Tapes show Nixon and John Dean doing a very peculiar kind of tap dance which appears to be his way of disavowing any involvement before (and without) its being suggested.

One problem with the facts of the case is that the bulk of the research was done by a Chicago private investigator named Sherman Skolnick, odd even by the flexible standards of assassination theories. He was the kind of figure whose methodology could leave even viable discoveries obscured by the question-marks raised by his own character, a man whose scatter-shot attacks and whose often free-form leaps from assertion to validation are dangerous to take at face value. Among the question marks with the crash were the elevated levels of cyanide found in the post-mortems in the pilot and six passengers; the switching of the plane to a shorter runaway at Midway Airport, with less sophisticated landing devices, the damage to the altimeter, and the failure by the pilot to respond to a stall warning.

As usual with conspiracies, however, it is the possibility of a cover-up which generates more interest than the by-now unprovable 'facts' of the crash itself. The FBI presence was explained away by the acting director, William Ruckelshaus. He had moved from the Nixon Justice Dept to head the Environmental Protection Agency before Nixon brought him back after his appointee to replace J Edgar Hoover, L Patrick Gray, had to resign after passing FBI investigations into Watergate over to the White House. Ironically, Ruckelshaus would later resign his post as Deputy Attorney General, rather than fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, after his boss, Elliott Richardson had already refused to do Nixon's bidding. Luckily the darling theorist of the right-wing, Robert Bork, as Solicitor General, was willing to do the deed.

But the White House presence in the United 533 investigation was more sinister than that. Not only did the FBI show up all over the crash site, but Nixon's Plumbers soon showed up all over the investigation, all names that would become familiar to those following the Watergate hearings. Egil 'Bud' Krogh was appointed an undersecretary at the Department of Transportation on Saturday, 9 December, the day after the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board, who investigate crashes, falls under the DOT, and Krogh allegedly spent much time pressuring their investigation. Alex Butterfield, who set up the White House taping system, and whose testimony would finally reveal it, was appointed to a post in the Federal Aviation Administration—an appointment delayed only because Butterfield was still a commissioned military man. And Dwight Chapin, one of the bagmen for CREEP, left the White House to join United Airlines as a 'director of market planning' in their Chicago office, from which he attended every day of the NTSB hearings. Another Nixon appointee to the NTSB, Richard Spear, took advantage of the absence of the head of their Bureau of Aviation Safety to rewrite the very definition of 'probable cause' in the BAS handbook, and also pressured BAS investigators to close down the 533 investigation.
I doubt we will ever get a definitive answer whether or not Dorothy Hunt was murdered. As with the JFK assassination, I suspect that even if the perepetrators walked in and confessed, researchers would find problems with the confession, and the vested powers of disinformation would somehow discredit it. Remember, confusion is often the best enemy of conclusion in the murky world of conspiracy investigation.

But I now wonder about Colson and his statement to Time. Not that I suspect him of being involved in Dorothy Hunt's murder, and obviously he believed it was murder. I find it hard to credit his acting against his old friend Hunt that way. But when he attempts to blame the CIA, I ask myself 'why?'. Yes, Hunt, McCord et al were CIA people, and their underlings had CIA ties. McCord, in fact, was widely suspected of having been a CIA plant, and deliberately bungling the Watergate break-in. Martha Mitchell, for one, thought so. But McCord denied it, specifically rebutting Colson's assertion to Time, and saying Colson was simply trying to divert attention away from the White House.

Apart from getting rid of Nixon, the CIA's only motive might be to stop the release of information about past deeds more heinous than the Watergate burglaries: the stuff Nixon referred to famously in the Watergate tapes as 'the whole Bay of Pigs thing'. This makes some sense to me, but it also seems like overkill. Hunt was probably more loyal to the agency than he was to Richard Nixon, and, as Jim Hougan showed years ago in Secret Agenda, you can make a good case that the CIA was interested in getting rid of Nixon. But there is a difference between the institution of the CIA and the murky world of agents, assets, contacts, hirelings, mafia partners, Cuban exiles and the like who swarm in and out of the axis of events from the JFK assassination to the fall of Nixon: arguably the 12 most chaotic years in American government since the Civil War.

What makes more sense is that the White House, its plumbers, and FBI itself were involved. I say the FBI partly because Nixon's grip on this organisation was firmer (through the likes of Cartha DeLoach, for example, as opposed to Mark Felt, who revealed himself as Deep Throat—and whose motivation might have been Nixon's giving the top job to Gray after Hoover died) and partly because they appear to have been central to whatever coverup may have occurred.

As I like to remind people in sports, coincidence does not imply causality. Skolnick's shotgun approach to theories muddied the waters, but it is easier to explain the FBI's sudden presence, and the Nixon regime's efforts to control the investigation at being more concerned with stopping Dorothy Hunt from speaking, had she survived, and if she didn't, making sure she wasn't carrying incriminating evidence that would become public.

What I think was going on in Colson's mind was a bit of disassociation, from a possible murder, but more importantly for the whole mess Dorothy represented. He wanted to remove himself and his colleagues from what, if his supposition were correct, was a low point for the Nixon administration. To that point. We saw in Colson's born-again life the way that fundamentalist Christian can embrace very non-Christian ideas, and we now how those reborn, like Colson, can, shall we say, embrace ambiguities and turn them into recitable facts. I'm sorry now I didn't mention Dorothy Hunt in my obituary of Colson—it's like shining a bright light on the murky shadows of the inner man.

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