Watergate 50 years later: How a former FBI agent, DNC intern, and hotelier recall the break-in

Close to midnight on June 17, 1972, 21-year-old intern Bruce Givner turned off the lights as he exited the office of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, DC

Now, as the Watergate break-in marks its 50th anniversary, Givner can definitively say: I was the last person legally inside the offices of the Watergate the night it was broken into.”

The Ohio native had stayed late inside the offices, long after everyone had cleared out, taking advantage of their flat-fee long distance plan to call up his friends, parents and ex and current girlfriends.

“I probably started about 7:00 pm and I just talked and talked and talked. I was talking to at least a dozen people, maybe more,” said Givner, now a 71-year-old California tax attorney.

With the washrooms located in an area that would have locked him outside the office, he decided to step onto the balcony and urinate in the planter because “I figured that wouldn’t hurt the plants.”

What Givner didn’t know was that all his actions were being surveilled by the Watergate burglars, that he was thwarting their plans to enter the office, and that by doing so, he may have been changing the course of American history.

Givner is just one of the dozens and dozens of people who played some kind of role directly or indirectly, in the Watergate break-in — the most famous burglary in US history that would eventually culminate in the resignation of then president Richard Nixon.

In this Nov. 17, 1973 file photo, President Richard Nixon speaks near Orlando, Fla., to the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting. Nixon told the APME ‘I am not a crook’ as he has faced investigations over Watergate. Within a year he had resigned. (AP)

On this date 50 years ago, five men were arrested for the break-in and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. But the real drama came later, with the discovery that they were working for the Committee to Re-Elect The President, aka CREEP.

Nixon’s subsequent attempt to obstruct justice by thwarting the FBI investigation would lead to unprecedented televised political hearings, criminal convictions of the president’s top aides and his eventual downfall.

The original-gate

Fifty years later, the interest in Watergate appears not to have subsided. It remains the subject of books, podcasts and entertainment, with a new series about the scandal called Gaslit starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn.

The suffix ‘gate’ has since become affixed to the scandal du jour, while any new major political controversy that arises is often compared to Watergate in terms of scope or severity.

But the burglary itself that set off the chain of events is also a source of fascination, as landmarks of the famous break in still remain in some shape or form.

The sprawling Watergate complex was home to both the DNC headquarters and the hotel where those orchestrating the break-in could keep watch. Others played lookout from across the street at the Howard Johnson (Illustration: CBC; Source: Google Earth)

The Howard Johnson hotel, where former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin stood lookout in room 723 for the Watergate burglars, is no longer there. It had become a dorm for George Washington University but was sold to a developer and is now a mixed-use building combining apartments and retail on the ground floor.

Watergate itself is a huge spiraling complex that includes an office building, hotel and condo. The Watergate Hotel, where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt masterminded the break in from room 214, where they could look right into the DNC office, fell into disrepair. It remained vacant for a long period until it underwent a six-year, $125 million renovation, reopening its doors in 2016, which included embracing its ties to political history.

The Watergate Hotel has embraced its ties to political history. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

“We really embrace that aspect. We don’t shy away from it,” said Ali Le, marketing manager for the Watergate Hotel.

“It’s something that happened here. So in the rebuilding and rebranding it something that we wanted to have as part of our identity.”

For example, room 214 has been turned into the “Scandal Room,” decorated to “evoke the spirit of the 70s” while including items such as binoculars, a manual typewriter and two custom “cover up” robes.

Meanwhile, “No need to break in” is inscribed on the guest key cards to the rooms while the front desk hands out pens that say “stolen from the Watergate Hotel.”

What was Room 214 at the Watergate Hotel — where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt watched the DNC headquarters — has now been turned into the ‘Scandal Room,’ where guests find Nixon-era memorabilia and 1970s styling. (Watergate Hotel)

Former DNC office now a historic site

As for the site of the break-in, the Democratic National Committee office has long since moved out. Currently, that office is occupied by Sage Publishing. But the publishing company has also ensured that the Watergate legacy is not forgotten. One room has been named the “Nixon Room” and holds memorabilia from the Watergate era, including framed papers of that time denoting different periods of the scandal.

It also contains a plaque that reads “Historical Site” and notes that the burglars were arrested “at this spot In the Watergate office complex.”

The former DNC office is now occupied by Sage Publishing. But the publishing company has also ensured that the Watergate legacy not be forgotten — including a plaque that shows where the burglars were arrested. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Khaalid Wilson, who works in IT at Sage, said the burglars also made their way through what is now the lunch room, where round wooden tables, vending machines and microwaves have replaced file cabinets, office chairs and Democratic party documents.

“I’ve been here since 2017. There’s always people who want to come and see the suite. Before, the floors used to be unlocked so people would come up and walk around,” Wilson said.

June 17 was actually the second time burglars had broken into the DNC office. The first had occurred May 28, when a team led by Liddy broke into plant bugs in the telephones of staffers. The second break-in was, in part, to fix some of the issues with those surveilance devices.

But those plans were being gummed up by Givner, who, Liddy once reportedly said to ABC News, “stayed and he stayed and he stayed. It’s a Friday night. This was some dedicated Democrat.”

So, is it possible that that delay lead to the burglars arrest?

“I am 100 per cent confident — that I have no idea,” Givner said.

Not the A-team

When he did leave the building, at 12:05 am, Givner encountered Frank Wills, the building security guard, and the two of them walked across the street to the Howard Johnson’s to get some cheeseburgers and shakes.

However, when Wills returned to the building, he noticed a piece of tape covering the latch of a door during his rounds.

“At first he thought it was something that the cleaning crew had done. And so he took it off. And when he came back later, he found that they had retaped it So it was kind of a … bungle,” said Ken Hughes, a research specialist at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate.

In this Jan. 16, 1973 file photo, Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy is seen in Washington during a break in his trial. (William A. Smith/The Associated Press)

Willis then called the police. A team of plain clothed officers arrived, and would arrest the burglars: James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio R. Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and Frank Sturgis, who all had links to the CIA.

“[The burglary crew] was not the A-Team. It was the amateur team,” said Paul Magallanes, who was one of the FBI agents assigned to the case.

“This particular matter came under our jurisdiction. So when that happened on Monday morning, it was chaotic.”

‘We’re working for the same man’

Because of Magallanes’s Hispanic background, he was assigned to talk to some of the burglars who had Cuban backgrounds. He said they were all polite, well-dressed but provided little information. However, one of the burglars, Martínez, a CIA operative who had worked for the agency to infiltrate Cuba, said something that caught his ear from him.

“He said ‘We’re working for the same man. I asked him what he meant by that. He said, well, you know, you work for the government. I work with the government. And we’re going to be taken care of the government and by the man, the president.”

“I was shocked and amazed at what he’s telling me. But he didn’t say specifically what he was talking about.”

(Martínez would later be pardoned by then-president Ronald Reagan, making him the second person, along with Nixon, to be pardoned for their roles in Watergate.)

Some of the police evidence held by the US National Archives from the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972. To the rear are arrest photo enlargements of the burglars, from left: Eugenio Martinez, Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, and Frank Sturgis. In the foreground are lights, film, a toolbag, a trenchcoat, and bugging equipment used in one of the most famous burglaries in political history. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Magallnes would go on to interview some of the key players including Judith Hoback Miller, the bookkeeper at CREEP

“That was was a very important interview. That really broke the case open. Then we had leads to go on that were significant.”

Still, 50 years later, some mysteries remain about the break

There has been no real evidence that Nixon himself was aware of the plan to break into the Watergate DNC office, and in fact, apparently didn’t think it was a worthwhile target, said Hughes.

“There’s no indication that Nixon specifically wanted the DNC broken into,” he said.

“There has been a lot of speculation and debate over what specifically they were looking for,” he said. But they didn’t really find much of use.”

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