Watergate 50 Years Later: How a Former FBI Agent, DNC Intern and Hotelier Remember the Break-In

Near midnight on June 17, 1972, 21-year-old intern Bruce Givner turned out the lights as he left the Democratic National Headquarters office at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C.

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

The Ohio native stayed late inside the offices, long after everyone else had left, taking advantage of his flat-rate long-distance plan to call his friends, parents, and current exes and girlfriends.

“I probably started around 7 pm and 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 restrooms located in an area that would lock him outside the office, he decided to climb onto the porch and urinate in the toilet because “I thought it wouldn’t hurt the plants.”

What Givner didn’t know was that his every action was being watched by the Watergate thieves, that he was thwarting their plans to break into the office, and that in doing so, he could be changing the course of American history.

Givner is just one of dozens and dozens of people who played some sort of role, direct or indirect, in the Watergate break-in – the most famous robbery in US history that would eventually culminate in the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon.

In this file photo from November 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon speaks near Orlando, Florida, at the annual meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors. Nixon told APME ‘I’m not a crook’ while facing investigations into Watergate. Within a year, he resigned. (AP)

On this date 50 years ago, five men were arrested for the break-in and charged with attempted theft 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, also known as 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, interest in Watergate appears to have not waned. It continues to be the subject of books, podcasts and entertainment, with a new series about the scandal called gas lit starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn.

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

But the heist itself that set off the chain of events is also a source of fascination, as the landmarks of the famous invasion still somehow remain.

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

The Howard Johnson hotel, where former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin kept watch in Room 723 for the Watergate thieves, is no longer there. It became a dormitory for George Washington University but was sold to a developer and is now a mixed-use building that combines ground floor apartments and shops.

Watergate itself is a massive spiraling complex that includes an office building, hotel, and condominium complex. The Watergate Hotel, where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt planned to break into Room 214, where they could look straight into the DNC office, has fallen into disrepair. It remained vacant for an extended 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 embraced that aspect. We didn’t shy away from it,” said Ali Le, marketing manager for the Watergate Hotel.

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

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

Meanwhile, “No need to break in” is inscribed on guest room keycards, as the front desk hands out pens that read “stolen from the Watergate Hotel.”

What was Room 214 at the Watergate Hotel – where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt looked out over the DNC headquarters – has now been transformed into the ‘Scandal Room’, where guests find Nixon-era memorabilia and 1970s style. (Watergate Hotel)

Former DNC office now a historic site

As for the location of the break-in, the Democratic National Committee office has long since moved. This office is currently held by Sage Publishing. But the publisher also ensured that Watergate’s legacy was not forgotten. One room has been dubbed the “Nixon Room” and contains Watergate-era memorabilia, including framed documents from the era that denote different periods of the scandal.

It also contains a sign that reads “Historic Site” and notes that the thieves were arrested “at this location in the Watergate office complex”.

The former DNC office is now occupied by Sage Publishing. But the publisher also made sure the Watergate legacy wasn’t forgotten – including a plaque that shows where the thieves were caught. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Khaalid Wilson, who works in IT at Sage, said the thieves also passed through what is now the cafeteria, where round wooden tables, vending machines and microwaves have replaced files, office chairs and Democratic Party documents.

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

June 17th was actually the second time the thieves broke into the DNC office. The first took place on May 28, when a team led by Liddy broke in to plant bugs on employees’ phones. The second hack was, in part, to fix some of the problems with these surveillance devices.

But those plans were being thwarted by Givner, who, Liddy once told ABC News, “stayed and stayed and stayed. It’s a Friday night. He was a dedicated Democrat.”

So, is it possible that this delay leads to the arrest of the thieves?

“I’m 100 percent confident – that I have no idea,” said Givner.

It’s not team A

When he left the building at 12:05 pm, Givner met Frank Wills, the building’s security guard, and the two crossed the street to Howard Johnson’s to grab some cheeseburgers and shakes.

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

“At first he thought it was something the cleanup crew had done. And then he took it off. And when he came back later, he found they had redone. said Ken Hughes, a research expert 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 January 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 plainclothes officers arrived and would arrest the thieves: James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio R. Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and Frank Sturgis, all linked to the CIA.

“[The burglary crew] it wasn’t 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 it happened Monday morning, it was chaotic.”

‘We are working for the same man’

Because of Magallanes’ Hispanic origin, he was assigned to talk to some of the thieves who had Cuban origins. He said they were all polite, well dressed, but provided little information. However, one of the assailants, Martínez, a CIA agent who worked for the agency to infiltrate Cuba, said something that caught his attention.

“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 for the government. And we’ll be taken care of by the government and by the man, the president.”

“I was shocked and surprised 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 his Watergate roles.)

Some of the police evidence held by the US National Archives of the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in. Behind are enlargements of arrest photos of the thieves, from left: Eugenio Martinez, Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker and Frank Sturgis. In the foreground are lights, film, a tool bag, an overcoat and listening equipment used in one of the most famous heists in political history. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Magallnes would go on to interview some of the top players, including Judith Hoback Miller, the CREEP accountant.

“That was a very important interview. It really opened the case. So we had leads that were significant.”

Still, 50 years later, some mysteries remain about the range.

There was 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, Hughes said.

“There is no indication that Nixon specifically wanted the DNC hacked,” he said.

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

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