White House counsel John Dean orders the opening of a safe belonging to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Dean orders that the contents be tur days later, after Dean and other White House officials have had a chance to peruse them) to the FBI. The documents will soon be given to FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray, who keeps them for six months before burning them (see Late December 1972). Gray will later admit to the incident in his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 28-29, 1973). [Time, 4/2/1973] Dean finds in the safe, among other things, a loaded .25 caliber pistol; the attache case of burglar James McCord, loaded with electronic surveillance equipment and a tear gas canister; CIA psychological profiles of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see March 1971); pages from the Pentagon Papers; memos to and from Nixon aide Charles Colson; two falsified diplomatic cables implicating former President John F. Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Diem Dinh; and a dossier on the personal life of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman advises Dean to throw the contents of the safe into the Potomac River. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 501-502] Shortly thereafter, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, in discussions with a young assistant in White House aide Charles Colson’s office, learns that Hunt has been investigating Kennedy’s checkered past, particularly the Chappaquiddick tragedy of 1969, in which an apparently inebriated Kennedy drove his car into a lake, drowning his companion of the evening, Mary Jo Kopechne. Hunt was apparently looking for political ammunition against Kennedy in preparation for a possible presidential run. According to a former Nixon administration official, Colson and fellow Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman were “absolutely paranoid” about a Kennedy campaign run. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 30-31]
June 19, 1972 John Ehrlichman ordered FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to take possession of the fake files in Hunt’s safe, keeping them secret from prosecutors. Gray destroyed the evidence from Hunt’s safe. He was being tested as another leaker. Physical evidence was destroyed by a number of people involved in and peripheral to first burglary, including G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, John Dean, and the acting head of the FBI at the time, L. Patrick Gray, who resigned after his admission of destruction of evidence that had been taken from the safe of E. Howard Hunt.
Ehrlichman had phone Dean early on the 19th to check out the exact details regarding E Howard Hunt’s service as a White House consultant. The FBI at this point was already hot on the trail of the mysterious Mr Hunt, due to the fact that Hunt’s name and WHite House phone number were contained in both of the address books of burglars Baker and Martinez. In response to Ehrlichman’s urgent call regarding Hunt, Dean in turn called Charles Colson, the President’s Special Counsel, who had brought E Howard Hunt to the White House. Colson informed Dean that hUnt had indeed been a “consultant” on Colson’s notorious White House payroll. Dean states that although Colson confirmed Hunt’s links to the White House, Colson “vehemently protested that he (Colson) knew nothing and had no involvement in the matter whatsoever.”
Then, according to Dean, Colson mentioned something strange. According to Dean, “Colson also expressed concern over the contents of Hunt’s safe.”
And here the long murky story begins. White House consultant E Howard Hunt maintained a secret safe in his office in the Old Executive Office Building – Room 338. When the Hunt safe was eventually opened later that same afternoon of June 19th (following a joint decision by Colson, Dean, and Ehrichlman to have Secret Service and GSA personnel drill through its steel plate) several things became readily apparent. Perhaps first among these things was that the fledgling Watergate cover-up would soon – quite soon – have to substantially expand.
For in that safe were a number of things. A gun. A holster. And a blip of live ammunition. Of vastly more importance, however, was yet another clip of ammunition – in the form of various papers and classified files from Hunt’s secretwork with the White House Plumbers. In addition to secret material relating to the Plumbers investigation of Daniel Ellsberg and various Hunt paper relating to his investigation of Chappaquiddick, were some forged State Department cables which Hunt himself had personally fabricated during a Plumbers probe into the circumstances of the 1963 assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam. The secret Hunt safe also contained information resulting from yet another Plumbers probe – into some of the circumstances of another 1963 assassination – the assassination of President Kennedy.