Nation & World

Miami’s Watergate mystery man at heart of newly revealed CIA report

A newly released report sheds light on suspicions surrounding Miamian Eugenio Martinez’s role in the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard Nixon.
A newly released report sheds light on suspicions surrounding Miamian Eugenio Martinez’s role in the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard Nixon.

Was a Miami man the CIA’s secret mole inside the team of burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee's offices inside Washington's Watergate office complex 44 years ago, triggering a political scandal that ended an American presidency? Justice Department prosecutors and Senate investigators suspected he was, according to a newly declassified CIA document released Tuesday.

The prospective mole was anti-Castro activist Eugenio Martinez, one of the five burglars arrested while trying to tap a telephone inside the Democratic offices, who also was on the CIA payroll as a $100-a-month informant on Miami’s Cuban exile community.

Prosecutors were so convinced that Martinez was really a spy, relaying reports on the burglary team’s activities to the CIA, that they demanded to see the agency’s entire secret dossier on him.

But the CIA’s top lawyer, John S. Warner, in a stormy 1973 meeting with the prosecutors, flatly refused. “Warner stated that under no circumstances would the Agency give up all records relating to the Agency’s relationship with Martinez,” according to the newly released document. “Warner explained why such a request was difficult for the Agency —the breaching of trust of an agent.”

Three weeks later, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee investigating Watergate, zeroed in on possible spying by Martinez in a letter

directly to top CIA spymaster William Colby. “Had Martinez in any manner advised, hinted or suggested to anyone in CIA or the Government re any clandestine activities against domestic targets,” Baker wanted to know, according to the document.

Colby’s reply is not recorded in the CIA document. But it says he testified on the subject to a secret session of the Senate Armed Forces Committee meeting nine days later, testimony that has never been released.

Martinez, who just turned 94 last month and still lives in Miami, has always been one of Watergate’s mystery men. He participated in three burglaries with the Watergate team, which — though some of the burglars thought they were employed in national security operations for the U.S. government — was actually doing break-ins to gather political intelligence for President Richard Nixon and his 1972 reelection campaign.

After serving 15 months in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in, Martinez, who would be pardoned much later by President Ronald Reagan, wrote a carefully crafted first-person account of the burglaries for Harper’s magazine in 1974. After that, he never spoke of it again. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In his post-prison days, he became, for a time, a Chevy salesman on Southwest Eighth Street.

Even intriguing new facts uncovered by historians — for instance, a claim by the police officers who arrested the burglars that Martinez had a key to one of the desks in the DNC offices, which might suggest the burglars had inside help — haven’t budged his silence. “If you see him at a party and ask even a casual question, he just sort of smiles and changes the subject,” one acquaintance told the Miami Herald.

We had heard that historians considered this a sort of Holy Grail-type document, a big missing piece of the puzzle, so we filed a Freedom of Information request on it.

Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch's director of investigations

The document revealing the intensive questioning of the CIA about Martinez’s role in the burglaries is the agency’s own 155-page secret history of its involvement in Watergate, begun by the CIA’s inspector general’s office in 1973 and allowed to languish unfinished when the author died in 1974.

Long sought by historians and doggedly protected by the CIA, the history was finally obtained through a lawsuit filed last year by the conservative legal watchdog Judicial Watch, which released it Tuesday. Though it’s better known these days for its pursuit of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, the group also handles historical cases.

“We had heard that historians considered this a sort of Holy Grail-type document, a big missing piece of the puzzle, so we filed a Freedom of Information request on it,” said Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch's director of investigations. “And when the CIA didn’t respond, we sued, which is unfortunately the only way public records cases get solved these days.”

Farrell said it appears that the CIA didn’t provide the complete document, which mentions eight appendices that the agency didn’t turn over. “We’re talking to them about that, and if we have to go back to court to get the rest, we will,” he said.

Despite the intriguing account of the suspicions about Martinez, the history doesn’t provide anything to alter the big picture of Watergate, though it does fill in some details. It generally supports the CIA’s longstanding claim that, despite the participation of several of its former employees in the burglaries, it wasn’t involved in Watergate.

“The only real scandal here is that a document like this stayed so highly classified for so long when there’s nothing secret in them,” said Max Holland, publisher of the online newsletter Washington Decoded and one of the Watergate historians who have been seeking the CIA history for years.

“There is some inside-baseball stuff for Watergate junkies,” Holland said after examining the document Tuesday. “But mostly, it supports the broad outlines of what the CIA has always said, that it didn’t know about the break-in beforehand, that it didn’t know what its former people were doing, and that it fiercely resisted being dragged in when the Nixon administration tried to block the FBI’s Watergate investigation by saying it was all a secret CIA operation.”

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