Watergate ‘plumber’ Bernard Barker dead at 92

On 7 June 1972, alerted by a night-watchman who had spotted a lock taped open, Washington police arrested five men inside the headquarters of the Democratic party at the Watergate building. Their leader, the CIA agent James McCord, was security chief of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, and was quickly traced to a group of White House operatives known as the ”plumbers”, because they fixed leaks. The subsequent toppling dominoes eventually forced Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, just ahead of impeachment.

Bernard Barker, who has died aged 92 of lung cancer, was arrested hiding under a desk, with $2 500 in new $100 bills in his pocket. A Cuban-American, he, like McCord’s other three accomplices, was a veteran of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, representative of the shadowy ties to which Nixon, on his infamous Oval Office tapes, referred as ”that whole Bay of Pigs thing”.

Working for the CIA under E Howard Hunt, Barker organised a brigade of Cuban exiles for the ill-fated 1961 invasion aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. In the wake of its failure, president John Kennedy’s lack of support incensed the Cuban exile community, and is often cited as a possible motive behind his 1963 assassination. Many conspiracy theories link Barker to the assassination: he was accused by at least one Dallas police detective of having been the man on the grassy knoll showing secret service credentials and keeping the public away from the spot some believe hid the gunman who fired the fatal shot. Barker dismissed such claims, insisting Castro was behind Kennedy’s killing.

Hunt again recruited Barker for the plumbers, codenamed Operation Gemstone, to direct ”black ops” against Nixon’s political enemies. Barker took part in the 1971 burglary of the offices of a psychiatrist who had treated Daniel Ellsberg, looking for material to discredit the man who had leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers.

The target of the Watergate burglary has remained a topic of speculation, with suggestions ranging from information about George McGovern’s presidential campaign, Nixon’s links to Howard Hughes (the Democratic chairperson Larry O’Brien was a Hughes’s lawyer) to an alleged call-girl ring. Barker told the Senate Watergate committee the burglars sought evidence that Castro was financing the Democratic party.

In court, Barker pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to six years in prison. When, after 18 months, he asked to reverse his plea and face trial, Judge John Sirica reduced his sentence to time served and released him from prison.

Barker was born in Havana, to an American father of Russian descent; ironically his middle name Leon was supposed to be a homage to Trotsky. As a youth he joined the ABC revolutionary group opposed to Cuban’s then ruler Gerardo Machado y Morales. Worried, his father sent him to America, but Barker returned to study at the University of Havana. After Pearl Harbour, he volunteered for military duty, and as a B-17 bombardier was shot down and spent 18 months in a PoW camp.

Returning to Cuba, he joined the police of the new president, Fulgencio Batista, and quickly rose within their intelligence operations, which led to his recruitment by the FBI and the CIA, both deeply involved in protecting American interests in the island. When Batista fell to Castro, Barker moved to Miami, where he became a leading figure in the Cuban exile community, a position only reinforced by the Bay of Pigs failure.

After Watergate the story was different. Released from prison, he indulged his celebrity, divorcing his wife Clara, whom he had married in 1945 in Havana. He would marry three more times. He was also jailed, briefly, in Florida for misusing Nixon campaign funds. Given a federally funded job as a building inspector in Miami, he was dismissed for failing to do any work.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Dora, a stepdaughter Kelly, and his daughter Marielena from his first marriage. – guardian.co.uk

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