IT was just a strip of masking tape, but it is fast stretching into the most provocative caper of 1972, an extraordinary bit of bungling of great potential advantage to the Democrats and damage to the Republicans in this election year.
Walking his late-night rounds at Washington's Watergate office building, a security guard spotted the tape blocking the bolt on a basement door. He removed itbut on his return a few minutes later he found the lock taped open again. He called police, and a three-man squad found two more taped locksas well as a jimmied door leading into the shadowy offices of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor. Just outside Chairman Larry O'Brien's inner sanctum, they flushed five men wearing fingerprint-concealing surgical gloves and laden with a James Bondian assortment of cameras, tools, intricate electronic bugging gear and $6,500 in crisp, new bills, most of which were serially numbered.
O'Brien promptly accused the Republicans of "blatant political espionage," adding that the event raises "the ugliest questions about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century." Former Attorney General John Mitchell, who heads up Nixon's campaign Committee for the Re-Election of the President, retorted that this was "sheer demagoguery." The White House, through Presidential Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, at first tried to dismiss the incident as a "third-rate burglary attempt." That it was considerably more serious became clear when the five arrested men were identified. One was in the pay of Mitchell's committee; several had past links to the CIA. Beyond that, shadowy trails reached close enough to the White House, as one Republican admitted privately, to shake the G.O.P. with fears that another ITT scandalor worsewas in the making.
The man on the Republican payroll was James W. McCord, Jr., 53, the $1,209-a-month chief security coordinator and electronics expert of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. (In the best Mission: Impossible tradition, he was promptly disavowed by Mitchell and fired.) He had retired in 1970 as a CIA security specialist and been recommended to the Republicans by Al Wong, a Secret Service officer.
Also captured in the Watergate were Bernard Barker, 55, a key liaison between the CIA and the Cuban exiles who participated in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and Frank Sturgis, 37, another Bay of Pigs operative, who has since built a ripe career as a soldier of fortune. The other men arrested were anti-Castro Cubans: Eugenio Martinez, 49, a Miami real estate broker employed by Barker's firm, and Virgilio Gonzalez, 46, a barber before he fled Castro's Cuba who is now, interestingly enough, a locksmith. It was suspected that two lookouts escaped. Late in the week McCord was freed on bail. but the other four remained in jail.