AMERICAN SPY: MY SECRET HISTORY IN THE CIA, WATERGATE AND BEYOND, by E. Howard Hunt with Greg Aunapu, Wiley, 340 pages, $25.95

Most people who lived through Watergate corruption and the impeachment proceedings for Richard Nixon in the 1970s know the name Howard Hunt. He died in January of this year, at the age of 88, but his long and varied career is enormously interesting.

Hunt served as an OSS operative in China during World War II and as covert CIA operative for more than 20 years after the war. And he wrote 70 suspense novels under an assumed name.

In addition:

• He was involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco (the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro at the beginning of the Kennedy administration).

• He masterminded the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in 1971 (Ellsberg was an academic who released the Pentagon Papers to the press, thus angering Nixon).

• With G. Gordon Liddy, he organized the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters in 1972 (for the purpose of stealing "political intelligence" to use in the 1972 presidential campaign).

It was the latter incident for which Hunt was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping — and served 33 months in prison.

Hunt was loyal to his president even as he was imprisoned, but when the Watergate hearings began and the Nixon secret tapes were revealed, he was shocked and embittered that the president had said demeaning things about him.

When Mark Felt (to whom Hunt incorrectly refers as "Howard" Felt), a former assistant director of the FBI, revealed himself to be the much discussed "Deep Throat" — the major source within the government who guided Bob Woodward in his journalistic investigations for the Washington Post — Hunt was angered. He decided it was time to tell his story.

The result is far from perfect, partly because Hunt was in advanced years when he began the project, and partly because he used a ghost writer, Greg Aunapu, who was not conversant enough with the events described.

The writing style is awkward and often embarrassing. For example, Hunt and Aunapu begin Chapter 15 this way:

"The road to Watergate was traveled in such small, incremental steps that by the time the situation arose, the break-in would seem a natural thing to do. Aren't all vices the same? The alcoholic, be it a wino sprawled in the gutter or a power broker scoffing down martinis, has to have his first sip at some time; the drug user, be it a soccer mom gulping tranquilizers or a junky sharing needles, has her first taste of bliss; every overeater starts her progressive snacking without realizing; every criminal commits his first, usually small, crime."

Nevertheless, the book as a whole is a fascinating look into the mind of one of the major Watergate figures, a man who had lived almost his entire life in a clandestine manner befitting the cloak of Watergate. This book will now have to be closely considered by Watergate historians who continue to try to understand Nixon's perverse presidency.

E-mail: [email protected]