"Colson's criminal conviction resulted from actions before the Watergate break-in."

"Colson's criminal conviction resulted from actions before the Watergate break-in." Photo: AP

WASHINGTON: Charles Colson, the tough-as-nails special counsel to the US president Richard Nixon who was jailed for his role in a Watergate-related case and became a Christian evangelical dedicated to helping prisoners, has died aged 80.

Colson, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, was known as the ''evil genius'' of the Nixon administration who once said he would walk over his grandmother to get the president elected for a second term.

''I shudder to think of what I'd been if I had not gone to prison,'' Colson said in 1993. ''Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it's not prosperity or pleasure that's important, but the maturing of the soul.''

Charles Colson

Charles Colson … saw the light. Photo: AP

The Washington Post in 1972 said he was ''one of the most powerful presidential aides, variously described as a troubleshooter and as a 'master of dirty tricks'.'' He helped run the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) when it became involved in gathering intelligence on the Democratic Party.

The arrest of CREEP's security director, James McCord, and four other men for a burglary at the Democratic national committee offices at the Watergate complex in 1972 set off the scandal that led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

But Colson's criminal conviction resulted from actions before the Watergate break-in. He pleaded guilty to trying to discredit the Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the secret Defence Department study of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

The efforts to discredit Dr Ellsberg included the use of Nixon's ''plumbers'' - a covert group established to investigate White House leaks in 1971 - to break into Dr Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to look for information that could discredit Dr Ellsberg's anti-war efforts. In 1974 Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg case and served seven months in prison. But before he went to jail he became a born-again Christian and in 1976 established the Prison Fellowship Ministries to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

In 2000 the Florida governor Jeb Bush restored Colson's civil rights, allowing him to vote, sit on a jury, run for office and practise law. Mr Bush called him ''a great guy … a great Floridian''.

Associated Press