For the relatively small band of reporters who labored exhaustingly for two years trying to unravel the Watergate scandal, it comes as little surprise that one of the sources who helped along the way, the so-called “Deep Throat” glamorized by Hollywood, was the FBI’s W. Mark Felt.
Over the months of intense investigation there were any number of Deep Throats, many of them in the FBI, who provided the leaks and tips that ultimately resulted in the resignation of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.
That is in no way meant to denigrate Felt’s role in aiding the two Washington Post reporters who were to immortalize his contribution by borrowing the name of a popular pornographic movie to protect his identity for 30 years. His usefulness, as noted by the reporters themselves, came mainly in confirming information from other sources and in pointing the reporters in the right direction.
But in reality it was the determination by several men at the top of the FBI to protect the bureau’s reputation and its independence from a White House it didn’t trust in the turbulent, uncertain days immediately following the death of J. Edgar Hoover that was a vital key in preventing the success of a cover up. In fact, this determination was also shared by the CIA, which initially provided leads following the break in at Democratic National Headquarters on June 17, 1972. The agency was concerned that there were White House efforts afoot to make it take the fall for the entire operation based on the fact that several of those involved in the burglary had worked for the CIA.
But it was the FBI, charged with pursuing the investigation throughout its tenure, whose personal relations with reporters supplied the main impetus for uncovering the most serious constitutional crisis in the nation’s history. Watergate, an umbrella title covering any number of nefarious activities, was a leak story from start to finish with few, if any, of the elements of classic investigative journalism. In the end, it was the beauty of the system that brought down King Kong, to paraphrase the concluding line from yet another movie.
Example: Late on a Monday afternoon, three days following the burglary, my phone rang and a recognizable voice reported that it was not the first time the burglars had broken into the Democrats’ Watergate offices. They had been eavesdropping on conversations for sometime and were in the process of either taking out some bugs or installing new ones. It was startling new information that was bannered by the Washington Daily News the next day. The source was a high-ranking FBI official and longtime acquaintance.
This source, however, was only one of several from the bureau who supplied Watergate reporters, probably including Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, with the information that helped advance the story. The Washington Daily News’s disclosure of the contents of Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt’s safe in the White House came from the FBI. It was later revealed in the Senate Watergate hearing that the story had stimulated a monumental shouting match between acting FBI director L. Patrick Grey and presidential aide John Ehrlichman over who was responsible for the increasingly devastating leaks.
Another piece uncovering the Nixon administration’s efforts to suspend civil rights under the infamous Tom Charles Huston plan came from an FBI source. A top bureau source supplied important information that led to stories by the Chicago Tribune and Scripps Howard revealing the origins of the Plumbers and the existence of Pentagon efforts to spy on the White House National Security Council. William Sullivan, a mentor of Felt’s at the FBI, contributed as did a half dozen former Hoover lieutenants to disclosures by Scripps Howard, the Tribune, and Hearst Newspapers about the FBI’s past political activities in behalf of presidents.
So the list is long of examples of leaks to reporters by their own Deep Throats during the 24 months that preoccupied them so dramatically.
As a symbol of all those officials determined not to be undone by the saddest adventure in American history, indeed to help make sure it didn’t succeed, Felt is as good as any. To accomplish this, they turned to those in the press they could trust to protect them from the wrath of a White House basically out of control and increasingly desperate. They were the real heroes of this shameful episode and Felt at 91 deserves the accolade for them all and so do the reporters who kept their secrets safe for so long.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)