Kids say the darndest things. Speaking to a college journalism class last week, I learned the students had recently seen the All The President’s Men, the film noir tale of the Washington Post's pursuit of the Watergate scandal. When I asked what they thought of it, one young woman said she was pretty surprised by that Deep Throat fellow, the mysterious Post secret super source who skulked about darkened parking garages for pre-dawn meetings. "I thought it was kind of amazing that they just believed anything he told them," she told me with a quizzical look that suggested I would be able to explain it.
But I couldn't. I’ve never been able to understand the blind faith of Bob Woodward and his editors in Deep Throat, their amazing insistence that he could be trusted in every detail because his only motive for revealing secrets was his love of truth, justice and the American way. And I understand it considerably less now that I’ve read an advance copy of a book by historian Max Holland to be published next month by the University Press of Kansas, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.
Mark Felt was the No. 2 man at the FBI during the critical first 11 months of the Watergate investigation, which erupted in 1972 when a team of burglars was caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The discovery that the burglars were working for the reelection committee of President Richard Nixon was the thread that, when tugged, unraveled a whole litany of horrors in the Nixon White House, from campaign money-laundering to wiretapping of reporters. Two years later, Nixon — on the verge of impeachment — resigned the presidency.
Popular myth — spread with sacred zeal these days by journalists zealously insisting that the impending disappearance of the newspaper industry threatens the very fabric of democracy — has it that the press cracked the Watergate case and Nixon’s attempted coverup. The biggest heroes have always been the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who wrote a self-glorifying account of their own coverage that was later turned into a movie.
Their coverage was steered by an intriguing and near-omniscient source known only to Woodward, who used deliciously spooky intelligence tradecraft to signal when he wanted one of their secret meetings in the underground garage. Nicknamed Deep Throat by a Post editor, he had no political agenda, “no axe to grind,” the reporters insisted. Deep Throat was just a good-government-minded civil servant who was trying to protect the office of the presidency from the scoundrel Nixon.
It wasn’t until 2005, when nearly every senior official of the Nixon White House was dead and Deep Throat himself was disappearing into the mists of Alzheimer’s disease, that the reporters revealed that he was Felt. Even then, Woodward insisted Felt’s motives were pure, that he was a freedom fighter in “a war — organized, well-practiced and well-funded by President Richard Nixon — a war aimed at the system of justice. Mark’s great decision in all this was his refusal to be silenced. . . . He was a truth-teller.”
The real story is “considerably messier and less than a fairy tale,” Holland writes in Leak. Through interviews, declassified documents and Nixon’s White House tapes, he demonstrates convincingly that Felt’s objectives were covetous rather than civic: He desperately wanted to be director of the FBI.
Less than a month before the Watergate break-in, the top FBI job had come open for the first time in 37 years with the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Enraged that he hadn’t gotten the job, Felt saw Watergate as an opportunity to shatter the career of the man who did, Nixon’s friend L. Patrick Gray.
Felt began systematically leaking material from the FBI’s Watergate investigation. He knew Nixon, whose paranoia about leaks was legendary in Washington, would figure out that the source was somewhere in the FBI. Gray would be blamed, lose his job (he hadn’t yet been confirmed by the Senate and was officially only acting director) and Felt would be the logical replacement.
Felt played the Washington media like a mighty Wurlitzer, planting his leaks not just with the Post but Time magazine, the Washington Daily News and anybody else who would take them. As his scheme began to work, with Nixon pressing Gray hard to plug the leaks, Felt stood smugly by as other FBI officials were demoted or threatened with the loss of their jobs.
Contrary to the heroic myth that he always pointed reporters in the right direction, Felt’s leaks were often either carelessly inaccurate or maliciously false. Felt told the Post that “an out-of-channels vigilante squad” at the White House was wiretapping reporters as part of the Pentagon Papers investigation. Actually, the taps were directed at national-security leaks from U.S. arms negotiations with the Soviets, they had ceased long ago, and they were conducted by the FBI itself at the direction of Henry Kissinger. Most outrageous of all, Felt falsely told the Post that the man he was trying to get fired, L. Patrick Gray, was holding onto his job by blackmailing Nixon.
Even more damning to the romantic image of Deep Throat as the guy in the white hat standing up to the Nixon Gang at high noon is what he didn’t leak. For instance, the unsuccessful but quite genuine blackmail the FBI used against Martin Luther King Jr., using illicit tapes of sexual incidents to try to force his resignation. Or the FBI campaign of burglaries (“black-bag jobs,” they were called) against anti-war groups, which were directed by Felt himself. Some truths, it seems, don’t need to be told.