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Deep Throat shows the good that can come from anonymous sources

WASHINGTON—"Deep Throat," the anonymous source who helped expose corruption at the highest levels of American government, chose to step forward when journalists are under relentless attack for using anonymous sources.

W. Mark Felt's role in guiding The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toward a massive criminal conspiracy involving the president of the United States is a reminder of the healthy role that confidential sources can play in shining a cleansing light on wrongdoing.

It is hard to appreciate, even in today's polarized Washington, how poisonous and intimidating the atmosphere became as the Post kept digging into the multiple scandals that first surfaced on June 17, 1972, when a security guard at the Watergate office building found a piece of tape placed over a door latch so that five burglars in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee could make a fast getaway.

By the time President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, driven from office for his role in an attempted criminal cover-up of the Watergate break-in, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. When Hollywood made the movie, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played them.

But for much of two years, Woodward and Bernstein, their executive editor Ben Bradlee, their publisher Katharine Graham and The Washington Post were virtually alone in a sea of hostility. They took comfort in the fact that the No. 2 man in the FBI, Felt, was telling them they were on the right course.

Former Attorney General John Mitchell, who was managing Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, said "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer" if the Post published one Watergate story. Graham later said the licenses of two Washington Post-owned television stations were threatened.

On Capitol Hill, the criticism was venomous. The same week in 1973 that the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its Watergate coverage, Sen. William Proxmire, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, denounced "the McCarthyistic destruction of President Nixon that is now going on with increasing vehemence daily in the press."

Watergate players who went to prison for their crimes are today making the rounds of television talk shows and blasting Felt as disloyal and unethical. G. Gordon Liddy, who masterminded the Watergate break-in and served 4 { years in jail for it, said on CNN that if Felt "possessed evidence of wrongdoing, he was honor-bound to take that to a grand jury and secure an indictment, not to selectively leak it to a single news source."

Liddy conveniently ignores the fact that the White House was trying to obstruct the FBI's investigation. Felt's boss, the FBI director, would later be forced to resign for destroying evidence. Even before the Watergate burglary, the White House was running a vast, secret political spying operation outside the law.

Going to the press was one way to get around a corrupted system, expose the corruption and force corrective action.

One can only speculate on Felt's motives. He's 91 and is said to be failing, mentally and physically.

Conservatives are highlighting his disappointment in 1972 at being passed over when Nixon chose an FBI director to replace the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, who died six weeks before the Watergate break-in. Felt's family says he was tortured by his decision to go outside channels but felt it was the only way to protect the FBI from being misused in a political cover-up.

He may have been motivated by both considerations, and he may not have known fully himself why he did it. In the end, his motives are irrelevant. His information was solid.

The lessons of Deep Throat are important for today's journalists and the public. Anonymous sources are in ill repute these days, partly because journalists have overused them, allowed them to launch partisan attacks and even, tragically, invented them. But even the solidest anonymous sources, who decline to be identified out of genuine fear of reprisal, are often under attack, not because the information they provide is wrong but because it doesn't support a particular political agenda.

News organizations, including Knight Ridder, are tightening the rules under which they grant anonymity to sources. For example, like Woodward and Bernstein, who always had at least two independent sources for their Watergate stories and found ways to confirm what Felt told them, we require multiple sources, except in extraordinary circumstances.

We're tightening the rules, but we know there will always be an important role for sources such as Mark Felt who can't be named.

"Journalism using anonymous sources can bring about great good and can have positive results, even while when it's going on, it's painful," said Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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(Clark Hoyt is the Washington Editor of Knight Ridder. He was Washington correspondent for The Miami Herald when the Watergate break-in occurred in 1972 and covered the subsequent trials, Senate hearings and the swearing-in of Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon's resignation.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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