Yes, but is he really "Deep Throat"?

W. Mark Felt may well have been Woodward and Bernstein's source, but Vanity Fair's exclusive is short on details from Felt himself.

Published May 31, 2005 8:36PM (EDT)

If you make your way through Vanity Fair's piece on "Deep Throat," you might be struck by what's missing there. For all the blow-by-blow history of the Watergate drama and the tick-tock details of writer John D. O'Connor's odd attorney-client relationship with W. Mark Felt, there's precious little that comes straight from the mouth of Felt himself.

Felt tells O'Connor, "I'm the guy they used to call 'Deep Throat,'" and, as author Adrian Havill notes, there's certainly no doubt about that: Over the years, a lot of people -- a lot of "theys" -- have called Felt "Deep Throat." But what does Felt have to say that corroborates his own story -- that proves that he really was the man "they" said he was? What does Felt say about his decision to leak information to Woodward and Bernstein? What does he say about their clandestine meetings, about the signals Woodward would find on page 20 of his copy of the New York Times, about the warning that "everyone's life is in danger"?

It's not there. Maybe it's not there because Felt isn't who "they" used to say he was, or maybe it's not there because Felt is no longer able to provide the details that might substantiate his story. At several points in the Vanity Fair piece, O'Connor makes reference to Felt's advanced age and declining health; he says he wrote the piece "after witnessing the decline of Felts health and mental acuity," and he quotes Felt's daughter as saying that Woodward had raised doubts about whether Felt had the mental capacity to grant him permission to renege on his promise not to reveal the identity of "Deep Throat" until his death.

If Felt can't tell the truth today, how will we ever know it? As we noted earlier today, the Vanity Fair piece offers some persuasive circumstantial evidence to support Felt's claim: If Felt isn't "Deep Throat," why did Woodward spend so much time meeting with Felt in 1999 and talking with O'Connor and Felt's family about him more recently? Woodward and Bernstein (and Ben Bradlee) can put these questions to rest, but they're keeping mum for now.

What about those who think they know? While there are more than a few Watergate watchers who have identified Felt as "Deep Throat" before, there are many more who have said that it has to be someone else. Those who question Vanity Fair's conclusion point to the fact that Felt equivocated on the identity of "Deep Throat" back in 1974, that he denied he was "Deep Throat" as recently as 1999, and that he was convicted in 1980 -- and then pardoned by Ronald Reagan -- on charges that he authorized illegal FBI break-ins during the 1970s.

Maybe the doubters are right and Vanity Fair is wrong. Or maybe it's just wishful thinking: Knowing that it's Felt -- if it's Felt -- is a whole lot less interesting, in the end, than wondering who it really might be. If the Vanity Fair story is the end of the road, a cottage industry of "Deep Throat" speculation will suddenly be belly-up. Earlier this year, Havill argued that "Deep Throat" was George H.W. Bush. At about the same time, a four-year study of Watergate led students at the University of Illinois to declare that "Deep Throat" was definitely Fred Fielding. And in a 2002 electronic book published by Salon, John Dean -- who knows just a little more about Washington than your average speculator -- said: "I don't believe there is any way Felt could have been Deep Throat."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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