Guessing game

The revelation of Deep Throat's identity has only created more mysteries.

Published June 7, 2005 2:56PM (EDT)

The Bush administration prosecutes government officials who leak sensitive information, even when that information is not classified -- as I noted in my column on Jonathan Randal. The administration is also prepared to send reporters to jail when they refuse to reveal their sources to a grand jury, as I noted in another column.

I doubt the Justice Department will go after W. Mark Felt -- the 91-year-old former deputy director of the FBI -- even if he is the greatest leaker in American political history. Still, in the context of the administration's stances on leaking, the surfacing of Deep Throat at this time is rather ironic.

Bob Woodward (and Carl Bernstein) have confirmed the Vanity Fair story, identifying W. Mark Felt as their legendary Watergate source. The best-kept secret in Washington, for three decades, is no more.

But this is not to say the mystery is resolved. To the contrary, while Mark Felt is alive, his memory for the details of his relationship with Woodward seems to be all but gone. So the revelation of his identity raises many new questions that it seems Felt himself will not be able to answer.

The game of guessing the identity of Deep Throat, which moved from the parlors of Washington to serious inquiry during the last 30 years, is over. A number of us who were fascinated by the inscrutability of it all have been forced into retirement.

Adrian Havill, a freelance author who did some good digging, most recently thought Deep Throat could be no less than former president George H.W. Bush.

Leonard Garment, my successor as Nixon White House counsel, focused his considerable intellect and keen intuition on the issue, and first thought Deep Throat must have been former Nixon White House aide John Sears. Later, however, Garment was convinced that Deep Throat had to be a composite (a hypothesis that has yet to be shown to be incorrect -- but has been denied by Woodward and Bernstein).

Similarly, yours truly (the senior Deep Throat sleuth) has made several incorrect runs at Throat's true identity. (In my 2002 Salon e-book, "Unmasking Deep Throat," I wrote, "I don't believe there is any way Felt could have been Deep Throat," and concluded, "While I have personal knowledge about each of the remaining candidates -- [Pat] Buchanan, [Steve] Bull, [Ray] Price, [Jerry] Warren and [Ron] Ziegler -- as well as hunches about them, I'm not going to play a guessing game. Ever since throwing out Earl Silbert's name years ago, I have refused to guess, and now is not the time to start.") So I tip my hat to former Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Mann, who figured it out, and wrote about Felt in a 1992 Atlantic Monthly essay. Tim Noah of Slate was not far behind, forcing Felt to deny.

When I took a hard look at Felt years ago, I concluded he could not have known what Deep Throat knew when the information was given to Woodward, particularly since he was gone from the FBI at the end, and scratched him off the list of viable candidates.

In fact, so sure was I that, even after reading the Vanity Fair piece and before Woodward had confirmed Felt's identity, I bet an NBC News person $100 it was not Felt the morning the Vanity Fair story broke.

Fortunately, though, I knew my bet was covered, for I'd made an early wager, also for $100, with former Chicago Tribune investigative reporter William Gaines. Gaines, who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois, has used Deep Throat sleuthing as a teaching tool, but I was confident that he was wrong in naming my former Nixon White House deputy, Fred Fielding, as Throat.

Woodward disliked this sleuthing. Now that the issue of Deep Throat's identity appears resolved, I suspect Woodward is going to be even less enchanted with those who focus on his journalism. And Deep Throat himself, Mark Felt, is going to be probed as he might never have dreamed.

I'm among those who believe Woodward is truly one of the great journalists. (It's not an opinion shared by many of my former White House colleagues.) No Washington reporter has so consistently had access to those in power -- meaning Woodward has often had uniquely compelling stories to tell. And Woodward's reporting is fair and honest -- one reason he may maintain the access he has.

Still, Woodward's use of unidentified sources -- a controversial practice, and one now banned at Newsweek after the Quran desecration debacle -- has been extreme. And because Woodward's key Watergate source was unidentified, until now no one could test his Watergate reporting.

Bob once told me that when I learned who, in fact, Deep Throat was, all my questions would be clarified. That, however, has not happened. To the contrary, I only have more questions now that I know Deep Throat was Mark Felt.

I raise a few of them here, in the hope of getting some answers, while Woodward is still out and about doing talk shows.

But first, for those not following this story closely, a little background is in order:

At the time of Watergate, Mark Felt was the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Former Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had elevated Felt to this post, had died only weeks earlier. President Nixon had selected the assistant attorney general of Justice's Civil Division, L. Patrick Gray, to serve as the acting director of the FBI.

Even before Hoover's death, however, Felt was for all practical purposes running the FBI -- as Hoover wanted it run, with a few exceptions. For example, when Hoover wanted to end surreptitious black-bag jobs (entries onto premises without a court warrant), Felt continued them.

Later, Felt would be indicted and convicted by President Carter's Justice Department for continuing the practice of illegal searches, only to be pardoned by President Ronald Reagan for the practice. One wonders if Felt would have been pardoned by Reagan had it been known he was Deep Throat. Plus, I seriously doubt former President Richard Nixon would have testified on Felt's behalf -- as indeed he did -- during his trial had he known of Felt's actions as Deep Throat. Deep Throat had earned top ranking on Nixon's post-presidency enemies list (one notch above yours truly.)

When Pat Gray became acting director of the FBI, I don't believe he had a clue how to run the place. In fact, he did not really focus on trying to do so. Rather, he spent much of his time traveling throughout the country literally campaigning at various FBI field offices to win the support of rank-and-file FBI agents for the job of director. Thus, during much of the Watergate investigation, Gray was not even in Washington.

When I talked to Gray during the Watergate investigation, he typically said he would have to check with Felt and get back to me. No one at the Nixon White House believed Gray had any control whatsoever of the FBI. To claim otherwise, as Felt apparently did with Woodward, is absurd.

Notwithstanding the article in the Washington Post (from his forthcoming book) about Mark Felt, Bob Woodward, so far, has told us little of his working relationship with Felt. Given Felt's aging memory, which is widely acknowledged to be less than razor sharp, it will be Woodward's story -- not Felt's.

Yet we do know something about the information Felt, as Deep Throat, provided to the Washington Post from Woodward's book, "All the President's Men." Woodward reports some 14 meetings (depending on how they are counted).

Recently, I went through the book again, and pulled out every fact -- or factoid -- that Throat/Felt shared with Woodward, and noted when the information exchange had occurred. For a list of these facts -- and an indication of which of them I believe may well be untrue -- see the appendix to this column.

This summary of what Deep Throat told Woodward and when, according to "All the President's Men," is particularly illuminating now that we know Deep Throat's identity. It, along with a few more clues Woodward has dropped since confirming Felt's role, raises new questions about the Watergate investigations and about Felt's leaking to Woodward.

Here are just a few questions that need to be answered:

In his position as the No. 2 man in the FBI, and the man running the Watergate investigation for the FBI, Felt saw virtually all the raw data from the FBI's field investigations. In the few days since the revelation of his identity, I have not had an opportunity to compare the material from the FBI's Watergate investigation with the information that Felt gave Woodward to see if it is possible to determine how he got it wrong. But such a comparison will doubtless be fascinating.

Woodward, it appears, was seldom in a position to correct information that Felt gave him that was wrong. But when writing "All the President's Men," he did correct one major false statement from Felt. Sometime in early May 1973, Felt told Woodward, "In early February, [Patrick] Gray went to the White House and said, in effect, 'I'm taking the rap on Watergate.' He got very angry and said he had done his job and contained the investigation judiciously, that it was unfair that he was being singled out to take the heat. He implied that all hell could break loose if he wasn't able to stay in the job permanently and keep the lid on. Nixon could have thought this was a threat, though Gray is not that sort of guy. Whatever the reason, the president agreed in a hurry and sent Gray's name up to the Senate right away. Some of the top people in the White House were dead set against it; they couldn't talk him out of it."

It appears that Felt has invented this statement out of whole cloth -- or was seriously misinformed. It never happened this way, as the Nixon White House tapes make clear.

To reflect this, Woodward did add a footnote in this instance, stating that Pat Gray's attorney advised Woodward that the suggestion Gray had pressured or blackmailed Nixon was "outrageously false."

But most of Felt's bad information has never been corrected. In fact, a few writers about the period have quoted Felt's bad information as historical fact. As can be seen from the appendix, some of these inaccuracies are minor (although I doubt not so minor to persons erroneously maligned by Felt). But some are not.

Given the complexity of Watergate, it is not difficult to understand how Felt made some mistakes when meeting with Woodward in the dead of the night. Yet in other instances, it is not easy to comprehend how the No. 2 man in the FBI could have provided such bad information, knowing it could become public. And why has Felt let this bad information sit in the historical record for the past three decades?

My opinion as to which information, provided by Felt, is wrong is based on my many years of reviewing great swathes and stacks of documents about the Watergate investigation. The appendix speaks for itself. But here, allow me to flag just one (of several) particularly egregious sessions where Felt gave Woodward appalling information, apparently to try to manipulate Woodward and the Washington Post.

It must be noted, according to Woodward's reports, that Felt frequently told Woodward -- falsely -- that he and the Washington Post were under surveillance. And based on Woodward's recent article about Felt, it seems Felt equated Nixon with Hitler, and that he saw the Watergate investigation as a Nazi hunt (harking back to his pre-FBI days in the military).

A month before Felt retired from the FBI, he had one of his more remarkable sessions with Woodward. On May 16, 1973 (as reported at Pages 317-18 of "All the President's Men"), Woodward says Felt has become "transformed" by the Watergate investigation, and talks to him almost in a monologue. When finished, Felt departs; Woodward wrote it all down in a notebook, which he later typed out for Bernstein.

It is one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie of "All the President's Men": With a Rachmaninoff piano concerto playing in the background, a frightened Woodward types his notes from this session with Felt. Woodward's dread is understandable. The No. 2 man at the FBI has told him -- now, it clearly seems, falsely -- "Everyone's life is in danger ... electronic surveillance is going on and we had better watch it. The CIA is doing it." The CIA role in Watergate was investigated, and had this occurred, it would be known today.

The report continues: "Dean talked with Senator Baker after [the] Watergate committee formed and Baker is in the bag completely, reporting back directly to [the] White House." This is absolutely false. I never spoke with Baker. And Baker certainly was not in the bag.

Felt says that the president "threatened Dean personally and said if he ever revealed the national security activities the President would insure he went to jail." This never happened, a fact that can be corroborated by Nixon's tapes.

As my appendix notes, the flow of false facts continued. At one point Felt says, "The covert activities involve the whole U.S. intelligence community and are incredible," although he refused to give Woodward any details, claiming "it is against the law." In fact, no such operation was ever directed out of the Nixon White House.

Even more absurd are Felt's claims that those involved in the Watergate coverup were "chipping in their own personal funds. And Mitchell couldn't meet his quota [so] ... they cut Mitchell loose." Absurd, too, is his claim that "these guys in the White House were out to make money and a few of them went wild trying."

Because Woodward could not quote Felt directly, none of the surprising number of false statements highlighted in my appendix made their way into the Washington Post, but apparently Woodward believed them sufficiently to include them in his book.

If Felt was not trying to manipulate the Post, it is not clear what he was doing. Surely, he had to know -- or, at least, should have known -- that much of his information was worse than speculative; it was plain wrong.

In short, the amount of bad information that Felt gave Woodward is alarming. How and why did it happen?

Woodward reports -- in the Washington Post story recently excerpted from his forthcoming book on Throat/Felt -- how he and Felt devised a system indicating that Woodward needed to talk to Felt, since Felt did not want him calling his office.

"If you keep the drapes in your apartment closed, open them and that could signal me, [Felt] said. I could check each day or have them checked, and if they were open we could meet that night at a designated place" (emphasis added). But because Woodward liked to keep his drapes open, they agreed that Woodward would place a flowerpot with a road construction flag in it on his balcony as the signal.

Clearly, Woodward suspects that Felt, who would have been extremely busy running the day-to-day activities of the FBI, was not checking his apartment balcony daily himself. Woodward writes, "How [Felt] could have made a daily observation of my balcony is still a mystery to me  The Iraqi Embassy was down the street, and I thought it possible that the FBI had surveillance or listening posts nearby. Could Felt have had the counterintelligence agents regularly report on the status of my flag and flowerpot? That seems highly unlikely, if not impossible."

I don't think it is impossible at all. To the contrary, I believe that Felt had to have one or more persons working with him. Thus, others in the FBI must have known Felt was feeding the Washington Post.

This is evident from the last reported conversation in "All the President's Men" between Deep Throat and Woodward. Felt retired from the FBI five months before this last contact, during the first week of November 1973. As a result of the conversation, Woodward (breaking his prior agreement not to quote Felt directly) uses his words in the Post story, which told of gaps of "a suspicious nature" in Nixon's secret tapes that "could lead someone to conclude that the tapes have been tampered with."

How did Felt, no longer in the FBI, get information that "one or more of the tapes contained deliberate erasures"? And when reporting this story in the Washington Post, on November 8, 1973, why did Woodward quote Felt as an anonymous "White House source"? Was Woodward by this time aware that Felt had an agent inside the White House, or a mole?

There has been much discussion since the revelation of Deep Throat's identity, on television in particular, as to whether Mark Felt is a hero or villain, not to mention what his legacy will be now that we know Throat's identity. Clearly, he is history's supreme whistleblower.

Because of my own involvement in Watergate, my knowledge of how those who sought to discredit my testimony (particularly before the Nixon tapes surfaced) operate, and my knowledge of the historical record, I know that Nixon apologists will attack Felt -- and Woodward.

These attacks will be senseless. (But that has long been the operative word with Watergate.) It is time to learn from what happened, not refight battles Nixon has, for good reason, lost.

As my appendix shows, the quality of Felt's information -- at least as reported so far and as found in "All the President's Men" -- is of questionable value given the amount of misinformation. It seems it was Felt's position alone that gave Woodward, and in turn, Woodward's editor at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, confidence in pursuing a story that other news organizations at first largely ignored. (Initially, Bradlee only knew Woodward had a source who was a high official in the Department of Justice -- and Bradlee did not learn more until after Nixon had resigned.)

To me, a true hero of Watergate is Ben Bradlee, who not only supported Woodward and Bernstein but had the trust of the Post's owner, Katharine Graham. Initially, the rest of the national media and the nation ignored the story. Although the Washington Post never "cracked the case," its keeping the story in the news within the Beltway had a great influence on the Congress, making it an important story. Had Bradlee not done so, history might have been much different.

We still need to know much more about Mark Felt's activities, not to mention his accomplices, to understand the Byzantine workings of the FBI of that era. I hope Bob Woodward will answer these questions -- about which he has knowledge -- sooner rather than later, while there is still interest in the story. For it is information that is as uniquely relevant today -- with the current White House hellbent on returning the presidency to the imperial status it occupied before Watergate.

By John W. Dean

John W. Dean served as counsel to President Nixon from 1970 to 1973. He now writes a column for Findlaw and is the author of several books, with the next to be published in January 2004, a biography of Warren G. Harding. .

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