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Did Mark Felt Even Know He Was Deep Throat?

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In his new book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, Max Holland takes on chief aspects of the Watergate myth: that an idealistic, well-placed and mysterious source fed information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, thereby leading the American press to one of its greatest achievements, the overthrowing of President Richard M. Nixon. The legend is that it was Deep Throat's disgust over the scandal that moved him to such risky, noble actions. Far from it, Holland writes. Felt's motive, he says, was personal gain only, a means of making the acting director of the FBI appear a failure, and thus getting the directorship for himself, playing Iago to Patrick Gray's Othello. Holland would strip from the Post a lot of the credit lavished on it. He writes:

Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post 'uncovered' Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI's investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors' case well in advance of the trial.

Holland does a service in debunking parts of the Watergate myth and clarifying some relationships. He is good on the perverse office politics at the FBI, making old, high-placed J. Edgar Hoover assistants come to life. And he must have spent long hours putting the Nixon tapes in the context of events that are now almost forty years old. Deep Throat probably was a conniver -- must have been, a reader concludes because of the case Holland builds. But he is way off base when it comes to the Post. I was the editor in charge of the Watergate investigation for the Post; that was my assignment from the day of the break-in and for the following 15 months, the period that includes all the Post's main Watergate contributions. I never knew Deep Throat's identity until it was released in a 2005 Vanity Fair article. But there are some things I know first-hand. Day in and day out, the Post did a solid reporting job, and several times it did more than that -- it had great stories with major impact, including one story that by itself set in motion the government investigations that eventually forced Nixon out of office. Holland accepts a key part of the Watergate myth that really is hokum -- that Deep Throat was an important, sine qua non source for the Washington Post. He not only accepts it; it is his basic premise. This is where his book runs into trouble. Here is what Holland writes:

Felt provided vital guidance, imparted knowledge, suggested leads, and gave Woodward (and by extension, Bernstein) confidence that they were on the right track. He sharpened and expanded upon information they had already gathered, and, on occasion, supplied raw information, known only to the FBI, that could be popped into a piece virtually unchanged. He nurtured one front-page story after another, allowing the Post reporters to replicate the FBI's investigation in several respects.


This sounds, perhaps, like the story as told by FBI agents and indeed, Holland lists several FBI and Justice Department figures as people he interviewed. The FBI did a very good job in investigating Watergate, but this is a bit much, fellas. It didn't happen.

Deep Throat wasn't an important source at all. He was nice to have around, helpful on occasion, especially in October, 1972, when he confirmed and added to a story in which the Post introduced Donald Segretti as a political saboteur against the Democrats. But that's about it. Woodward and Bernstein have blown up Felt's importance for almost four decades or nodded in assent when others did, and instead of pricking this big balloon, Holland pumps more air into it.

Holland states that for decades "the parlor game that would not die" -- the search to uncover Deep Throat -- had the effect of "elevating Deep Throat's role as a source and cementing the myth about the Post reporters' own role in uncovering Watergate." Except Holland very much accepts the first part of that formulation.

A good starting point for balloon-pricking is a story from June 20, 1972, three days after the break-in, titled, "White House Consultant Linked to Bugging Suspects." Holland describes this as Felt's initial leak and says the story divulged "information known only by the FBI at that time." That is incorrect. A Post night police reporter, E.J. Bachinski, saw the "information" with his own eyes. The FBI had nothing to do with it.

As the headline suggests, this was an extremely important early story -- so important that all future Watergate coverage, in retrospect, may be looked at as filling in the dots of that one. Upon seeing it, the Post's great political cartoonist, Herblock, knew exactly what it signified; he immediately depicted, in his space on the Post's editorial page, big footsteps leading from the Watergate building to the White House. Very direct, not at all subtle.

We didn't need or get any help from the FBI or Felt for that story. The burglars were caught red-handed in the early AM hours on Saturday, June 17th, 1972. On Sunday night, DC cops let Bachinski inspect some of their possessions. (This account isn't from a 40-year-old recollection, it is spelled out in my 1974 Watergate book, The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate.) Working after 3 AM, when his regular shift ended, Bachinski saw two little address books with the notation "W.H." in one and "W. House" in the other, both next to the name Howard Hunt. He also found out about an unmailed check written by Hunt to a local country club for $6.36. On Monday I gave Bachinski's findings to Woodward. He called the White House and asked to speak to Hunt. The White House phone operator tried two offices but couldn't find him. A secretary in the second office suggested Woodward call a firm near the White House. He did, and he got Hunt on the phone. He asked Hunt why his name was in the address books of two of the arrested men. "Good God," Hunt exclaimed, said he had no comment, and hung up.

Those were the basics. We had a very powerful story with a Woodward/Bachinski byline. It's conceivable that Woodward called Felt. If he did, he had no need to, he never mentioned it at the time and he got no useful information. Obviously, the story was known to people beyond the FBI.

Holland later cites a 1973 Columbia Journalism Review piece listing several of the Post's Watergate articles and states that Felt was "a source of varying importance in nearly every one of these stories." Only if the phrase "varying importance" includes "no importance at all" would this be correct.

The first one mentioned was the Bachinski story. Another was the tracing of Nixon campaign funds to the burglars -- the famous Dahlberg check story -- the Post's single most important Watergate story in terms of impact, the one that set in motion the three inquiries I mentioned earlier. It came about when a Miami investigator, Martin Dardis, let Carl Bernstein see checks in the account of one of the arrested burglars. Bernstein went to Miami because a New York Times reporter was beginning to develop good stories from the state prosecutor's office there. (The FBI had known about these checks for weeks but Felt never mentioned them to Woodward.)

Another was the laundering of campaign money through Mexico, which was part of the same Miami reporting. The other stories -- regarding Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon aide Dwight Chapin, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and the Nixon campaign's spying and sabotage against the Democrats -- arose independently of Felt also. In only one, the Segretti sabotage story -- did he even confirm what we were working on.

With the FBI files at his disposal, Felt could have suggested all these stories to Woodward but didn't.

It's not just Holland of course who gives Deep Throat all this credit; it's Woodward and Bernstein who started the myth and have done their best to perpetuate it.

Max Holland got in touch with me last year as he was nearing the end of his project. I told him that my view of Deep Throat's importance to the Post's work seemed to be the opposite of his. Obviously, it remains so.

Holland does provide what to me are new pieces of information. For example, not having followed these things, I didn't know that the late Ken Clawson, a one-time Post reporter who went to work at the Nixon White House, had been exonerated of charges that he personally did one of the meaner political dirty tricks in the 1972 campaign (even though Clawson took credit and boasted about it to a former colleague at the Post).

Holland is critical of Woodward as well as his source. He says that when it served his purposes, Woodward breached parts of a purported arrangement he described having made with Felt. He also cites instances where Woodward's notes are at odds with statements he made later on, saying at one point, "Occasionally the meaning of what he (Felt) said is substantially changed."

For the sake of credibility, even at this late date, it would be useful to see evidence that there really was some sort of Woodward/Felt pact, and what it included. Also it would be good to see some evidence that, as stated in the book, Woodward told Bernstein early on that Felt was Deep Throat. Maybe he did. Yet as late as 1979 Bernstein told a colleague he didn't know who Deep Throat was. Why, if he really knew, didn't he just say, "I'm sorry, but I pledged not to tell."

Some years ago I wrote that "Woodward and Bernstein did fine work in helping lay out the scandal as it took place. But they have been riding the myth and hype of Deep Throat Mark Felt for a very long time." It's a good bit longer now.

For decades Felt denied he was Deep Throat. Perhaps, because he gave out so little to Woodward and Deep Throat was reputed to have given so much, he really didn't know that he was.

Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland, University Press of Kansas, 285 pages.

This story first appeared in NiemanWatchdog.org.