06/13/2005 10:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

All the President's Dummies

All the President's Dummies? That might be a more apt name for the band of Nixon aides who spent years trying to figure out Deep Throat. As the news side of the HuffPost noted, I had something of a scoop with an article (cowritten with Jeff Goldberg, an author and documentary-maker) reporting that FBI documents show that when Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) was leaking to Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate he was also in charge of trying to find out who in the FBI was leaking to Woodward and Bernstein. Yes, the FBI asked the guy who was Deep Throat to uncover Woodstein's sources. It's an amusing tale that adds another level of intrigue to the Deep Throat saga. (Click here to read the whole piece.)

In the course of writing this article, I came across several delicious nuggets. And what struck me--beyond the main point about Felt's double-man role--was that Nixon and his thugs had essentially pegged Felt as Deep Throat while Watergate was unfolding. Remember, at the time of the scandal there was no Deep Throat; there were a variety of leakers who spilled secrets to The Washington Post, Time, The New York Times and other media outlets. It wasn't until Woodward and Bernstein published All The President's Men in 1974 that the public learned of Deep Throat--the super-source. While the fur was flying in 1972 and 1973, Nixon and his gang bitched and moaned about leakers in general. They wanted to know who was doing the leaking. They were not obsessed with discovering the identity of one single uber-leaker.

But during this period, as our piece makes clear, when they groused among themselves about the media leaks they repeatedly fingered Felt as a likely leaker. Their (informed) speculation can be found on various White House tapes. They worried that Felt could bring down the Nixon administration on his own. They nervously concluded that he would not do so--out of fear of becoming a pariah in Washington. At one point, Nixon wanted the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, to force Felt to take a lie detector test. Gray sidestepped the suggestion, and Felt apparently was never polygraphed. In fact--and here we return to the main motif of the article--Gray asked Felt to unearth Woodward and Bernstein's sources.

So Nixon and his top aides--including Bob Haldeman, John Dean, Al Haig, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst--had it right at the time: Felt was a primary leaker. (And they were not siting around tossing about a lot of other names.) Yet they made no move against him because they fretted he could destroy the administration given he knew much about the assorted dirty tricks of the Nixon White House. Then after All the President's Men came out--and the search for a source named Deep Throat began--the Nixon posse was sidetracked and spent years looking for another culprit. Dean named several possibilities. Haldeman focused on Fred Fielding, who had been Dean's assistant. Other ex-Nixonisitas obsessed over other alternatives.

How did they go so far astray when they initially had it right? In short, this is what happened. All the President's Men noted that Woodward met Deep Throat for the last time (during Watergate) in November 1973 and at this meeting D.T. told Woodward there were "erasures" on the White House tapes. Felt, though, had retired from the FBI months earlier--before the FBI had learned of these "erasures." Thus, the Deep Throat hunters dismissed Felt as a suspect. Knowledge of the "erasures" was a closely-held secret at that time; only a few in-the-loop players were aware of them. If Deep Throat was talking about the gaps on the tapes, the reasoning went, he couldn't be someone who was out of government at that time. Thus, Felt could be crossed off the list. (Besides, Felt vehemently denied he had leaked to Woodward--or anyone else.) Obviously--if Woodward is to be trusted--Felt had picked up news of the "erasures" from someone. And it's not too hard to imagine that a former No. 2 man of the FBI would have sources inside the FBI months after he departed the bureau.

Such imagination, though, eluded the Nixonites. It's stunning now to read the tapes and see how spot-on Nixon and the others were about Felt. Had Woodward and Bernstein told the world during Watergate that they had a Deep Throat, Nixon and his aides would have immediately concluded it was Felt. But they were thrown off the trail by All the President's Men. (Keeping a senses of perspective, Dean ruefully laughed about all this when I spoke with him last week.) And many of these men--including Nixon--died without learning the identity of Deep Throat. In a way, they didn't know that they did know. They had been too clever for their own good.