The mask has been torn away, revealing Mark Felt as Deep Throat. But who did the FBI man seek to expose, and who did he seek to protect? As Jack Shafer argued yesterday, Felt’s leaks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were more about self-protection and turf battles than about truth, justice, and the American way. But a couple of little-remembered incidents from the early 1970s show that Felt was even more cunning and Machiavellian than you think—and much better at twisting the press into covering up his dirty tricks than Nixon ever was.
Chapter 4 of All the President’s Men states that, “[Woodward] had agreed never to quote [Deep Throat], even as an anonymous source. Their discussions would be only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.” But Woodward and Bernstein did interview Felt on the record. Felt is quoted by name in a July 28, 1973, Washington Post story about Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. A ProQuest news database search shows that this was the single occasion in the Watergate era when Woodstein used Felt as an on-the-record source, and he had much to say. “It was an extensive and exhaustive investigation,” Felt said, “and we had no indication whatsoever in any way that the White House was not satisfied with what we were doing.” Woodward and Bernstein then quoted an anonymous “high bureau official”—was this also Felt, now speaking off the record?—”The problem [for the White House] was that we wouldn’t burglarize.”
This was a lie, of course. Along with the FBI’s Ellsberg operation, Felt also oversaw the bureau’s operations against the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the New Left. These latter three investigations wouldn’t be properly revealed until the Church Committee hearings of the mid-1970s. The FBI had burglarized, and Felt himself was convicted in 1980 of authorizing illegal break-ins against the Weather Underground.
Now we know, as Felt knew then, that Nixon believed the FBI hadn’t been thorough enough with Ellsberg, and it was for that reason that the White House created its own burglary unit, the Plumbers. They would break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in search of notes that might prove the leaker insane. (Felt’s team had tried to interview Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, but he had refused to speak to the FBI about one of his patients.)
One could argue that Nixon was undone by Felt not just once, but twice. First, by not going after a White House enemy, and second by talking to Woodward and Bernstein after Nixon decided to do what the FBI refused to do, and after the Plumbers decided they could burgle whom they liked as a para-bureau boutique.
As Tim Noah wrote in 1999, Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, were both convinced that the FBI man was Deep Throat—transcripts of the Nixon tapes reveal the men’s certainty that Felt was Bernstein and Woodward’s source. But Nixon also compared Felt to the informer Whittaker Chambers, as this transcript shows. It’s immensely interesting that Nixon and Haldeman contrived to see themselves as latter-day Alger Hisses—the man Chambers had named as a State Department Soviet spy—both fearing what would happen were Felt to come forward and say he’d been a witness to un-American activities in the White House. Nixon had of course made his political reputation defending Chambers.
According to a November 1974 story in the Washington Post (not by Woodward!), the FBI launched an internal investigation of Mark Felt that year to establish whether he had leaked information to the New York Times. Nothing came of it, perhaps because the bureau had the same fears as Nixon and Haldeman. Had Felt been forced to go public, in court or in Congress, he would have had lots to say about the FBI—not just about its role in the Watergate investigations, but its history of break-ins and burglaries from the 1950s to the 1970s. Did anyone in the FBI or anywhere else in the federal government have the stomach for such revelations in 1973 or 1974?