Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Woodward and Bernstein respond to Leak

Posted By on 04.04.12 at 10:30 AM

Hollywoods Deep Throat
  • Hollywood's Deep Throat
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were on a panel talking about Watergate Tuesday at the meeting of the American Society of News Editors in Washington, D.C. In the course of the conversation, they were asked about Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, a new book by Max Holland that deconstructs Felt's contribution to Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage in the Washington Post. As I reported a few days ago in a long Bleader post on Leak, Holland's conclusion was that Felt's role as Deep Throat was more important than the two reporters have made it out to be and and considerably less virtuous.

According to Leak, Felt wanted to run the FBI, but President Nixon gave the job of acting director to L. Patrick Gray instead. And so, Holland writes, Felt set out to get it by “trying to prove to the White House, through anonymous leaks to the media, that Gray was dangerously incompetent and incapable of running the Bureau. Felt was supremely confident that because of his extensive counterintelligence experience, he could keep his hand invisible.”

Woodward, with whom Felt had a series of secret meetings, was a means to that end.

Woodward and Bernsten told the news editors Tuesday that Holland got it wrong. Here's a transcript of their remarks on Leak:

Moderator Alicia Shepard: There are a lot of myths about Watergate. One is that the two of you single-handedly took down the POTUS [president of the United States]. Is there one that bothers you?

Carl Bernstein: That’s certainly one! I mean this was about the system working! About the judiciary, as I said, the legislature . . . everybody . . . it worked. I think that’s the principal myth that I find . . . it’s an oversimplification. And the other one, I mentioned, is this idea that this was a “caper.”

Bob Woodward: And if I . . . just the idea that what we were writing, was just following what the FBI or the prosecutors were chasing. In January of ’73, the prosecutors put on the first Watergate trial and said, “Gordon Liddy was the mastermind.” And we had written a couple of dozen stories saying the people behind Watergate were Haldeman, the chief of staff; John Mitchell, the former attorney general; Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal lawyer; that Nixon’s appointments secretary, right there in the Oval Office, was running part of the sabotage campaign. It was a completely different picture from the sources we had. So that’s one of the myths that’s out there.

Shepard: So as you know, there’s a new book out called Leak. And in 1976 you talked in one of these old videos about describing Deep Throat as a “conscience-stricken man who crossed the lines for the best of reasons.” This new book says that Felt was cynical [and] opportunistic rather than noble. What do you think?

Woodward: I did a book called The Secret Man in 2005 when Mark Felt came forward and identified himself as that source. There’s nothing in that book that isn’t . . . I mean, I’ve said, there was an ambition, there was a manipulation. He disliked the press. One of the things you discover as a reporter [is] that people’s motives are not just unitary. They generally have . . . sometimes, particularly with somebody like Mark Felt and a complex mind, three or four or five layers. One of them was his disappointment at not being made FBI director. I knew him and dealt with him. He was troubled by what was going on in the Nixon White House. He was also trying to protect the FBI and people forget about this: he was not a volunteer. He didn’t come to us. We went to him, and I actually was . . . you used the term stalker . . . to get him to talk.

Bernstein: There’s another fundamental flaw in this book . . . I mean, Bob maybe won’t be as forthright as I am about it. And that is the idea that somehow Felt played us. That he tricked us into something. Nonsense. We obtained information all over the lot. It was rare that he volunteered information. He would occasionally confirm it. But certainly the idea that he played us is utter nonsense. Because the stories turned out to be true. The people who got played were the prosecutors. And they really got played, partly because the assistant attorney general [Henry Petersen] and the attorney general of the United States [Richard Kleindienst] were in on the play!

I asked Holland by e-mail to respond. He wrote back:

I think the record will show that the prosecutors' private understanding of the case in Jan '73 was not that different from Woodward's at the time. But publicly, the prosecutors had to present a case in court that was provable, NOT what they thought might have happened. They wanted the book thrown at Liddy, McCord and Hunt so that facing the prospect of serious prison time, one of them would crack. And one did . . . McCord.

Sandy Smith, who, in retrospect, broke just as many Watergate-related stories as Bernstein and Woodward, said it best: "There's a myth that the press did all this, uncovered all the crimes. . . . It's bunk. The press didn't do it. People forget that the government was investigating all the time. In my material there was less than two percent that was truly original investigation."

In his remarks Woodward started to say, "There's nothing in that book [Leak] that isn't . . . ." But then he stopped himself before completing the sentence, because it's palpably untrue that Leak simply reiterates what he wrote in The Secret Man. Then, Woodward reverted to his current formulation about the supposed triad of motives that drove Felt, the many-layered no. 2 man at the FBI. Woodward asserts that besides being disappointed at not being made FBI director, Felt was "troubled" by what was going on in the Nixon White House, and was also trying "to protect the FBI."

Actually, in The Secret Man, Woodward wrote, "He [Felt] never really voiced pure, raw outrage to me about Watergate or what it represented." I believe that to be an accurate reflection of Felt's true behavior back then. For Woodward to underscore now that Felt was "troubled," well . . . I can't dispute that, not having been with them in the garage. It strikes me as a bit convenient though and at seeming odds with the 2005 sentence.

I will say that if Felt gave Woodward that vague impression, one has to wonder if it was part of Felt's act; or perhaps Woodward was projecting because that's what he wanted to think, or because it seemed plausible.

But the only thing that ever genuinely troubled Felt was that Richard Nixon didn't make him FBI director in May '72, or a year later.

As for the notion that Felt had to act to "protect" the FBI . . . that sounds profound, but upon close examination, there's no there there. Protect it from what? Presidents always want the FBI to act in accordance with their interests (see Bill Clinton), and Nixon was no different in this regard. But the Nixon administration's one ham-handed effort to attenuate the FBI's investigation into Watergate flopped miserably, and very quickly. As Mark Felt himself later wrote, "No one could have stopped the driving force of the [FBI's Watergate] investigation without an explosion in the Bureau—not even J. Edgar Hoover."

Re Woodward and Bernstein initiating the contact with Felt—that's true, of course, and no one is suggesting otherwise. Yet that has no actual bearing on whether Felt would or wouldn't try to use Woodstein subsequently for his own ends.

Re Bernstein's remarks, they subtly misrepresent what I wrote and believe. Towards the end of the book, despite everything, I defend their use of Felt as a source in summer/fall of '72. When the no. 2 man at the FBI is willing to talk, any journalist worth his or her salt listens. And the information or guidance or corroboration (or whatever you want to call it) that Felt supplied then was instrumental in the Post's (mostly accurate) coverage, and its clear lead over the rest of the press pack (with the notable exception of Time magazine, which had equivalent access to Felt). Nor do I ever suggest that Woodstein and Bernstein were mere stenographers, taking down what Felt told them and sticking it in the newspaper. To their ever-lasting credit, they did an enormous amount of legwork.

It is also indisputable, however, that Felt supplied Woodward with a lot of bad information. It seldom appeared in print. So what is the standard here? What Felt actually told W/B, as evinced by Woodward's typewritten notes? Or the articles as published? If only the latter, CB is right—except that one still has to keep in mind always that Felt's purpose was to have information traceable to the FBI appear in print, so as to incite White House. Bernstein is being disingenuous in making this supposed point.

The real problem here starts in 1974, when Woodward and Bernstein abrogate the deep background agreement unilaterally in All the President's Men. Simultaneously, they depict Felt as a principled and honorable source. Then it's a question of Woodward and Bernstein playing us, the reading public.

And now that Bernstein has raised the issue of who played whom, the more I think about it, the more I think it's probably owing to W/B's editors in 1972 (besides Bradlee . . . Barry Sussman, Harry Rosenfeld, and Howard Simons) that they weren't played by Felt. One thing that has been lost in the entire fairy tale is that it was a Post triumvirate, really, during the summer/fall of '72. Watergate editor Barry Sussman worked as closely with W/B as an editor possibly can. The only thing he didn't do was leave the newsroom to conduct interviews, or make the necessary telephone calls.

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