Monday, April 16, 2012

Deeper into Deep Throat

Posted By on 04.16.12 at 08:42 AM

Barry Sussman
  • Scoopman/Wikimedia Commons
  • Barry Sussman
The Watergate scandal turned the names of Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, editor of the Post, and reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into household words — or as close to that as print journalists can hope to become. What the scandal itself could not accomplish in celebritizing this quartet was done by the movie, All the President's Men, based on the book Woodward and Bernstein wrote about how they got that story.

And of course Woodward's mysterious source "Deep Throat," introduced in the book and played to high dramatic effect in the movie by Hal Holbrook, attained equal standing—and then some.

One key Post figure never caught the spotlight. Barry Sussman was the editor who quarterbacked the coverage, worked intimately with Woodward and Bernstein, and might have collaborated on a Watergate book with them. But at the suggestion of Robert Redford, who'd direct the movie, Woodward and Bernstein wrote their book about the reporting process and Sussman wrote his own, The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, about the crimes. There was no role for Sussman in the movie and perhaps too small a role in the book. In his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam called Sussman "the perfect working editor at exactly the right level. Sussman was not simply encouraging, he brainstormed the story, trying to put the pieces together, fitting them and refitting them until finally, slowly, there was the beginning of a pattern. More, he believed in the story, he was sure there was something there." And in the story's aftermath, when the "bitch goddess" stardom had touched some and not others, "Barry Sussman, who had once befriended the young Woodward and Bernstein, felt betrayed by his two former proteges, left out of their book. He no longer talked to either of them."

Recently the investigative reporter Max Holland wrote a book, Leak, about Deep Throat, revealed in 2005 to be Mark Felt, deputy associate director of the FBI at the time of Watergate. Holland argued that Felt's motives were self-serving—he wanted to run the FBI, which meant telling tales that would discredit the acting director President Nixon had put in place above him, L. Patrick Gray. Earlier this month I wrote about Leak, and followed up with a story relating what Woodward and Bernstein had to say about Holland's book and what Holland said in response.

Unless you're someone Watergate still holds spellbound (a lot of people fit that description: the scandal was recently turned into a fat novel by Thomas Mallon and I'm in the middle of it), you might be thinking that a little Deep Throat is quite enough. So it is. But Barry Sussman's opinion of Leak is one that counts, and the other day he published a long critique. "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," Sussman writes. "Deep Throat probably was a conniver— must have been, a reader concludes because of the case Holland builds."

And then the but. "But he is way off base when it comes to the Post."

Holland had written, "Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post 'uncovered' Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI's investigation." Sussman responds, "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."

Now Sussman assails not only Holland but his two long-estranged former Post colleagues: "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."

At the conclusion of his long, detailed critique, Sussman makes this observation: "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."

Sussman's review first appeared on NiemanWatchdog.org (he's editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project), but when it showed up April 12 on the vastly more trafficked Huffington Post site, Holland decided to respond on the record.

Here's that response:

Barry Sussman and I agree that the role of Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) has received too much emphasis. Indeed, my book Leak ends by stressing that the real Watergate whistleblowers were named Penny Gleason, Judith Hoback, and Hugh Sloan, all of whom worked for the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP).

Nonetheless, Sussman and I disagree on the role Felt played during a period of 4½ months in the latter half of 1972 (mid June to November). This is a debate that properly, ought to be conducted between Sussman and Woodward/Bernstein. They all worked at the Washington Post then and I didn’t. Nonetheless, I do have an informed opinion after closely analyzing the coverage, juxtaposing it with revelations in All the President’s Men and The Secret Man [Woodward's book on Felt after Felt was identified], and researching the Woodward/Bernstein Papers at the University of Texas.

Sussman told me that he purposely did not read All the President’s Men when he was writing his 1974 Watergate book, The Great Cover-up, because he did not want his account to be influenced in any way by Bernstein and Woodward’s. I can understand and even sympathize with that impulse. At the same time, not reading the relevant books (putting aside the archives) suggests that Sussman may not be aware of how many times, and in how many ways, Felt figured in.

Even so, in 1974 Sussman did note that,

. . . while the White House and various politicians accused the Post of overplaying the story, [Deep Throat] always assured Woodward that there was more, much more, and not to be misled. When so many members of the press were ignoring Watergate, this was no small succor.

I agree, but would still go further.

Almost exactly one year after the 17 June 1972 break-in, Laurence Stern, the Post’s pre-eminent reporter in those days, wrote a front-page article on the effect of the burgeoning Watergate scandal on the FBI. He reported,

Reporters who covered the case acknowledge the role of [FBI] agents in opening up the initial peepholes in the cover-up façade some administration officials were trying to erect. “It wasn’t a matter of getting rancorous leaks dumped in your lap,” said one Watergate reportorial specialist. “You’d have to go them and say, what about this or what about that? They’d respond, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ I can think of one guy in the Bureau without whom we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

The “one guy,” of course, was Mark Felt; the “Watergate reportorial specialist” was either Woodward or Bernstein; and I believe the quote correctly conveyed the significance of Deep Throat.

To believe that Deep Throat was merely nice to have around and helpful on occasion requires one to discount almost in its entirety what Bernstein and Woodward have written about Felt, first, in All the President’s Men (1974), and then in The Secret Man (2005), and finally, in the various unpublished drafts of their first book. I criticize Woodward and Bernstein probably as harshly as anyone ever has; I don’t share their fairy tale about Felt as a “truth-teller” who had no design. Yet I don’t believe they made up the numerous meetings, telephone calls, and import of what Felt told Woodward out of whole cloth.

Without getting lost in the weeds of the Post’s coverage, take the front-page article that appeared on October 10, 1972. While it rested on numerous sources, the single most important one was Mark Felt. In Sussman’s 1974 book, he himself noted the significance of this article and acknowledged Felt’s vital role in it: “Overnight our understanding of Watergate had taken a quantum leap [emphasis added] as a result of Woodward’s meeting with his friend.”

In every journalistic or historical accounting, the October 10 article is regarded as the one that defined Watergate writ large, and cemented the Post’s lead on reporting the scandal. Aka the “assault on democracy” story, it has been described as the “centerpiece” of the Post’s coverage or the “seminal” account. Even Robert Phelps, the Washington editor for the arch-rival New York Times, grudgingly acknowledged that because of this article, from October 10 onwards “Watergate was rightly regarded as Woodward and Bernstein’s story.” Being the single most important source in what is deemed the most significant story to appear in the June-to-November time frame doesn’t square with a “nice guy to have around” to my way of thinking.

What accounts for Sussman’s different perspective on Felt’s instrumentality? It would be interesting, to say the least, to compare his recollections with those of Harry Rosenfeld, the Post’s metro editor then, and Leonard Downie, Jr., an editor on the metro desk. In any event, as I researched Leak it became clear to me that Woodward and Bernstein were selective in what they told their editors. The most well-known example of this, of course, is that their editors didn’t know who Deep Throat was. But what the editors also didn’t know was despite Woodward’s insistence that he was sworn not to divulge Felt’s identity to anyone, Woodward did tell Carl Bernstein that Mark Felt was Deep Throat in the fall of 1972.

When I asked Rosenfeld, then Sussman’s superior, what he would have done had he known this fact, he said he would not have accepted Woodward’s demurrals and insisted on knowing Deep Throat’s identity. Moreover, Rosenfeld said he is sure that managing editor Howard Simons would have insisted as well, since Simons routinely demanded to know the identity of his reporters’ confidential sources.

There is nothing new about reporters’ parsing information, and particularly in this case Woodward and Bernstein had reason to do so. There was a faction within the newsroom that believed the story was “too big” for two reporters from the metro section, especially since one was practically a cub reporter (Woodward), and the other notorious for errant behavior that had put him on the verge of being fired (Bernstein).

Finally, Mark Felt certainly knew he was Woodward’s most valued source in the late summer/fall of 1972, although that he had code name borrowed from a pornographic film undoubtedly came as a rude surprise to him in 1974. Still, that must have paled next to Felt’s outrage over the fact that Woodward had unilaterally breached nearly every stipulation in their “deep background” arrangement.

It's a pretty fascinating disagreement. Finding out who Deep Throat was has resolved nothing.

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