What made Deep Throat cough up? | Bleader

Monday, April 2, 2012

What made Deep Throat cough up?

Posted By on 04.02.12 at 11:28 AM

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  • When the legend becomes fact, print the legend
Journalists aren’t the only ones who know how to remember the worst of times as the best of times, but it’s a rare reporter of a certain age who doesn’t think of Watergate as pretty damned sweet. The story gave and gave and kept on giving, and when it was over the press could claim to have exchanged a corrupt president for a new national hero with an unbearably romantic nom de guerre. Who was Deep Throat? It was like asking, who was that masked man?

Or, perhaps, who shot Liberty Valance? “Deep Throat” was the mysterious source introduced by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All The President’s Men, a book that was celebrating their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post even before President Nixon resigned. We’ve known since 2005 that Deep Throat was the late Mark Felt, deputy associate director of the FBI at the time of Watergate. Now there’s a book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by investigative journalist Max Holland, that speculates shrewdly on Felt’s motives for leaking to Woodward (and not only Woodward), finds them cynical and opportunistic rather than noble, judges Woodward to be a shade obtuse and opportunistic, and leaves me (if no one else) wondering if we’d all have known years earlier than we did who Deep Throat was if we’d really wanted to know. As the newspaper man says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One measure of America’s reluctance to surrender the Deep Throat legend might be that the publisher Holland finally found for Leak was the University of Kansas Press.

In 1999 William Gaines—a former investigative reporter who won two Pulitzers at the Tribune before turning journalism professor at the University of Illinois—set out with his students to learn the identity of Deep Throat. They made one assumption—that Woodward and Bernstein had written about Deep Throat honestly and accurately. It was the wrong thing to assume. In 2003 Gaines and his students announced (at a Washington, D.C., news conference) that Deep Throat had been Fred Fielding, a White House lawyer. Among their reasons for ruling out anyone in the FBI—a quote attributed to Deep Throat in All the President’s Men had been attributed to a White House official when it first appeared in the Washington Post.

Gaines approved of the deception. "I'd said at one time that I thought they were rather careless in giving out a whole lot of information about Deep Throat," he told me in 2005. "When you have a confidential source you don't say anything about him. But as it turned out, they didn't do that. They fooled us. They were not giving up clues after all. The clues we saw deceived us."

But Gaines would have second thoughts. He joined forces with Max Holland, proprietor of the online newsletter, “Washington Decoded,” and together they took a long, close look at the Woodward-Felt relationship. In 2007 they jointly posted, on Holland’s website, a long critique of it. “It’s fair to say," said “Deep Throat 3.0,” that although All the President’s Men had portrayed Deep Throat as someone who merely confirmed or denied leads Woodward and Bernstein had developed, the truth was that “but for Deep Throat, in 1972 the Post would have been just another groping member of the press pack rather than its crucial, and mostly solo, leader." What’s more, Woodward had been a lot less protective of Felt than he later made himself out to be. "At several pivotal moments," said “Deep Throat 3.0,” "Woodward amended the terms of the 'deep background' agreement to suit his, Bernstein's, or the Post's best interests, but not necessarily Felt's." Holland’s best example: the decision while writing All the President's Men to reveal that a Deep Throat existed at all.

But what were Felt’s interests? This is the question Holland continued to wrestle with, and Leak provides his answers. Holland believes Felt was not driven by a patriotic passion to expose lawlessness at the highest levels of government. Nor was he determined to focus culpability on the White House in order to protect his FBI from being dragged down by the scandal. And he wasn’t avenging himself against Nixon for having passed him over as J. Edgar Hoover’s successor by instead naming assistant attorney general L. Patrick Gray as acting director of the FBI.

Holland argues that Felt still wanted Gray’s job, and 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.” Felt was wrong. Gray could not imagine that Felt, his loyal right-hand man, was actually undermining him, but at the White House it became apparent someone in the FBI was leaking and that someone was probably Felt. According to Holland, Nixon shrank from firing him because Felt knew too much about the government’s illegal operations to alienate. Even so, in May 1973, just 11 months after the Watergate break-in, Felt resigned under fire.

“The portrait of Felt that emerges when we follow this thread,” Holland writes, “does not resemble any of Bob Woodward’s depictions. Felt held the news media in contempt and was neither a high-minded whistle-blower, nor was he genuinely concerned about defending his institution’s integrity. He was not even hopelessly embittered—just calculating.”

A point Holland is making here is that while the White House tried frantically to figure out who the leaker was, journalists who knew who the leaker was were not asking themselves, why's he doing it? Woodward is not the only famous journalist in Leak whose balloon Holland pops. Another is the late Sandy Smith. Smith was a legendary Chicago mob reporter for the Tribune and Sun-Times who by the time of Watergate had moved on to Life magazine and then to Time. “Smith’s relationship with the FBI had been instrumental to his success,” Holland writes. “With the knowledge of Bureau higher-ups, agents in the field would leak him raw information about public corruption, for example, from the files. The information might not constitute legal proof, or it might have been acquired by illegal means and thus be inadmissible in court. But the agents preferred to see it used in some way rather than simply gather dust.”

Smith was a stand-up guy who would never compromise a source in the slightest (unlike Woodward, we are invited to think). And Felt leaked to Smith as well as to Woodward, sometimes preferring the “tried-and-true” Smith to the “relatively untested” Woodward with important information. But like Mark Antony hailing Brutus, as Holland praises Smith he cuts him down to size: we see Smith as being what great reporters willing to take a bullet for their sources should most fear being: manipulable. Holland offers us Smith, armed with information stealthily acquired from Felt, writing a story for Time in 1973 that describes Patrick Gray “as deeply partisan, blatantly political, and bent on ‘turning the FBI into an arm of the administration.’” There is one “sensational disclosure”: from 1969 to 1971, on orders from the Nixon White House, the FBI had wiretapped both journalists and aides to national security adviser Henry Kissinger in an effort to find out who was leaking what to whom. “What was particularly egregious about this leak was that Gray had nothing to do with these wiretaps—they had ended well before he took over, and he didn’t even know about them,” Holland writes. But Felt thought that through Smith he could tar Gray with them, and he was right. “This leak underscored again Felt’s basic contempt for the media, his willingness to manipulate, if not deceive, Sandy Smith as well as Woodward.”

Looking back at Watergate, I’m a little astonished at how quickly Bernstein and Woodward became celebrities. In the fall of 1972—more than a year and a half before Nixon resigned—they signed a $55,000 contract to produce a quickie book on the scandal. And when they couldn’t figure out how to tackle such a volatile subject, Robert Redford suggested they write about themselves reporting it. This was not only a good idea, it was a movie Redford wanted to make; but it put Woodward in an awkward spot. What to do about Felt? They couldn’t write an honest book and leave him out. They couldn’t write him in without acknowledging the existence, if not the identity, of a high-placed anonymous source. So they both flattered Felt and exposed him; he became Deep Throat, scrupulous whistle-blower swaddled in mystique, played in the movie by Hal Holbrook as an enigmatic beacon of truth.

Holland tells me he’s sure that Woodward at some point stopped believing Felt was any such person, even though he kept up to the pose to the end—in his eulogy at Felt’s funeral and in the book he then wrote about him, The Secret Man. To Holland, this book is most interesting for everything Woodward found it necessary not to know—in particular the details behind Felt’s sudden resignation from the FBI—in order to draw his “flattering, if fuzzy and unsatisfying portrait of Deep Throat.” Holland concludes with the observation that “Felt’s success at manipulating the media is a cautionary tale.” In Holland's version of the Felt-Woodward relationship, there was less honor on either side than the book, or the movie, or certainly the legend would have it.

But try denting a legend!

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