How the FBI, Working With Journalists, Can Bring Down a President

The FBI’s Mark Felt helped the Washington Post expose President Nixon’s role in the Watergate break-in and coverup.

President Richard Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, before he could be impeached, for approving the 1972 Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and then orchestrating a coverup. A key to forcing the resignation were stories, many by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post, about Nixon’s role in the break-in and coverup. Their key source was “Deep Throat.” His identity was debated until May 2005 when Mark Felt, who had retired in June 1973 as deputy director of the FBI, revealed in a Vanity Fair article that he was Deep Throat.

For background on how the FBI can destroy a President by working with the press, here are stories I wrote in the June 1974 and August 1974 issues of the Washingtonian speculating that the best candidate to be Deep Throat was the FBI’s Mark Felt.

“If It Isn’t Tricia It Must Be..” – June 1974 Washingtonian

The best gossip in town these days is the Deep Throat guessing game. Who is the highly placed Nixon Administration source who gave so much guidance to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Washington Post investigation of Watergate? How many of the Deep Throat clues in Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, can be believed?

Some insiders think Deep Throat is more than one source—that the character was invented by the authors to give readers of the book something to talk about. Post reporters are inclined to disagree—they think there was a single important source who helped unravel the story. But almost no one is willing to believe that Woodward and Bernstein are about to give away any clues that might actually lead to their most important source.

A lot of names are being bandied about. People magazine says Deep Throat was Pat Gray, FBI director from May 1972 to April 1973. Another FBI favorite is William Sullivan, an assistant FBI director fired by J. Edgar Hoover and then rehabilitated by the Nixon Administration after Hoover’s death in May 1972. Much speculation centers on assistants to key White House people–how about Fred Fielding, assistant to John Dean?

Like a good detective, let’s ignore all of Woodward and Bernstein’s red herrings and look at motive and opportunity and method. Who wanted to knife the Nixon Administration in the back? Who had access to all the information as it was developed? Who had the savvy and the resources to use Woodward and Bernstein as the conduit?

Gray or Sullivan had access to the information.  But what’s their motive? Both were Nixon people who had everything to gain by protecting the President. Unless one of them was a flaming idealist, and there is no reason to think either was, they should be eliminated from the game.

Almost everyone at the White House—from Chuck Colson to Harry Dent to Robert Finch to Leonard Garment to Fred Fielding—is a possibility. The potential access is there and the motive—idealism or revenge against the Haldeman Ehrlichman gang—is a possibility. But it would have been a very dangerous game for a key White House official to play alone—all those signals and secret meetings.

Henry Peterson, the head of the justice Departments Criminal Division and the man Nixon thought was keeping the lid on the investigation, is another possibility. He had access but again it would have been a very hard game for him to play alone and there isn’t much motive.

Who did have motive and opportunity and method? Who hated what Nixon was doing to him? Who had access to all the material? Who had the resources to set up a system to leak it?

The FBI, that’s who. Not Gray or Sullivan, but the old-line Hoover people who were being harassed and offended and fired by Nixon and Mitchell and Gray and Sullivan. You want to take on the FBI, Mr. President? You want to shove Pat Gray down our throats? You want to tear down the organization John Edgar Hoover built over four decades? You want to let a lot of smart boys with their shirttails hanging out tell us how to do our job?

Read the February 28 and March 13 Presidential transcripts and then try someone like Mark Felt on for size. A Hoover loyalist and number-two man to Pat Gray, he had every reason and resource for leaking the Watergate story and destroying Nixon. Why would someone like Felt pick Woodward and Bernstein? Why not? Why pick someone like Jeremiah O’Leary of the Star-News who has been getting FBI leaks for years? Why not pick the last two reporters who would ever be suspected of being FBI conduits?

The story of how Woodward and Bernstein brought down the king is almost as good as the Watergate story itself; it tells you an awful lot more about how things happen in Washington. Watch this space for more on the subject.
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“Deeper Into Deep Throat” – August 1974 Washingtonian

Well, Deep Throat got away. I thought I had him—God knows all the clues led to him. But could I get him to admit it? How would Robert Redford do it? Maybe I should have gone out to his house in Fairfax to see the expression on his face when I asked him.

Instead I called him, engaged him in some small talk (“What kind of cigarettes do you smoke? … Oh, you don’t smoke.”), and tried to surprise him: “Are you really Deep Throat?”

Urbane and cool as ever, he answered: “I can tell you that it was not I and it is not I.”

The man who got away is W. Mark Felt, the handsome, engaging, distinguished former associate director of the FBI. In the June issue, you may recall, we speculated that Deep Throat, the mysterious source who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover so many of their exclusive Watergate stories, was not some well-known White House insider like Charles Colson or Leonard Garment but someone in the FBI who had access to all the information as it was developed, who had a motive for leaking it, and who had ways to get it to Woodward without being caught. The trail, we said, pointed to someone like Mark Felt.

Following the trail, we learned that Mark Felt (born August 17, 1913, in Twin Falls, Idaho; BA University of Idaho, LLB George Washington University) had gone to work for the FBI in 1942. He served at FBI headquarters here for several years and then at a number of posts such as New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Kansas City. In 1962 he returned to FBI headquarters and in 1964 was named head of the FBI’s Inspection Division. In 1965 he become an assistant director to J. Edgar Hoover. When Hoover died in May 1972, L. Patrick Gray took over as FBI director and Felt was named associate director—the number-two job in the bureau. Felt stayed until June 1973, when he parted company with acting FBI Director William Ruckelshaus.

So Felt was the number-two man in the FBI during the crucial Watergate period. During the FBI investigation, the agent-in-charge, Charles Nuzum, sent his findings to the head of the FBI’s Investigative Division, Robert Gebhardt, who sent everything to the associate director, Mark Felt. Felt saw everything from the Investigative Division and from all other FBI divisions before it went to Pat Gray. From the break-in on June 17, 1972, until June 1973, when the FBI investigation was pretty well completed, Felt was the key control point for FBI information.

Woodward, in All the President’s Men, first mentions Deep Throat on page 72: “The man’s position in the Executive Branch was extremely sensitive. He had never told Woodward anything that was incorrect. It was he who had advised Woodward on June 19 that Howard Hunt was definitely involved in Watergate.” Felt was one of the few people anywhere in Washington who would have known that two days after the break-in.

What about Deep Throat’s knowledge of what was going on inside the White House during the Watergate investigation? How could Mark Felt know that? In fact, one former White House aide had told us that he didn’t think Deep Throat could be anyone but a close-in White House assistant—an Alexander Butterfield or a Fred Fielding. But the White House man conceded that someone from an investigative agency who had good White House contacts could have been Deep Throat.

We asked a former high FBI aide about this. He said, “Felt would have had good White House contacts before Watergate. Deke DeLoach was the Hoover aide who always was closest to the White House. When DeLoach retired in 1970, much of the White House liaison responsibility went to Felt. There was a lot of direct contact between the FBI and the White House—there always has been.” So it’s not difficult to visualize a Mark Felt on the phone every day with his White House contacts, talking about how the FBI investigation was coming and how the White House was reacting.

What about motive? In the June issue, we speculated that the old Hoover people at the FBI might have wanted to leak Watergate material to hurt FBI Director Gray and President Nixon, who were bent on tearing down the Hoover organization. Asked about this, a former top Justice Department official said: “Maybe it was revenge. But I think it was ambition, too. I can see Mark Felt as Deep Throat. He had all the information, and he badly wanted to be the director. He had enough contact with the press that he might have tried to use his Watergate information to hurt Gray and to curry favor with an important newspaper like the Post. In fact, you ought to look into why Felt left the FBI so quietly in June of 1973. Leaks may have had something to do with it.”

What about getting the information to Woodward? In All the President’s Men, Woodward described how he would move a flower pot on his apartment balcony if he wanted a meeting, and how Deep Throat would mark Woodward’s copy of the New York Times, which was delivered before 7 AM, if he wanted a meeting. Then, after taking two or more taxis and walking, Woodward would meet Deep Throat in an underground parking garage. “How like the FBI mentality,” our Justice Department source said. “That’s the way they work—marking newspapers and meeting in underground garages. They also know what bars you can meet in without being seen.” (Deep Throat once asked Woodward to meet him at a bar. “None of my friends, none of your friends would come here,” he told Woodward. “Just a sleepy, dark bar.”)

“Then, too,” the Justice man said, “Felt could have gone out at all hours of the morning to meet Woodward without arousing any suspicion. Felt’s wife would have thought nothing of it. Felt could have had a trusted FBI aide helping him too—marking the newspaper and the like.”

And Felt’s FBI position could have strengthened Woodward’s desire to protect Deep Throat–by all accounts, he has been extraordinarily careful not to give any clues as to who his source was. An editor at the Post told us: ‘Woodward disguised Deep Throat. Woodward tried not to lie, but he tried to keep people off the track as much as possible. For instance, Woodward made a lot of Deep Throat smoking cigarettes, but I had the feeling that Deep Throat doesn’t smoke.”

Obviously Woodward had plenty of reason to disguise a Felt-type Deep Throat—if the FBI source for the Post’s Watergate investigation were revealed, it could look like the FBI was using the Post and it also would detract from the picture of two young reporters out knocking on doors to find out all by themselves who was behind Watergate.

So you can see how we might have thought we had solved the mystery of Deep Throat. But we asked Mark Felt and he said no. Actually, Felt said: “I don’t think it will ever be resolved whether it was an actual person or a composite. . . . Very few people had access to all this information—some of it was available only at the FBI, some only at very high levels in the White House . . . . I don’t see that even the White House had all that information. Though possibly an Attorney General, possibly Kleindienst.”

Kleindienst? Richard Kleindienst? Watch this space for further details.

Comments

  1. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    Terrific stories. Change a few names and it might as well be tomorrow.

    Barney

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