Deep Throat: hero or villain? Important or not?
The revelation that a top FBI official named W. Mark Felt was The Washington Post's secret source on Watergate has answered one important question - his identity. But nearly 33 years after the skein of the Watergate scandal was slowly untangled, the meaning of the affair, and of Mr. Felt's role in it, remains a matter of debate.
His coming-out has raised divisions about Watergate that, like the Vietnam war, have been lodged deep in the recesses of public thought - and may always persist.
As a stalwart of a then-embattled agency, Mr. Felt had complex motives in dealing with the Post. Some view him as a public servant, albeit one operating in the shadows due to the circumstances of the times. Others see a breach of duty for a law enforcement official who had other options at his disposal.
The mere identity of Deep Throat is in large measure about celebrity. It simply renews, rather than resolves, key questions about the Watergate affair, notably about ethics for both government officials and journalists.
"It's fine for people to be curious, but ultimately what does this tell us? . . . I don't think it fundamentally changes our understanding of Watergate," says David Greenberg, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University and the author of a book about the Nixon administration.
Ironically, the Post itself got scooped Tuesday when the mystery was solved. Vanity Fair released a story in which the FBI's former No. 2 official, W. Mark Felt, was quoted as saying, "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat." Late in the day, the Post confirmed this report. Thus Felt, now 91, was revealed as the person who met Post reporter Bob Woodward in dark garages and provided crucial guidance for the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories Woodward wrote with partner Carl Bernstein.
The revelation is reverberating in the political and journalism worlds. "A good secret deserves a decent burial and this one is going to get a state funeral," Leonard Garment, special counsel to President Nixon after the Watergate story broke, told the Associated Press.
The unmasking of Deep Throat's identity has meaning beyond revealing a secret held for three decades in a town not known for keeping confidences. It shines new light on the complexities and ambiguities surrounding journalists' use of anonymous sources, especially the sources' complicated motives for leaking.
In California, Nick Jones, Felt's grandson, read a family statement saying that Mark Felt "is a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice."
But the Post in its Wednesday story on Deep Throat notes that Felt's "motivations were complex." He wanted to be J. Edgar Hoover's successor as director of the FBI and was furious when he was passed over by the Nixon administration in favor of L. Patrick Gray. Felt's view was that Gray was allowing the White House to control and hamper the FBI's investigation.
Felt joined the FBI in 1942, immediately after graduating from law school, and was an anti-Nazi spy hunter early in his career. In 1978 Felt was indicted for having authorized nine illegal FBI break-ins in 1972 and 1973. He was convicted in 1980 and in 1981 given a full pardon by President Reagan.
Felt had long denied being the Post's secret source. In a 1999 interview with the Hartford Courant, he said that if he had been Deep Throat, "I would have done it better."
Knowing Deep Throat's identity disposes of one question but raises others. John Dean, White House counsel to President Nixon, says, "how did the man who was running the FBI on a daily basis check the flowerpot on Woodward's balcony to see if he wanted to meet? Felt as Deep Throat suggests he had help from others in the FBI, which gives this story a new twist."
Felt's admission has triggered widely differing responses. Dean says, "Nixon apologists will see him as a snake; others will see him as a hero."
But the issues involved go beyond politics to the ethics of a top law enforcement officer leaking to the press. Felt was keenly aware of this and several years ago told journalist Timothy Noah, "It would be contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee of the FBI to leak information."
John D. O'Connor, the author of the Vanity Fair story and also Felt's lawyer, wrote that his client "seemed to be struggling inside with whether he would be seen as a decent man or a turncoat," especially by FBI personnel. O'Connor added that, "Felt, having long harbored the ambivalent emotions of pride and self-reproach, has lived for more than 30 years in a prison of his own making, a prison built upon his strong moral principles and his unwavering loyalty to country and cause."
Charles Colson, a senior Nixon adviser who served seven months in prison for his role in Watergate, takes a sharply critical view of Felt's role. In comments to the Associated Press, Colson said, "When any president has to worry whether the deputy director of the FBI is sneaking around in dark corners peddling information in the middle of the night, he is in trouble."
But others argue that Felt's actions served a higher public good. Terry Lenzner, a senior Democratic counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee, told the Post the Watergate Committee "wouldn't have existed if these articles hadn't been written, because the whole thing would have been buried."
The hoopla over Deep Throat's identity may perpetuate a myth that Watergate era reporters other than Woodward and Bernstein were not working the story. "There were others out there digging," notes Jack Nelson, who was bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times during Watergate.
"Could the Deep Throat approach happen journalistically in 2005? I think it is perhaps less likely," says Bob Steele, Poynter scholar for journalism values at the Poynter Institute. News organizations "are paying great attention to the challenges to this tool," given recent concerns about anonymous sources.