Hardly heartfelt: Deep Throat's motivations less than honorable

In journalism, the Five W's — who, what, when, where and why — constitute the generic formula for getting the story.

Applied to Deep Throat — the super-secret news source for The Washington Post — the Five W's purported to tell the tale of the man who helped keep alive the scandal — Watergate — that ultimately drove President Richard Nixon from office in August 1974.

Who was Deep Throat? W. Mark Felt.

What was he? A deputy FBI director perfectly situated to review investigative reports on the unfolding political scandal.

When? He leaked, anonymously, of course, like a sieve in late 1972 and early 1973 when the scandal looked to many like routine political gamesmanship instead of what it ultimately proved to be: a massive program of criminality of which the burglary to Democratic National Committee headquarters was just a small part.

Where? Washington, D.C.

Until recent years, the "why" surrounding Felt's role also had been explained — inaccurately, it turned out. According to one of the Post's Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward, Felt was just a good guy who was troubled by what he saw and could not be silent.

But that was never true, and Max Holland's new book "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat" explains that Felt was motivated by personal ambition. He wanted to become the director of the FBI and hoped that timely releases of confidential information would undermine his boss, interim FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, and result in Felt's elevation to the top job.

The Watergate scandal began with the June 17, 1972, arrest of five burglars at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. They were taken into custody as they attempted to place listening devices on DNC office telephones and soon linked to two White House operatives, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, cloak-and-dagger figures who would ultimately be tied to a White House operation — "The Plumbers" — that carried out off-the-books assignments, including burglaries, for White House top-siders.

Those who were not there to watch it unfold can scarcely imagine the depth of this incredible scandal that featured a long series of stunning disclosures that turned President Nixon — who carried 49 states in the 1972 election — into a political pariah.

It was the mother of all political soap operas, and the identity of the Post's secret source — dubbed Deep Throat by Post editors — became a national guessing game, particularly after Woodward and Carl Bernstein published "All the President's Men," their best-seller-turned-movie that highlighted the critical role Deep Throat played in the Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting.

In the early 2000s, when Deep Throat's identify was still unknown, a series of University of Illinois journalism classes led by investigative reporter William Gaines launched their own investigation to identify Deep Throat. Professor and students wrongly targeted White House lawyer Fred Fielding as the mystery man.

Guessing games ended in 2005, when family members of an aging and demented Felt confirmed he was Deep Throat.

Here are some things that most people don't know about Felt and that do not redound to his credit: He leaked to other new outlets besides the Post, including Time magazine; and he leaked information he knew was false.

It is, of course, no crime for news sources to leak information for impure motives. Many news sources act out of personal pique, ambition, jealousy, partisanship — you name it.

One rule of large organizations is that half the people hate the other half. So there is no shortage of people willing to tell tales out of school.

But to understand what Felt was up to, one has to understand the atmosphere within the FBI after the death of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover on May 2, 1972, less than two months before the Watergate arrests.

Hoover was surrounded by a group of ambitious deputy directors, all of whom wanted to be his successor and most of whom disliked and distrusted their fellow deputy directors. It was a nest of vipers, all of whom were enraged when Nixon appointed Gray, a Justice Department lawyer and former U.S. Navy captain, as interim FBI director with the proviso that he would become permanent director if he performed well.

Some Hoover subordinates resigned. Felt pledged his loyalty to Gray, then set out to undermine him. Gray never suspected until Felt was outed that his seemingly loyal subordinate had betrayed him in a such a callous manner.

Felt concluded that the Watergate break-in provided the perfect vehicle to prove that Gray was unfit to lead the FBI and could not be trusted by the Nixon White House to control the FBI bureaucracy.

So he simultaneously leaked information about the FBI's investigation into the spreading scandal and ordered investigations by subordinates into the leaks. He sympathized with Gray privately about the problem while bad-mouthing Gray to the White House and reporters. It was a bravura performance by a veteran bureaucratic infighter.

Felt never became the FBI's director. Word got around that he was leaking privileged information to reporters, and he was forced out by William Ruckelshaus, an acting FBI director who followed Gray.

He later was indicted in connection with FBI black-bag jobs (burglaries) and convicted. Ironically, Nixon testified on Felt's behalf, and President Reagan granted Felt a pardon.

The FBI veteran then drifted into the background, periodically denying he was Deep Throat while living quietly in California.

Why write a book on such an obscure topic? Though voluminous, the written history of Watergate is not complete, and Felt's role is one of those loose ends.

But who still cares? People might be surprised. Watergate was the pre-eminent political scandal of the last 100 years, the one by which all successors are judged. Hence, the silly 'gate' label attached to every chapter of official misconduct.

Watergate junkies will enjoy this book. So will those who enjoy reading about how newspapers competed for the story of this scandal. That's probably not enough to get it on the best-seller list. But "Leak" won't be the first compelling story not to attract a broad audience.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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JoeThePimpernel wrote on March 31, 2013 at 5:03 pm

"He leaked, anonymously, of course, like a sieve in late 1972 and early 1973 when the scandal looked to many like routine political gamesmanship instead of what it ultimately proved to be: a massive program of criminality of which the burglary to Democratic National Committee headquarters was just a small part."

What a load of happy horsehockey.

Watergate was a two-bit breakin and a bit of political chicanery the likes of which the Alinskyites engage on a daily basis.

Nobody died in Watergate. No international laws were broken.

Ubama has run guns to Mexico and the Moslem Brotherhood. He allowed a US ambassador to be murdered in a wag-the-dog attempt.

Bulldogmojo wrote on March 31, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Nobody died? Were you even alive when Nixon was in office?  I think plenty of people died in Vietnam as a result of Nixon retaining power any way he could including subverting the constitution and running a shadow government. What about Nixon's goon in charge Kissinger's alliance with Pinochet and his secret police killing thousands?

You seem to be missing some details.