Civil Liberties

The Truth About "Deep Throat"

A new book sheds light on the Watergate whistleblower's real motives.

|

Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland, University Press of Kansas, 285 pp., $29.95.

The timely publication of Max Holland's Leak, coming on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, promotes a needed reassessment of two myths about the Watergate scandal. The first myth is that the reporting skills and diligence of two Washington Post cub reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the abuses of power in Richard Nixon's White House and led to the president's forced resignation in August 1974.

Holland, editor of the website Washington Decoded, acknowledges the limited importance of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting but contends that their contribution pales in contrast to that of Federal Judge John Sirica, Sen. Sam Ervin's investigation and public hearings, the testimony of White House aides John Dean and Alexander Butterfield, and the inquiries of the special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee (the latter when considering articles of impeachment).

The second, more important myth involves W. Mark Felt, the acting FBI associate director who in 1972 became Woodward's secret source, dubbed "Deep Throat." Holland rebuts Woodward and Bernstein's portrayal of Felt as a principled official who leaked information because he was concerned over the lawlessness of the Nixon White House. Felt's motives, as Holland convincingly documents, were more prosaic: He wanted Nixon to question whether he could trust Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to control the FBI, thus leading the president to appoint Felt as the permanent FBI director, filling the vacancy caused by J. Edgar Hoover's recent death. Holland further documents that Felt withheld from Woodward some particularly explosive information about the White House attempting to use the CIA to contain the FBI's Watergate investigation. At other times, Felt passed on misinformation.

Holland's disclosure of Felt's insubordination does raise an important question: What emboldened this senior FBI official to betray his ostensible superior (while cunningly conveying the impression of a loyal acolyte), in the process unintentionally undermining Nixon's presidency?

The answer requires an understanding of the FBI's political culture forged during J. Edgar Hoover's 48-year tenure as the bureau's director. Since the mid-1930s, Hoover had expanded the FBI's role beyond federal law enforcement to operate surreptitiously as a political containment agency. FBI agents, accordingly, began to amass derogatory information about the personal and political activities of radical activists and prominent Americans, at times through the use of recognizably illegal investigative techniques. This information did not (and could not) advance legitimate law enforcement interests. Instead, Hoover and his senior aides exploited the information they acquired to advance their own bureaucratic and political agendas.

On the strict condition that the recipient not disclose the FBI as the source, the bureau leaked information to reliable reporters (including Walter Trohan, Don Whitehead, Courtney Ryley Cooper, Ed Montgomery, and Frederick Woltman), members of Congress (including Karl Mundt, Joseph McCarthy, James Eastland, Pat McCarran, William Jenner, and—yes—Richard Nixon), and other prominent Americans (including Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney, and Joseph Kennedy), as well as the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Felt's actions in 1972 and 1973 were exceptional only in the sense that his purpose was strictly personal and his target the current acting FBI director. He acted with the same sense of impunity as had his peers, in this case on the belief that his insubordination would not be discovered.

Felt's actions not only contributed to the unfolding Watergate affair but, more importantly in the long run, breached the wall of secrecy that had heretofore shrouded FBI operations from public scrutiny. The investigation of Nixon's role in the Watergate cover-up led to the exposure of his more serious abuses of the U.S. intelligence agencies: wiretapping prominent reporters, covert actions by the White House Plumbers, and, under the proposed Huston Plan, authorizing the use of illegal investigative techniques. In response, Congress in 1974—overriding President Gerald Ford's veto—enacted key amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that allowed reporters, activists, and scholars to obtain highly secret and revealing FBI records. That same year it enacted the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which ensured the preservation of the Nixon Oval Office tapes and transferred control over Nixon's presidential papers to the National Archives, and in 1978 it passed the Presidential Records Act, which defined presidential papers as public property and established the conditions and timing for giving the public access to them. And in 1975 it established special House and Senate committees that investigated and then publicized the abusive practices of the U.S. intelligence agencies from the 1930s through the '70s.

Combined, these actions ended FBI officials' absolute control over their agency's records, a change that eventually benefitted the research of Holland and others. Such research has expanded our awareness of how secrecy emboldened officials to violate privacy rights and the rule of law, and as such it offers a powerful, still relevant lesson in the adverse consequences inherent in blind deference to claims of "national security."

Athan Theoharis is a professor of history emeritus at Marquette University. His most recent book is Abuse of Power: How Cold War Surveillance and Secrecy Policy Shaped the Response to 9/11 (Temple University Press).

Advertisement

NEXT: A.M. Links: Anti-Romney Super PAC Star Calls President a Jerk, Chuck Schumer Rants About First Amendment, Law of the Sea Treaty Could Sink

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I predict that this will cause some serious soul-searching among the media. /sarc

    1. That presupposes that they have souls.

  2. I never liked Nixon. Save for his anti-communism, he was what we have come to call a RINO. Nevertheless, I have an awful lot of trouble with the “Nixon as Beelzebub” narrative when the transgressions I am supposed to be horrified by were practices by (at least) the two previous (Democrat) Presidents, and very likely Eisenhower, Truman, and FDR as well. The ‘crime’ for which Nixon was punished was to assume that he would be allowed to get away with behavior that the Press had winked at in St. Kennedy The Martyred.

    1. No doubt Nixon did little that hadn’t been done before (see Victor Lasky, “It Didn’t Start With Watergate”). And, from what I’ve read, it seems fairly likely that Nixon had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break in.

      However, he clearly created a culture of lawlessness inside the WH AND, he orchestrated the attempted cover up. For the second alone, he should have been impeached and/or resigned. Doesn’t mean he was the first, or the last, but nor did he suffer an unjust fate.

      1. He suffered an unjust fate to the extent that he was removed from power not because of what he was accused of but because he had the audacity to win elections against Media Darlings and Liberal Sacred Cows. The Left never forgave Nixon for defeating Helen Douglas (as scary an old Stalinist as any you would care to avoid) or for adding his two cents to the prosecution of Alger Hiss (who was as guilty as a cat in a goldfish bowl). Nixon arrived in a White House that had been used as the center of illegal schemes against political enemies for decades, going back to Wilson (whose Mitchel Palmer makes McCarthy look like a boy scout).

        Nixon, who I despise for any number of excellent reasons, was shafted for having the gall to think he could get away with what the Press had let Kennedy get away with. I would be delighted in the ‘reforms’ that followed, if I thought that the Left would hound a Democrat the way they hounded Nixon. But they won’t, or Jug Ears Obama would be facing impeachment.

        1. Agree.

  3. It has been well known for a while that John Dean was probably the biggest crap weasel of them all. The entire DOJ and FBI was completely lawless. Understandably the ones who were often the worst and most unprincipled were the first ones to sell out when the heat came.

    It is really sorry that the media painted a fairy tale of Dean and Felt being heroes and everyone else being evil. That fairy tale let the institutions who were responsible for the abuses off of the hook and allowed the FBI and DOJ to blame decades and an entire culture of corruption on a few bad apples in the Nixon administration.

    1. John, yesterday, in a morning thread, you posted a comment regarding Elizabeth Warren.

      In responding to your post, I pointed out that Scott Brown, in a voice vote on June 29, 2012, voted for Senate Bill 2165, which extended 9 billion dollars in loan guarantees to the state of Israel. In addition, the bill provides for several hundred million dollars in outright military aid to Israel.

      I also pointed out that the Senate approved of the measure by a tally of 100-0, while the House approved its version of the bill, H.R. 4133, with only two members voting no-Dingell and RP.

      You responded to my post by playing the anti-semite card. I did not even refer to the word “jewish”, though you did.

      You also claimed that my comment came out of the blue-when, in fact, I was responding to your post in which you mentioned Elizabeth Warren.

      Just for your edification, the Senate summary of the bill provides, in part,

      “it is U.S. policy to (1) reaffirm the committment to Israel’s security as a Jewish state…….(5) to encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state…”

      John, the anti-semite canard is a dog that won’t hunt.

      Perhaps you don’t mind the state continuing to confiscate your property in order to give more treasure to another nation so that it can fulfill its desires to be a religious state; I do mind and the people at the Economic Policy Journal do as well.

      Just had to set the record straight.

      1. It was your assertion that nine billion dollars in loan guarantees, not spending but loan guarantees, is somehow proof that Brown is a socialist that was out of left field.

        We provide more aid to other country’s besides Israel. I would imagine Brown voted for those too. Yet, the Israel loan gaurantee was what you mentioned. What is so special about Israel? The only thing I can see that is special is that it is the Jews. And when you hold Israel to standards you don’t hold other countries, you are being anti-Semitic, period.

        I don’t think you are personally anti-Semitic. But you swim in a paleo conservative sea that has always been polluted with it. And that causes you to post something like the Brown comment without even realizing what you said.

        1. John, first of all, do you think that I support aid to any foreign nation, or opposition to a state the US wants to topple?

          There should not be one dime taken from anybody in order to give it to any nation state, including Israel’s neighbors, like Egypt or the Syrian opposition groups.

          Second, Scott Brown voted for Dodd-Frank.

          Third, he recently voted to increase funding for the FAA.

          Fourth, he recently voted to continue to subsidize Big Sugar.

          1. Brown is a RINO from Massachusetts. So what? Everyone knows that. Why didn’t you mention all of those facts instead of carping on about some insignificant aid package to Israel? Again, what the fuck is so special about Israel?

      2. We have a trillion and a half dollar deficit. Why are you so offended by one hundred million dollars in aid to Israel? We give more than that the Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of whom are run by Islamic crazies. Again, what the hell warrants the special attention given to Israel beyond the fact that it is a Jewish state?

        1. See my post above.

          Also, I know that you do not want to ignore Senator Evereet D’s words, “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon it adds up…

      3. I thought a voice vote did have a roll call record? How could it? Not saying Brown didn’t vote for it, cause he probably did, but do you have a link saying it was 100-0?

    2. Yeah, Dean’s “character” was pretty well documented in “Silent Coup.” Although a lot of that book was conspiracy theory oddness, the stuff on Dean was pretty solid. And I think, Gordon Liddy used some of that into “playing” Dean so he could take Dean to court.

  4. I don’t know if it came from this Max Holland but I read this story when it broke about a year ago. This book is kind of yesterday’s news. Curious.

  5. I now think of any portrait with fist on chin as the “Napoleon Dynamite pose”

  6. Hre’s a toast attributed to Nixon- “Here’s champagne to our true friends, and true pain to our sham friends”.

  7. Director L. Patrick Gray to control the FBI, thus leading the president to appoint Felt as the permanent FBI director, filling the vacancy caused by J. Edgar Hoover’s recent death. Holland further documents that Felt withheld from Woodward some particularly explosive information about the White House attempting to use the CIA to contain the FBI’s Watergate investigation. At other times, Felt passed on misinformation.

  8. I guess I can’t hate Nixon too much for putting (what was left of) the post-1913 gold standard out of its misery. It was already gone.

    But to say, “We’re all Keynesians now”…damn, that was the birth of neoconservatism.

  9. Shit! I got all excited thinking this was an article about Monica Lewinski.

  10. Make money using Google. Find out how to make up to $175/hr working for this billion dollar company. More info @ makecash25dotcomONLY

  11. Max Holland’s book is another piece of information that is slowly evealing what actually happened in 1972.
    It is essential to have an open and enquiring mind if the truth is to be revealed. Anwesr to qustions have to be furnished:
    1. Why were the Watergate culprits arrested at their THIRD attempt at break in?
    2. Why did the dollar notes on the arrested have consecutive serial numbers that led to the Nixon White Houe?
    3. Why was Howard Hunt’s white hous details found in the adressbooks of TWo of the arrested Cubans?
    4. The details of the raid was bizarre given that the operatives were ex-CIA.
    5. There was a coup attempt in China (Project 571) to prevent the raproachment. Could there be the same in the US?
    6. Did Nixon do anything that was spectacularly out of character from those of presidents before and after?
    7 Coul there be another interpretation that has never been investigated?
    8. Why did the authorities keep fromthe public certain aspects of the Watergate arrest?
    Read my book Watergate – The Political Assassination to see whether there is ny merit in my hypothesis.

  12. I have thought that Mark Felt being 2Deep Throat” was too simplistic and naive. Although never a NIXON supporter, I have always felt that teh official version of thw Watergate saga just did no sound right – too many inconsistencies and loose ends. Read my book Watergate – The Political Assassination to find out.

  13. eporting but contends that their http://www.ceinturesfr.com/cei…..-c-19.html contribution pales in contrast to that of Federal Judge John Sirica, Sen. Sam Ervin’s investigation and pub

  14. nice job, another great example of how simplicity makes things prettier. this post is absolutely good.womens sunglasses
    oakley sunglasses

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.