Up to Date
7:00 am
Sat June 16, 2012

The Man Behind 'Deep Throat,' Mark Felt

Everyone knows that the Nixon presidency might have ended very differently if it weren’t for “Deep Throat.” For years, the man behind the Watergate case remained a mystery until Mark Felt revealed in 2005 that he was the infamous informant who helped to bring down a president.

Monday on Up to Date, learn more about the man behind Watergate and his personal motivations that drove his actions. Author Max Holland joins us in studio to talk about his new book that looks at the personal agenda that made one man into Nixon’s worst nightmare.

HEAR MORE: Max Holland speaks this evening at 6:30 at the Kansas City Library Central branch, 14 W. 10th Street, Kansas City, Mo. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the event. Click here for more information.

Max Holland is a journalist, author, and editor of Washington Decoded, an online publication. A 1972 graduate of Antioch College, he is a contributing editor to The Nation and the Wilson Quarterly, and sits on the editorial advisory board of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence. He is the author, editor, or co-author of six books, most recently Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, published by the University Press of Kansas. His articles have appeared in a variety of general and scholarly publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Studies in Intelligence, the Journal of Cold War Studies, Reviews in American History, and online at History News Network. He has also received numerous grants in support of his research and writing, including fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, National Endowment for the Humanities, German Marshall Fund, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
In 2001, Holland won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, bestowed jointly by Harvard University's Nieman Foundation and the Columbia University School of Journalism, for a forthcoming narrative history of the Warren Commission, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. That same year he won a Studies in Intelligence Award from the Central Intelligence Agency, the first writer working outside the US government to be so recognized. In 1989, Business Week named his first book, When the Machine Stopped, one of the top ten business books of the year.

Excerpt from Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat

Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat

By Max Holland

With a story as enticing, complex, and competitive and quickly unfolding as Watergate, there was little tendency or time to consider the motive of our sources. What was important was whether the information checked out and whether it was true. . . . The cliché about drinking from a fire hose applied. There was no time to ask our sources, Why are you talking? Do you have an ax to grind? Why don’t you blow the whistle publicly, stand up there and tell all you know? This was the case with Mark Felt.

. . . His words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering, authority. The weight, authenticity and his restraint were more important than his design, if he had one.

—Bob Woodward, The Secret Man

What motivated W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat,” to leak to a cub reporter at the Washington Post? Nearly forty years after the Watergate break-in, Felt’s “design” is the only significant question unresolved.

When All the President’s Men introduced the public to Deep Throat, in the spring of 1974, authors Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein fostered an impression of his motive: Deep Throat was a selfless, high-ranking official intent on exposing the lawlessness of the Nixon White House. He “was trying to protect the office [of the presidency],” they wrote, “to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” This depiction of Mark Felt as a principled whistle-blower became practically indelible after Hal Holbrook’s “neurotically loaded” portrayal of Deep Throat in the 1976 screen adaptation of the book.1

One of the more telling aspects of The Secret Man, Woodward’s 2005 portrait of his relationship with Felt, was how he backed away from that Hollywoodized depiction. In his second take on Deep Throat, Woodward wrote that Felt “never really voiced pure, raw outrage to me about Watergate or what it represented.” Woodward was able to parse Felt’s motive only after the Watergate “fire hose” had petered out—that is,after Nixon’s resignation. At that point, he deduced that Felt’s motive was more pedestrian than principled: Far from defending the office of the presidency, Felt leaked because he “believed he was protecting the [FBI]” from the Nixon White House. Felt’s disclosures, in other words, helped create the public and political pressure necessary to hold the president and his staff accountable, while insulating Felt’s revered FBI from a White House determined to manipulate and control it—as evinced by the appointment of L. Patrick Gray III, an alleged Nixon crony, to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director in May 1972.2

There has long been a third, less honorable, explanation of Felt’s motive: that he acted neither out of principle nor institutional pride, but out of pure pique. According to this view, he was a deeply embittered man, coldly furious at Nixon for having passed him over for the FBI director­ship when Hoover died, and at the White House in general for what it was trying to do to the organization Hoover had built over four decades. The Watergate break-in, which occurred just a few weeks after Gray’s appointment, was serendipitous for someone seeking retaliation.3

None of these competing explanations has ever really taken hold to the exclusion of the others. Even on the surface, each seems less than totally persuasive, and, on closer inspection, each has a flaw sufficient to discount it entirely.

The problem with the Hollywoodized explanation is that Felt himself authorized illegal, surreptitious entries into the homes of people associated with the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group, during 1972–1973. At the same time that he was supposedly mortified by the White House’s law breaking, he was busy sanctioning similar behavior by FBI agents.4

Woodward’s 2005 explanation has defects as well. Although Hoover’s death gave Richard Nixon a rare opportunity to put his own man at the top of the FBI, the notion that the White House would thereafter be able to manipulate the Bureau at will is preposterous. Hoover’s FBI was notoriously hidebound and could not be remade overnight. Indeed, forty years later we are still living with the Bureau’s insular, peculiar, and highly resistant culture. Nor did Felt have to act to protect the integrity of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. Although very early on Nixon tried to rein it in by making unfounded claims about national security and CIA equities, that effort quickly collapsed and the Bureau’s investigation was never circumscribed thereafter, despite some improprieties by the then-acting director, Pat Gray. Not even Felt ever publicly subscribed to the notion that the White House had interfered successfully with the Bureau’s probe, though, to be sure, it hindered the inquiry insofar as possible and exploited several courtesies to further the cover-up. In his 1979 memoir, Felt asserted that the attacks on the FBI for “dragging [its] feet” on the Watergate inquiry were unfair. “No one,” wrote Felt, “could have stopped the driving force of the investigation without an explosion in the Bureau—not even J. Edgar Hoover.”5

The revenge theory, for its part, not only seems borrowed from a bad Washington potboiler, but also assumes that Felt was willing to risk his career for an intangible, rather insignificant reward. Leaking put Felt in a dangerous position, as Woodward observed in The Secret Man: “Technically, it was illegal to talk about grand jury information or FBI files; or it could have been made to look illegal.” As a lawyer, Felt surely understood the adage that the wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they grind extremely fine. If he wanted revenge, why act before the criminal and civil processes had played themselves out, possibly achieving his ends for him?6

Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post “uncovered” Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI’s investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors’ case well in advance of the trial. Keeping the story in the news was meaningful and important, of course, especially when that newspaper was the Post. Owing to its prized readership, it had an influence that far outstripped its circulation. Every important official in Washington and every reporter based there read the Post, which meant the newspaper was an elite publication in that it helped define the news in and coming out of Washington. Its articles surely had an impact on Judge John J. Sirica, in whose courtroom the burglars were tried in January 1973 and the cover-up conspirators in October 1974. The stories also undoubtedly influenced the U.S. Senate, which in January 1973 formed a select committee, chaired by Sam Ervin (D–North Carolina), to probe the 1972 campaign. Perhaps most significantly, the Nixon administration reacted initially to the Post’s stories by denying and dissembling, creating an epic credibility gap with the media and eventually the public from which the White House never recovered.7

Still, the main effect of Deep Throat’s leaks was merely to accelerate the scandal by perhaps six months or a year, as former White House counsel Leonard Garment once observed. Felt helped the Post print “eye-popping stories, preceding disclosures by law enforcement . . . that built momentum and drew in the rest of the press at a time when Watergate might otherwise have faded from public view.” But unless Felt’s judgment was impaired by sheer rage, he took an extraordinary risk for an inordinately small payoff—and one that contradicted his politics to boot. Any disclosures before November 1972 stood to benefit only George McGovern, and Felt harbored nothing but disdain for the Democrat dubbed the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”8

By 2010, Woodward had begun to ascribe “multiple motives” to Felt, apparently in recognition of the uncertainty and contradictions that have simmered since 2005. This new admixture is one part principle; one part personal pique over having been passed over for the directorship; and one part outrage over the White House’s efforts to control and abuse the FBI. Felt “knew there was a cover-up . . . and did not trust the acting FBI director, Pat Gray. He knew the Nixon White House was corrupt. At the same time, he was disappointed that he did not get the directorship.” But merely combining three weak explanations does not result in a credible one.9

What, then, can possibly explain Felt’s urgency and the risks he took? Woodward maintains that Felt was a “secret man,” impenetrable and unfathomable. Yet now that Deep Throat’s identity is beyond dispute, going back to find his motive is imperative. And there exists a tried and true technique for doing so. When counterintelligence officers suspect a person of being a double agent, they fashion a ledger of everything that person knew, when, and how that person acted on the information. At the end there is a final tally, and that is supposed to reveal in whose interests the suspected double agent was genuinely working all along.

This book is akin to Felt’s ledger, because understanding his design, even at this late date, matters greatly to our historical understanding. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his review of The Secret Man, Watergate “ranks as the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own.” Without a consensus about what that agenda was, there is a gaping hole at the center of the narrative.10

The story of the break-in at the Democrats’ headquarters and the subsequent cover-up are terrific yarns. But the meta-narrative about the forces at work behind the scandal that brought Nixon down, as The Washingtonian’s John Limpert once pointed out, “tells you an awful lot more about how things happen in Washington.”11

Excerpted from Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland. ©2012 by the University Press of Kansas. Used by permission of the press.

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