Lying to protect Mark Felt from being exposed.
Bob Woodward is such a steadfast reporter that, when he writes a memoir, even Woodward's dirty linen isn't safe from exposure. In a June 2 Washington Post piece about his relationship with Mark Felt, Woodward describes his younger self as a near-parody of the classic Washington suck-up. As a Navy officer assigned to Washington in 1969,
I expended a great deal of energy trying to find things or people who were interesting. I had a college classmate who was going to clerk for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and I made an effort to develop a friendship with that classmate.
Not worth knowing at Yale, the classmate was self-evidently worth knowing now that he was working for a Washington big shot. Woodward met Felt, he writes, while waiting in the White House basement to deliver a package for Admiral Thomas Moorer (an assignment that sounds like it, too, was the product of assiduous apple-polishing). Felt was waiting there also:
He showed no interest in striking up a long conversation, but I was intent on it. I finally extracted from him the information that he was an assistant director of the FBI in charge of the inspection division, an important post under Director J. Edgar Hoover…. I was deferential, but I must have seemed very needy. He was friendly, and his interest in me seemed somehow paternal….I asked Felt for his phone number, and he gave me the direct line to his office.
It was love at first sight.
He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future, which now loomed more ominously as the date of my discharge from the Navy approached. At some point I called him, first at the FBI and then at his home in Virginia. I was a little desperate, and I'm sure I poured out my heart.
This is precisely the sort of unchecked personal fealty most people outside Washington imagine the Washington reporter-source relationship to consist of, and I swear, usually it doesn't. To Woodward, though, Felt was clearly a father figure.
Woodward's genius as a reporter, I submit, has consisted in large part of putting this glaring fault—an exaggerated deference to authority figures (his sources)—in the service of digging out facts that presidents don't want exposed (but the sources do). I wish I could put my vices to such good use! The question, though, is how far Woodward is willing to go to protect these daddy figures. In the case of Mark Felt, did he go too far? I think he did, in at least two cases:
The Cigarettes. Cigarettes are a Deep Throat motif throughout Woodward and Bernstein's book, All the President's Men. (Example: "Deep Throat was already there [at the prearranged meeting place, an underground garage], smoking a cigarette," page 130 of the 1974 hardcover edition.) What did Felt smoke and when did he smoke it? According to Felt, he didn't smoke at all; he told CBS News in June 1992 that he'd kicked the habit in 1943. Granted, in the same interview, Felt said that during Watergate he met with Woodward only once, and that when Woodward phoned he refused to cooperate—both totally false assertions, we now know. But whether or not Felt was a smoker was something that Felt's friends and family could be expected to know (unless Felt's second-biggest secret was that he was sneaking ciggies on the sly). Wouldn't lying about that seemingly trivial detail have been a giveaway to them that he was Deep Throat? Moreover, in August 1974, The Washingtonian's Jack Limpert quoted an unidentified Washington Post editor (yet another anonymous source!) as saying, "Woodward made a lot of Deep Throat smoking cigarettes, but I had the feeling that Deep Throat doesn't smoke." The editor doesn't say where he got that "feeling." Putting this all together, I conclude that Felt did not smoke when he met with Woodward, and that Woodward and Bernstein are therefore guilty of describing Felt falsely in their book.
The Intelligence-Agency Denial. In a 1979 Playboy interview with J. Anthony Lukas, Woodward flatly denied that Deep Throat was anyone inside the "intelligence community." Let's go, one more time, to the transcript:
Lukas: Do you resent the implication by some critics that your sources on Watergate—among them the fabled Deep Throat—may have been people in the intelligence community?
Woodward: I resent it because it's untrue. As you know, I'm not going to discuss the identity of Deep Throat or any other of my confidential sources who are still alive. But let me just say that this suggestion that we were being used by the intelligence community was of concern to us at the time and afterward. When somebody first wrote the article saying about me, "Wait a minute; this is somebody in an intelligence agency who doesn't like Nixon and is trying to get him out," I took that seriously.
The CIA is an agency with professional covert manipulators who try to alter events by deceiving people and directing them, running them like an intelligence agent. I have revisited this question of disinformation—I'd rather not go into how it was done—but I've satisfied myself and others that that was not the case.
In fact, Woodward was being used by the intelligence community, albeit to a beneficial end. In addition to being a crime-fighting agency, the FBI is an intelligence agency, as Woodward well knew. In his Felt memoir, Woodward notes that in 1970 the Nixon administration wanted to coordinate efforts by the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence
to intensify electronic surveillance of "domestic security threats," authorize illegal opening of mail, and lift the restrictions on surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather intelligence.
[White House aide Tom Charles] Huston warned in a top-secret memo that the plan was "clearly illegal." Nixon initially approved the plan anyway. Hoover strenuously objected, because eavesdropping, opening mail and breaking into homes and offices of domestic security threats were basically the FBI bailiwick and the bureau didn't want competition.
Illegal spying may not have been intelligent behavior on the FBI's part, but it was quite clearly intelligence. In denying that Deep Throat came from this world, Woodward lied.
I am, however, prepared to absolve Woodstein of another supposed sin: They did not misidentify Deep Throat as being on the White House staff. The allegation is that a Deep Throat quote in All the President's Men appeared in a November 1973 story attributed to a White House aide. But it's a bum rap. On page 333 of the book, we read that the November 1973 Post story "quoted anonymously Deep Throat's remark that there were gaps of 'a suspicious nature' which 'could lead someone to conclude that the tapes have been tampered with.' " Yet the November 1973 Post story, it is said, was attributed to unnamed "White House sources." Not true. The story's first paragraph cites "White House sources" confirming that the tapes are inaudible, but the Deep Throat "quote" (actually, it's a paraphrase) appears further down and merely cites "five sources":
Of five sources who confirmed that difficulties have risen concerning the quality of the tapes, one said the problems are of a suspicious nature and could lead someone to include [sic] that the tapes have been tampered with.
Had the story said "the five sources," it could fairly be said that it was saying the sources mentioned in the first paragraph were the same sources mentioned here. But it didn't. Defendants acquitted. Next case.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press.