Was Deep Throat unmasked as far back as 1973?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 11 2008 7:01 PM

Deep Throat Unmasked, Circa 1973?

The Washington Post published a huge hint about its Watergate source on the break-in's first anniversary. Nobody noticed.

Mark Felt.
Ex-FBI official Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat

Max Holland, an investigative reporter and editor of the Web site Washington Decoded, has posted something interesting about Deep Throat, the famous Watergate leaker played by Hal Holbrook in the movie version of All the President's Men. For three decades, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein refused to identify this highly placed source. The mystery was finally solved in July 2005, when Vanity Fair published a piece in which Mark Felt, a onetime second-ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said, "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat." Woodward confirmed it, then published a book about their relationship, The Secret Man.

A fair number of people (including me) had long figured Deep Throat was probably Felt, but before the Vanity Fair piece appeared, Woodward, Bernstein, and former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee had kept mum. A Deep Throat cult had evolved as Watergate junkies pored over public comments by the three men and especially over Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate stories and their best-selling 1974 memoir, All the President's Men. Even William Goldman's script for the movie became an object of intense study, because Woodward and Bernstein were known to have worked closely with the filmmakers. Yet even after Jim Mann, a former Post colleague of Woodward's, published a definitive piece in the June 1992 Atlantic that carefully laid out compelling reasons why Deep Throat had to have been an FBI official ("Deep Throat: An Institutional Analysis"), the Post maintained a stoic silence. It did the same in 2003 after a journalism professor at the University of Illinois named William Gaines took up a challenge Bradlee had laid down in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life("it should be possible to identify Deep Throat simply by entering all the information about him in All the President's Men into a computer, and then entering as much as possible about all the various suspects") and concluded—erroneously!—that Deep Throat had to be Fred Fielding, deputy counsel in the Nixon White House. The Post didn't respond because the Post didn't play guessing games about Deep Throat's identity.

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Or did it?

Holland has dug out of the archives a big, fat clue to Deep Throat's identity that the Post published way back on June 17, 1973, which happened to be the first anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The story appears to have been overlooked by every last Deep Throat sleuth. It went unmentioned in Mann's Atlantic piece, and it eluded Gaines' four-year Watergate document hunt.

It's easy to see why. The Post story Holland retrieved didn't carry a byline from Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. Its author was Laurence Stern, a much-admired Post writer who subsequently became assistant managing editor for national news. The headline was "Bureau Hurt by Watergate," but there was relatively little about Watergate in the piece, which focused on turmoil at the FBI since Director J. Edgar Hoover's death one year before. The Deep Throat hint was buried deep inside:

One highly placed FBI executive acknowledged that FBI agents may have been instrumental in getting the initial Watergate revelations into public print. Reporters who covered the case acknowledged the role of the agents in opening up the initial peepholes in the cover-up façade some administration officials were trying to erect.

"It wasn't a matter of getting rancorous leaks dumped in your lap," said one Watergate reportorial specialist. "You'd have to go to them and say, what about this or what about that? They'd respond, 'Yes, that's right.' I can think of one guy in the bureau without whom we wouldn't have gotten anywhere." [Boldface mine.]

Holland reports that he e-mailed Woodward and Bernstein to ask whether they remember talking to Stern for the story. (Holland couldn't query Stern because Stern died of a heart attack in 1979, when he was only 50.) Woodward replied that the story "does not ring a bell with me" and pointed out that at the time it was written, the Post had a dozen or so reporters on the Watergate story. Bernstein didn't reply at all, though after Holland sent him his published piece, Bernstein e-mailed back a noncommittal "Thanks, Max—interesting…."

Holland's story goes to great reportorial lengths to demonstrate why the "Watergate reportorial specialist" had to be Woodward or Bernstein—comparing the language with something the two told Timothy Crouse in The Boys on the Bus, collecting denials from the tiny handful of leading Watergate reporters who worked at other publications, etc. Of course, without Woodward or Bernstein saying, "It was me," the "Watergate reportorial specialist" can't be identified for certain. But common sense dictates there is a very high probability it was Woodward or Bernstein. Put yourself in Stern's shoes. You're writing a long story about chaos at the FBI since Hoover's death. You want to include a paragraph substantiating rumors that the bureau was leaking like a sieve about Watergate. You decide to interview a reporter on the Watergate story. The planet's two leading Watergate reporters happen to work a few yards away from you. They also happen to be pretty good friends of yours (Bernstein more than Woodward, in the recollection of Stern's son Marcus, now a reporter with ProPublica; his brother Christopher, now a reporter with Bloomberg, recalls seeing both Woodward and Bernstein around the house). Are you going to pick up your phone and ask some reporter for a competing news organization who his sources are on the biggest political story in Washington? Or are you going to stroll over to Woodward's or Bernstein's desk and do a quick interview with one of the guys who know best where the news media's information about Watergate is coming from? The question answers itself.

Stern's strong hint that Deep Throat was a G-man wouldn't have attracted much notice at the time. That's because:

a) It was no big secret that the FBI was leaking about lots of things, including Watergate. William Ruckelshaus, the acting director, admitted as much in Stern's story: "[S]ome of our agents were getting nervous about the pace of the Watergate investigation and probably talked to the press".

b) Nobody outside the Post—very possibly not even Stern—knew that Woodward had a secret highly placed source nicknamed Deep Throat. Throat's existence wouldn't be revealed until publication of All the President's Men a year later.

c) Even among the few who knew there was a Deep Throat, nobody except Woodward and Bernstein yet knew Throat's identity. Not even Bradlee. In A Good Life, Bradlee writes that he didn't ask Woodward who Throat was until "after Nixon's resignation [more than a year after Stern's story appeared], and after Woodward and Bernstein's second book, The Final Days [published nearly two years after that]."

After All the President's Men was published, "Who was Deep Throat?" became a favorite Washington parlor game. With the movie's release, the game went national. Did Stern tell friends and family, "I know who Deep Throat was, or at least where he worked"? Probably not. By then, the stakes were much higher. This was a source who'd helped bring down a president and was now officially mythologized as the very symbol of journalistic confidentiality. Also, Stern was rising in the Post management hierarchy and therefore was probably feeling a little less free-spirited. But Marcus Stern does remember attending with his father the Kennedy Center movie premiere of All the President's Men in 1976. Driving home afterward, Marcus recalls, the subject of Deep Throat came up. Who was Deep Throat, anyway? "I think the movie suggested it," his father replied. Laurence Stern then went on to cite something in the film—Marcus can't remember what—that indicated the filmmakers meant to hint that Deep Throat had worked for the FBI. In truth, the filmmakers had no idea who Deep Throat was or where he worked. Laurence didn't indicate, as best Marcus can recall, that he'd already spilled the latter secret in the pages of the Washington Post.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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