Mark Felt, RIP
Deep Throat was not a good man. It didn't matter.
In July 1999, David Daley of the Hartford Courant tracked Felt down in Santa Rosa, Calif. Felt, the former second-ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had long seemed—to me and many others—the most logical candidate for Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's unnamed garage-dwelling source, made famous in All the President's Men, the 1974 best-seller that Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about breaking the Watergate story. (Hal Holbrook played him in the movie.) Having recently rekindled a long-standing interest in this unsolved mystery, I decided to give Felt a call. The retired G-man wasted no time in telling me that, no, he wasn't Deep Throat, a denial he'd made a thousand times before (and to Daley mere days earlier). I tested his patience by rephrasing the question in various ways (Did he leak through an intermediary? Was Deep Throat someone else in the FBI?). I even asked him whether he found it annoying to be asked about this over and over. (Yes, he answered, with some heat.)
Finally I asked: Suppose you were Deep Throat. Would that be so terrible?
"It would be terrible," Felt replied. "This would completely undermine the reputation that you might have as a loyal, logical employee of the FBI. It just wouldn't fit at all."
But a lot of people thought Deep Throat was a hero for getting the truth out about Richard Nixon's crimes in the White House.
"That's not my view at all," he said. "It would be contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee of the FBI to leak information."
And so it was. Law enforcement officials aren't supposed to prosecute Americans via leaks to the press; if you doubt how destructive this can be, ask Wen Ho Lee. It's also against the law. Even if you were to recast Felt as a whistle-blower, at the time the FBI was exempt from the protections the law extended to whistle-blowers.
Anyway, it's far from clear whether Felt really was a whistle-blower as we commonly understand the term. On the one hand, Felt appears to have experienced sincere moral outrage at the Nixon White House's abuse of power in general and at its heavy-handed interference with the Watergate prosecution in particular. On the other hand, most of that outrage was an expression of fealty not to the U.S. Constitution but to the FBI, an agency where, under the leadership of Felt's mentor, J. Edgar Hoover, abuse of power was a way of life. Like I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was prosecuted for lying about his role in leaking the identity of a covert employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, Felt leaked less out of concern for the public's right to know than out of a desire to win a bureaucratic power struggle. Libby's was between the White House and the CIA. Felt's was between the White House and the FBI, which in the immediate aftermath of Hoover's death in May 1972 was rapidly losing its clout. Nixon had many good-government reasons to bring the FBI to heel (though, characteristically, he also wanted to enlist the FBI in his own illegal schemes). Case in point: Felt's own eventual prosecution for overseeing a series of warrantless searches of the homes of friends and family of Weather Underground members. Felt was convicted, but Ronald Reagan later pardoned him.
The story of Deep Throat lacks moral uplift in more ways than one. Apart from Felt's own substantial shortcomings, there's also the shabby way Woodward treated him. As I noted in a review of Woodward's account of their relationship, The Secret Man, Woodward violated his source agreement with Felt when he published All the President's Men, because Woodward had promised not to reveal that he had any such high-placed source, much less disclose any particulars of their interaction. Woodward sold Felt out in order to produce a more readable narrative. The circumstances of Felt's coming forth were also less than inspiring: In an advanced state of mental deterioration, Felt let his daughter goad him into it. Partly she sought closure, but she was also keen on securing a lucrative book and movie deal. Woodward hesitated before confirming Felt's claim because he doubted Felt was mentally competent to make the decision.
Paradoxically, the moral compromise involved in nearly every aspect of Felt's role as Deep Throat is good news for the rest of us, not bad. If the free flow of vital information about our government depended on the purity of heart of all concerned, we would know very little. Happily, we are as likely to learn what we need to know through the pursuit of cheap advantage. Long live leaking.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Mark Felt in 2005 by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.