Deep Throat leaked for reasons of self-interest.

Media criticism.
June 2 2005 7:28 PM

Why Did Deep Throat Leak?

Hint: It wasn't out of a sense of patriotism.

Hoover Jr.  Click on image to enlarge.
Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat.

The unmasking of Deep Throat by Vanity Fair bolsters journalist Edward Jay Epstein's outsider view that press coverage of Washington scandals depends as much—or more—on the motives of the government institutions and investigators involved in the story than it does the intrepid reporters "breaking" the news.

A "sustaining myth of journalism," as Epstein wrote 30 years ago in Commentary about the book All the President's Men, holds that reporters pry secrets out of government. What's really going on is slightly less heroic, he believes. When sources leak, they do so for a host of reasons, but most often to damage their official rivals. Journalists suffer from a "blind spot" that keeps them from appreciating the complex infighting taking place inside government bureaucracies.

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It takes nothing away from the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to reflect on why Mark Felt, the No. 3 man in the FBI, bent the law to feed the two young reporters inside information. But it does reflect poorly on the first round of press coverage, which makes patriotism appear to be Felt's primary motivation.

In today's (June 2) Washington Post, Woodward portrays a more nuanced Felt in his recollection of how the FBI man became his famous informer, although not quite nuanced enough for my tastes. Woodward reveals that Felt ratted on the Nixon White House long before the plumbers broke into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. He writes, "In the spring [of 1972, Felt] said in utter confidence that the FBI had some information that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had received a bribe of $2,500 in cash that Agnew had put in his desk drawer."

What moved Felt to leak, Woodward writes, were the corrupting political pressures the White House was applying to the FBI. Woodward writes of how threatened the FBI was by a 1970 White House plan, which proposed using the FBI, CIA, and military intelligence to increase surveillance of "domestic security threats." Hoover opposed the Huston plan, as it was known, because it encroached upon the bureau's domestic sleuthing.

Now, if ever there were a corrupt organization, it was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. With his stash of detailed dossiers on politicians from both parties, Hoover kept all presidents on a short leash and obliged their darker impulses, as when he wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. at the behest of the Kennedy administration.

But Felt admired Hoover and thrived under his patronage. Woodward writes, "[Felt] appreciated [Hoover's] orderliness and the way he ran the bureau with rigid procedures and an iron fist. Felt said he appreciated that Hoover arrived at the office at 6:30 each morning and everyone knew what was expected." For his loyalty, Felt rose to No. 3 in the bureau and was "day-to-day manager of all FBI matters," Woodward writes. (The official No. 2 was Hoover's sickly friend Clyde Tolson, who often did not come to work.)

What Woodward doesn't explain is why Felt thought Nixon's ambitions made him a Nazi, but the FBI's slimy domestic surveillance programs didn't tar the bureau with the same brush. Under Hoover, dozens of left-wing, anti-war, civil rights, black nationalist, and white power groups were watched and subverted through the FBI's COINTELPRO program, which ran from the mid-1950s through April 1971. So when Woodward writes, "There is little doubt Felt thought the Nixon team were Nazis" and was fearful of the "threat to the integrity and independence of the bureau" posed by the White House, please understand that Felt didn't acquire his feelings about civil liberties from the ACLU. The Hoover FBI wanted to be the only semi-fascistic national police force on the scene and would repel all trespassers.

Felt's ulterior motives become transparent when Woodward writes of how Nixon passed him over to head the FBI—when Hoover died in the spring of 1972—for L. Patrick Gray. After the Watergate burglars get caught on June 17, 1972, Felt becomes the Postie's reliable conduit to the FBI's Watergate investigation. Woodward writes:

Felt believed he was protecting the bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the bureau for political reasons. The young eager-beaver patrol of White House underlings, best exemplified by John W. Dean III, was odious to him.

Nobody should fault Woodward for drawing information from one tainted source (Felt) to expose another (the Nixon White House). But let's not be too hasty about draping the FBI veteran in garlands. Where was Felt when the Nixon administration and previous presidents violated civil liberties in the name of national security? While leaking to Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973, Felt was also authorizing illegal break-ins in the search for Weather Underground bombing suspects.

Epstein believes reporters err too often by viewing the operations of government as monolithic instead of the "product of diverse and competing" interests. He's especially critical of those who believe Woodward and Bernstein "revealed" Watergate. In his Commentary article, Epstein provides a timeline that credits FBI investigators, federal prosecutors, a grand jury, and congressional committees with unearthing and developing "all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate." All the President's Men gives Woodward and Bernstein excessive credit for uncovering Watergate, he writes, because it focuses primarily on the parts of the government's case that were leaked to them, rather than the whole story.

What makes Mark Felt such a satisfying Deep Throat candidate is that he conforms to the Epstein formula of the self-interested leaker. He wasn't an idealist or a whistle-blower or a patriot. He was just another vigilant protector of Washington turf, a player who didn't want his side to lose. If increasing political pressure on his enemy required him to violate his FBI oath by leaking to a trusted reporter at the Washington Post whose reports would accelerate the punishment of his foe, then so be it.

******

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