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Jun 7, 2005 | 22:56 GMT

14 mins read

The Motives of Deep Throat

By George Friedman The United States (or at least its Baby Boomers) has been gripped by the revelation that the fabled Deep Throat, the person who provided the legendary Woodward and Bernstein the guidance needed to cover the Watergate scandal, was Mark Felt, a senior official in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In spite of the claims of some, Felt was never high on the list of suspects. The assumption was always that Deep Throat was a member of the White House staff, simply because he knew so much about the details of the workings of the Nixon White House. A secondary theory that floated around was that Deep Throat was someone from the CIA — that the CIA, for some unclear reason, wanted to bring Nixon down. The revelation that Deep Throat was a senior FBI official — in fact, so senior that he was effectively J. Edgar Hoover's heir at the FBI — is full of historical significance. Even more, it has significant implications today, when U.S. intelligence and security forces are playing a dramatically enhanced role in American life, and when the question of the relationship between the constitutional life of the republic and the requirements of national security is at a cyclical pitch. If Felt is Deep Throat, then the history and implications of this revelation need to be considered. This has absolutely nothing to do with the question of Nixon's guilt. It has been proven beyond doubt that Nixon was guilty of covering up the Watergate burglary, a felony that required impeachment, even if presidents before him had committed comparable crimes. It is not proven, but we are morally certain, that Nixon knew about and possibly demanded the break-in both at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and in Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. There are too many hints of this in the famous Nixon White House tapes — and in the existence of an 18-minute gap inserted into one tape — to doubt that. Nixon was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. None of this, however, has anything to do with Mark Felt's motives in leading Woodward and Bernstein to water and teaching them the fundamentals of drinking. Felt's motives are important regardless of whether Nixon was guilty because they tell us something about what was going on in the FBI at the time and how the FBI operated. That is what has to be thought through now. Felt's position has been simply presented. He is portrayed as a patriot who was appalled by the activities of the Nixon White House. Having had Patrick Gray slipped in above him for the top Bureau job, Felt believed that resorting to the normal procedures of law enforcement was not an option. Gray, a Nixon appointee and loyalist, would have isolated or fired Felt if he tried that route, keeping Felt away from grand juries and the normal process of the legal system. The only course of action for Felt was, according to this theory, to leak information to the press. His selection of Woodward and Bernstein for the prize was happenstance. Felt needed national coverage, and that was provided by the Washington Post. Felt claimed a passing acquaintanceship with Bob Woodward, a very young and inexperienced reporter, and this became a convenient channel. In short, Felt was protecting the republic by the only means possible. Let's consider who Felt was for a moment. He rose in the ranks of the FBI to serve as the No. 3 official, ranking behind only J. Edgar Hoover and Hoover's significant other, Clyde Tolson. He reached that position for two reasons: He was competent and, of greater significance, he was absolutely loyal to Hoover. Hoover was obsessed with loyalty and conformity. He expected his agents, even in the junior ranks, to conform to the standards of the FBI in matters ranging from dress to demeanor. Felt did not rise to be the No. 2 of the Hoover-Tolson team by being either a free-thinker or a gadfly. The most important thing to understand about Felt was that he was Hoover's man. As Hoover's man, he had a front row seat to Hoover's operational principles. He had to have known of Hoover's wire taps and the uses to which they were put. Hoover collected information on everyone, including presidents. It is well known at this point that Hoover collected information on John F. Kennedy's sexual activities before and during his tenure as president — as he had with Martin Luther King — and had used that information to retain his job. Hoover stayed as head of the FBI for decades because he played a brutal and unprincipled game in Washington. He systematically collected derogatory information on Washington officials, tracking their careers for years. He used that information to control the behavior of officials and influential private citizens. Sometimes it was simply to protect his own position, sometimes it was to promote policies that he supported. At times, particularly later in his life, Hoover appeared to be exercising power for the sheer pleasure of its exercise. One of Hoover's favorite tactics was the careful and devastating leak. Hoover knew how to work the press better than just about anyone in Washington. He used the press to build up his reputation as a crime fighter and to burnish the FBI's reputation. Reporters knew that maintaining good lines of communication with the FBI could make careers, while challenging the FBI could break them. In one famous case, Hoover leaked information to Life magazine that claimed that bodies were buried in the basement of a congressman who had angered Hoover. The rumor was that the congressman got Hoover to force Life to retract the story when the congressman threatened to go public about Hoover's homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson. That part may or may not be true, but we know that the story was retracted. In most Washington insider cases, Hoover was not interested in the grand jury route. The information he collected frequently was less concerned with criminal behavior than embarrassing revelations. What Hoover wanted to do was shape the behavior of people to suit him. It was the threat of revelation — coupled with judicious leaks to the press, proving that Hoover was prepared to go all the way with it — that did the trick. Hoover perfected the devastating leak — and Mark Felt did not rise to power in the FBI by failing to learn that lesson or by following ethical codes other than J. Edgar Hoover's. The first point that is obvious is that Felt wanted to be director of the FBI. When Hoover died and Tolson resigned, he expected to replace Hoover. When Nixon appointed Gray, it is clear from his book that Felt felt betrayed and angry. Gray was an outsider who, in his view, was loyal to the president and not to the Bureau. Now, forgetting for the moment that the president was Nixon, this raises the interesting question of whether the primary loyalty of a director of the FBI — or any other security or intelligence organization — ought to be to the organization he serves or to the president who appoints him. There are arguments on both sides, but when you take Nixon out of the equation, the elected president would seem to have prima facie status in the equation. Loyalty to an institution, not superseded by loyalty to democratic institutions, would appear to be dangerous for a security force and a republic. On the other hand, insulation from politics might protect the organization, keeping it from being used as a political instrument. The question is complex. Felt chose to side with the institution. One can debate the nature of the FBI. Felt himself admitted he was a disgruntled employee. We can infer his loyalty to Hoover. What we have, therefore, is a disgruntled FBI employee — bitter at being passed over for promotion, angry at having the legacy of his patron dismantled and running a covert operation against the White House. Within days of the Watergate Hotel break-in, Deep Throat — Felt — was telling Woodward of the role of E. Howard Hunt. That meant that Felt knew what had happened. He could not have known what had happened had he not inherited Hoover's mechanisms for monitoring the White House. It is clear that Gray was not given that mechanism, and it is clear that Gray didn't know about it — since Nixon didn't know about it. But Felt did know about it. What the mechanism was, whether electronic eavesdropping or informants in the White House or some other means, is unclear, so we will refer to it as "the mechanism." What is clear is that Felt, without the knowledge of his director, was running an operation that had to precede the break-in. Hoover died in May 1972; the Watergate break-in occurred in August 1972. Felt did not have time to set up his own operation in the White House. He had clearly taken over Hoover's. Felt could not admit that he had penetrated the White House. The No. 2 man at the FBI could have forced a grand jury investigation, but he did not force one because to do so, he would have had to reveal his covert mechanism in the White House. Felt didn't go to a grand jury not because he was boxed in, but because he could not reveal the means whereby he knew precisely what Nixon and his henchmen were up to. It is fascinating that in all the discussion of Felt as Deep Throat, so little attention has been paid to how Felt would have acquired — and continued to acquire — such precise intelligence. It has been pointed out that Felt could not have been the only Deep Throat because he could not personally have known all the things he revealed. That is true, unless we assume that Felt was the beneficiary of an intelligence operation run by Hoover for years deep into successive White Houses. If that is the case, then it makes perfect sense that Felt was the one and only Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein, along with Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, didn't care, since they were being fed the goods. Nixon did care, and the leaks further damaged him by triggering wild-goose chases in search of the source. In fact, one of the most important consequences of Felt's leaks was that the White House spasmed and started looking for the leak. It compounded Nixon's paranoia — he really did have enemies. Indeed, the entire plumbers unit built to stop leaks in the White House has to be re-evaluated from the standpoint of the FBI operation and its leakages. It would be interesting to determine how many of the leaks Nixon was looking for originated with his suspects (people like Henry Kissinger) and how many were the results of Hoover's covert penetration. If we think of Hoover in his last days less as an ideologue and more as a megalomaniac, the notion that he was trying to cripple Nixon is not absurd. However, what is clear is that the White House was deeply penetrated, and Felt was operating the mechanism of intelligence. It is also clear that Felt decided not to proceed with the legal route but instead to continue Hoover's tradition of controlling his environment by leaking information. For the leak, he chose a major newspaper with a great deal of credibility and two junior reporters sufficiently ambitious not to ask the obvious questions. That they were on the city desk and not the national desk was an added benefit, since they would lack the experience to understand what Felt was up to. Finally, Bradlee — a close ally of the Kennedys and someone who despised Richard Nixon — would be expected to fly top cover for the two minor reporters. What is critical is how Felt managed Woodward and Bernstein. He did not provide them with the complete story. Rather, he guided them toward the story. He minimized what he revealed, focusing instead on two things. First, he made certain that they did not miss the main path — that the scandal involved the senior staff of the White House and possibly the president himself. Second and more important, Felt made certain that the White House could not contain the scandal. Whenever the story began to wane, it was Felt who fed more information to Woodward and Bernstein, keeping the story alive and guiding them toward the heart of the White House — yet usually without providing explicit information. One consequence of this was John Dean. Felt, the veteran of many investigations, knew that the best way to destroy a conspiracy was to increase the pressure on it. At some point, one of the conspirators would bolt to save himself. Felt couldn't know which one would bolt, but that hardly mattered. As the revelations piled up, the pressure grew. At some point, someone would break. It didn't have to be John Dean — it could have been any of perhaps a dozen people. But Felt made certain that the pressure was there, treating the White House the way he would treat any criminal conspiracy. What is most interesting in all of this is what Felt did not provide but had to have known: Why did the White House order the break-in to Larry O'Brien's office? Why was the break-in carried out with such glaring incompetence? Consider the famous part in which a security guard removes a piece of tape blocking a door lock that had been placed horizontally rather than vertically, only to have it replaced by one of the burglars, leading to their discovery. If Felt had penetrated the White House and Committee to Re-elect the President deeply enough to be Deep Throat, then he had to know the reason for the break-in. And what else did he control in the White House? Were G. Gordon Liddy's people as stupid as they appeared, getting caught with revealing phone numbers on them? Could anyone be that stupid? Why was the break-in ordered, and why did professionals bungle it so badly? This is the thing that Felt never gave to Woodward and Bernstein and which, therefore, Woodward and Bernstein never were able to explain. Yet Felt had to know it. The event wasn't random, and whatever else could be said about Nixon and his staff, they weren't stupid. They had their reasons, and it is hard to believe that Felt, who seemed to know everything about the conspiracy, didn't know this. We note — in pure speculation — that a covert operation not only uncover what is going on, but also can plant information that will trigger an action. Richard Nixon was a criminal by the simplest definition of the term — he broke the law and tried to hide it. His best defense is that other presidents were also criminals. Possibly, but that doesn't change Nixon's status. His closest aides were also, in many cases, criminals. Woodward and Bernstein were lottery winners, selected by Felt precisely because they were easy to lead and asked few questions. Felt, the dispossessed heir of J. Edgar Hoover, played out the hand of his master. He used his position to bring down the president. That the president needed to be brought down is true. That he could have been brought down only by Felt's counterconspiracy is dubious. There are three issues that must be raised here.One, does a senior FBI official have the right to leak the fruits of a clandestine operation in the White House to favored reporters in order to bring about a good outcome? Two, does the press have a responsibility to report not only what is leaked to them but also to inquire about the motive of the leaker? Didn't the public need to know that Deep Throat was a senior FBI official — and, at the very least, a disgruntled employee? Doesn't the manner in which the truth is known reasonably affect the public perception? Finally, and most important, who will guard the guardians when all have agendas?

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