By Max Holland | Politico
Wednesday, Sep 13, 2017
|Mark Felt wasn’t out to protect American democracy and the rule of law; he was out to get a promotion.
Columnists, talking heads and op-ed writers are holding open auditions for a role that presumably needs to be filled if we are ever going to get to the bottom of what seems fated to be dubbed, for better or worse, Russiagate: a new Deep Throat.
I get it. In the years since Watergate, the Washington Post’s famous golden source—later revealed to be former FBI No. 2 executive W. Mark Felt—has become practically synonymous with the ideal of the noble leaker. The original Deep Throat “was instrumental in thwarting the conspiracy and bringing [President Richard] Nixon down,” Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, approvingly wrote in the Los Angeles Times in May. “Was it wrong for Deep Throat, as FBI official Mark Felt was then known, to guide the investigation?” Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan asked in June, in the midst of a column praising leaks and anonymous sources, and inviting more. New York magazine columnist Frank Rich has gone a step further and already announced his casting choice: James Comey is today’s Deep Throat.
The unarticulated presumption, which Sullivan, Litman and Rich are not alone in making, is that Felt—the FBI’s deputy director in June 1972, and subsequently the parking-garage interlocutor who steered Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to reportorial heights—was an honorable, selfless whistleblower intent on exposing the lawlessness rampant in the Nixon White House. Or, as David Remnick spelled out in the New Yorker—echoing Deep Throat’s original hagiographers, Woodward and Bernstein—Felt “believed that the Nixon administration was corrupt, paranoid and trying to infringe on the independence of the bureau.” The president and his top aides ran, Felt believed, “a criminal operation out of the White House, and [Felt] risked everything to guide” the Post reporters. A new biopic about Felt, starring Liam Neeson, is due out on September 29 and shows every sign of continuing to portray Deep Throat as a profound patriot and dedicated FBI lifer.
But here’s a heretical thought: Mark Felt was no hero. Getting rid of Nixon was the last thing Felt ever wanted to accomplish; indeed, he was banking on Nixon’s continuation in office to achieve his one and only aim: to reach the top of the FBI pyramid and become director. Felt didn’t help the media for the good of the country, he used the media in service of his own ambition. Things just didn’t turn out anywhere close to the way he wanted.
Only recently, more than four decades after Nixon’s downfall, has it become possible to reconstruct Felt’s design and what really happened during those fateful six months following the Watergate break-in. Doing so requires burrowing through a great number of primary documents and government records against the backdrop of a vast secondary literature. Nixon’s surreptitious tape recordings rank first in importance, but only mark the starting point. One has to also research documents from the FBI’s vast Watergate investigation; the bureau’s subsequent internal leak investigation; records from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force; documents from Felt’s own FBI file; and lastly, two unintentionally rewarding books: Mark Felt’s original 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid, and the slightly reworked version published in 2006, A G-Man’s Life.
What you’ll end up with is the real story of Deep Throat. And you might be left with this realization: No matter what happens to Donald Trump—whether he’s absolved, exposed or neither—you should hope there’s nobody as duplicitous as Mark Felt manipulating our understanding of Russiagate.
On May 1, 1972, John Edgar Hoover was days away from marking his 48th year as FBI director, or, as one of his arch-critics labeled him, the “No. 1 Sacred Cow of American Politics.” The wily, 77-year-old bureaucrat was the closest thing to a cult of personality in the federal government that has ever existed; not even an unprecedented, yearlong spate of bad publicity beginning in late 1970 had loosened his grip on the directorship. Sycophancy within the FBI was rife. Presidents and underlings came and went, but Hoover seemed invincible if not immortal, as inseparable from the law-enforcement empire he had built as the empire was unimaginable without him.
Yet behind the scenes, Hoover’s selfish refusal to step down when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1964, and two presidents’ lack of gumption to force him out, had put into motion a fierce, no-holds-barred struggle within the FBI to succeed him. It bore a striking resemblance to what used to happen inside the Kremlin, once a doddering Soviet leader neared the end of his term. More than a few top FBI executives saw a potential director when they looked in the mirror during their morning shave. And Hoover’s unwillingness to let go had unleashed what the dean of Watergate historians, the late Stanley Kutler, noted as the “war of the FBI succession.”
The executive with the inside track during Nixon’s first years was William C. Sullivan, who carried the title assistant to the director. A mercurial, intense, secretive personality, Sullivan was regarded by Hoover for a time almost like a son. The standard measure for where subordinates stood with the stern and formal Hoover was his method of addressing them. If someone was “Miller” instead of “Mr. Miller,” that person had achieved a high level of familiarity. Hoover called Sullivan, who oversaw the bureau’s all-important counterintelligence and domestic security responsibilities, simply “Bill.”
Yet Sullivan had a character flaw that became fatal the closer he got to the top of the pyramid: He was impatient. When the Nixon administration soured on the aging Hoover—chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman acidly described the director as a “real character out of days of yore”—Sullivan saw an opening, encouraged by like-minded Justice Department officials. He began leaking derogatory information about Hoover to journalists considered sympathetic, including, most notably, Robert Novak, the reporting half of the Rowland Evans and Robert Novak syndicated column.
Hoover’s FBI leaked all the time, of course, to favored reporters. The bureau may not have invented the practice, but it had perfected the art. No federal agency rivaled the FBI in terms of the well-placed, exquisitely timed disclosure designed with an end in mind. Information is the currency of power in Washington, and leaking to the press was instrumental to the bureau’s unofficial clout, the reason the FBI engendered fear in many quarters beyond its actual brief. But until Sullivan came along, leaking had largely been controlled, sanctioned and institutional—that is, directed against the bureau’s perceived adversaries or to burnish the FBI’s image and reputation. Never had leaks been employed for personal gain at Hoover’s expense.
Hoover soon figured it out. He fired Sullivan for disloyalty, insolence and insubordination, but not before a confrontation that instantly became part of FBI lore. In October 1971, Sullivan returned from a leave to find the locks in his office changed. Sullivan exchanged harsh words with the FBI executive who had thought up that particular touch. When the executive called him a “Judas,” the perpetually rumpled, bantam-sized Sullivan promptly challenged his dapper, 6-foot-tall adversary, William Mark Felt, to a fistfight.
Following Sullivan’s hasty exit, Felt became the front-runner to replace Hoover, despite being widely disliked internally. His nickname inside the bureau was the “White Rat.” He had acquired that sobriquet during the six years he headed up the Inspection Division, Hoover’s instrument for enforcing discipline and meting out punishment. Felt’s martinet-like inspection tours, where he out-Hoovered Hoover to curry the director’s favor, had earned him the enmity of agents and agents-in-charge throughout the country. Felt’s inspection report after the infamous break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI office in March 1971 by antiwar activists was typical. Felt’s report absolved the “Seat of Government” (as FBI headquarters was immodestly called during Hoover’s reign) of all culpability, and made the Media agent-in-charge the scapegoat, as former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger wrote in her 2014 book, The Burglary. “We would probably not have pissed on [Felt] if he was on fire,” retired agent Robert P. Campbell recalled in a 2011 interview, reflecting the rank-and-file’s disdain.
Felt never enjoyed strong support within the Nixon administration either, unlike Sullivan. While “Crazy Billy” had worn his ambition to succeed Hoover on his sleeve, Felt was self-serving in an unattractive way. Though consumed with what he believed was his rightful inheritance, Felt often exhibited a false humility, perhaps out of fear that his ambition would become too obvious to Hoover. “If you wanted to ruin somebody’s career in the FBI,” a former agent later recalled, “all you had to do [was] leak it to somebody in the press that so-and-so [was] being groomed as Hoover’s successor.” The result was that Felt “did not interact with credibility” with his peers, recalled Donald Santarelli, then an associate attorney general at the Justice Department, in a 2011 interview.
FBI officials (including Felt) join Acting Atty. Gen. Richard G. Kleindienst as honorary pallbearers following the casket of J. Edgar Hoover at the National Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1972. | AP|
On the morning of May 2, 1972, Hoover’s lifeless body was discovered on the floor of his bedroom one hour after the ever-punctual director failed to come downstairs for his 7:30 a.m. breakfast. Later, mourners at the funeral home were stunned by what they saw in the casket. There in the coffin lay a small, gray-haired, frail-looking man. The mortician had washed Hoover’s hair and all the dye had come out—from his eyebrows too.
Felt was not surprised by the portrait of infirmity. For all intents and purposes he had been running the bureau for more than a year, confident that if he bided his time (unlike Sullivan), Nixon would inevitably turn to Hoover’s natural legatee.
Felt was wrong.
Nixon’s surprise appointment of a dark-horse outsider, Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray, to be acting director within hours stands as one of the most far-reaching personnel decisions ever taken by a president inadvertently. His attention consumed by the upcoming election, geopolitical strategy and the effort to withdraw U.S. ground troops from Vietnam, Nixon was anxious to avoid having Hoover’s FBI become an issue in 1972. For the first time, a director was going to have to win Senate confirmation, and Nixon was leery of giving Democrats on the Judiciary Committee the opportunity to work over a nominee in an election year, possibly even block his confirmation. The president considered the appointment equal to nominating a chief justice to the Supreme Court. Nixon wanted a vigorous man who would occupy the post long after his second term ended. Gray’s acting appointment was roundly criticized on the grounds that he was a Nixon crony. But he otherwise aroused little opposition because he was as colorless as his name.
Gray wasn’t promised the permanent appointment, only that he would be considered for the post if he did a creditable job. Yet the message behind Gray’s interim status—that Nixon was intent on bringing in someone from outside the bureau—was an unmistakable signal to several executives angling for the job, and they decided to retire. The ambitious Felt saw the acting designation, however, as a small opening. It still left six months in which to persuade Nixon to “see the light” by nominating an insider, as Felt wrote in his 1979 memoir.
Felt was acting the part of Gray’s indispensable top deputy, while simultaneously belittling the interim director behind his back, according to interviews I conducted with contemporary FBI officials, when the Watergate break-in serendipitously occurred on June 17, 1972. The burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex by Nixon campaign operatives presented Gray with a dilemma that Felt could easily exploit to his advantage. If Gray could not manage the FBI’s politically sensitive Watergate investigation to the White House’s satisfaction, he risked alienating the president and losing out on the nomination. Yet if Gray didn’t allow an unbridled investigation to run its full course, he might fail to win confirmation before what was sure to remain a Democrat-controlled Senate. Gray essentially resolved the dilemma by absenting himself as much as possible, while leaving supervision of the investigation in the hands of professional subordinates, most prominently, Felt.
Gray’s decision facilitated Felt’s recourse to that bureau specialty, the artful leak. As John Dean has confirmed in numerous interviews beginning in 2011, Felt knew that nothing was more likely to incite the White House against Gray, and prove he was Hoover’s unworthy successor, than stories in the press about the politically sensitive probe. As White House counsel and desk officer for the cover-up, Dean was the person most frequently tasked with conveying the president’s ire to Gray. Similarly, Democrats’ hackles would be raised by any stories suggesting that the FBI was conducting a lax or superficial investigation.
Felt acted quickly. On June 20, three days after the break-in, the Washington Post published a story headlined, “White House Consultant Tied to Bugging Figure.” The article, citing “Federal sources close to the investigation,” revealed that a one-time White House consultant named E. Howard Hunt, who was also a former CIA officer, had an as-yet undetermined connection to the five burglars nabbed red-handed at the Watergate office complex. Hunt, of course, would turn out to be the co-ringleader of the break-in, along with G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon campaign’s finance counsel.
In his 2005 book about Felt, The Secret Man, Woodward described in detail how Felt provided the “critical and substantial buttress” for the scoop about Hunt. Although this investigative development would have become public inevitably, the fact that it happened so swiftly stunned a White House still grappling with how to respond to the break-in. The White House’s initial pose was to appear nonchalant and above the story, as captured in Ron Ziegler’s infamous, contemptuous observation that he would not be commenting on “a third-rate burglary attempt.” But the morning the article appeared, special counsel Charles Colson roared to the president—as captured on an Oval Office recording—“Pick up that God-damn Washington Post and see that guilt by association!” Colson had been responsible for hiring Hunt, and instantly, the administration became obsessed with how information known only to the police, Justice Department prosecutors and the FBI had come out. “Where the hell are all these leaks from our side coming from?” Nixon wondered aloud. The impulse to circle the wagons, rather than make a clean breast of the campaign’s culpability, took root.
Yet that kind of Watergate story was only half of Felt’s influence operation. Four days later, Felt managed to get fabled Time magazine reporter Sandy Smith interested in allegations that Gray had conferred with John Mitchell, the head of the president’s campaign, right after the break-in, and that Gray had been overheard boasting that the FBI’s investigation would be wrapped up in “24 to 48 hours”—the clear inference being that the probe would be a whitewash. Smith presented the allegations for comment to Gray, who vehemently denied both. Merely being asked such questions left him furious. He knew that a journalist of Smith’s caliber, who had access to the highest echelons in the bureau, would not be posing such questions unless the allegations came from someone Smith firmly believed was in a position to know. When the Time story actually appeared in print on June 26, the piece was thankfully “trimmed of its falsehoods,” Gray noted in a memo. Apparently, Smith had been unable to corroborate the allegations to his or his editors’ satisfaction—which was hardly surprising, since neither of them was true. The leak to Time came from Felt himself, as Deep Throat’s revised autobiography, published in 2006, acknowledged. Subsequent leaks to Smith would prove more successful.
In the four months that remained before the election, Felt continued to feed the Washington Post and Time tidbits—ranging from the connection between Watergate and the White House operatives known as “plumbers” to how campaign funds had been laundered through Mexico—although the weekly magazine never received the public acclaim the daily newspaper later did. Felt could leak with relative impunity because Watergate was not, and never became, a significant issue during the campaign, and therefore, presented no threat to the only presidential candidate who might appoint Felt director—Richard Nixon. George McGovern, the Democrats’ nominee, was a “jackal,” in Hoover’s parlance, anathema to every Hoover disciple and vice versa. The South Dakota senator had spent much of 1971 publicly lambasting the late director for various deficiencies, including alleged senility. Nixon, on the other hand, did discuss potentially appointing Felt to the position at one point, according to Oval Office tapes.
As Nixon’s confidence in Gray waned over the leaks, William Sullivan re-emerged as a potential rival after securing a top job in the Justice Department. That complicated Felt’s scheme greatly, for now he had to figure out how to damage Sullivan’s reputation too. He did so in leaks to Time’s Smith, whose discretion in such matters was legendary, in contrast to the untested Woodward. As in June, Felt was not above misleading Smith on occasion; we also know from Woodward’s notes that Deep Throat told the cub reporter an enormous number of falsehoods (as John Dean was the first to point out), including during their famous clandestine rendezvous in an Arlington, Virginia, parking garage. But then Felt’s relationship to the truth was always casual at best. His goal was incitement, rather than protecting the presidency, the bureau, democracy or the rule of law from Nixon’s predations. Even the Post’s most celebrated Watergate story of October 10, 1972—the seminal or “centerpiece” story that alleged a “massive campaign of political spying and espionage”—prominently featured a lie uttered by Felt. Deep Throat falsely asserted to Woodward that a letter damaging to the campaign of Senator Edmund Muskie—considered the Democrats’ strongest candidate until he finished poorly in the New Hampshire primary—was “a White House operation,” concocted “inside the gates surrounding the White House.” What Woodstein represented in the Post as “hard evidence” of a political dirty trick was a fabrication, as an internal FBI inquiry and later, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, determined.
|Felt, at right with dark glasses, reacts to applause as he leaves U.S. District Court here on April 21, 1978, in Washington, D.C., after pleading innocent to charges of violating citizen's rights. | Bob Daugherty/AP|
Felt never achieved his goal of becoming director, of course, except for the two-hour-and-50-minute interregnum that occurred between Gray’s sudden resignation in May (for having destroyed embarrassing documents unrelated to Watergate found in E. Howard Hunt’s White House safe) and the appointment of a new acting director—another outsider named William Ruckelshaus. Unbeknownst to Felt, Nixon had learned in October 1972 that Felt was leaking to Time’s Smith. The president’s impulse was to fire Felt immediately, but cooler heads at the White House explained that Felt knew too much to make such a move just before the election. His removal would have to wait until after November, when a new director could be ordered to clean out the pestilence in the FBI’s upper ranks.
As it turned out, Felt abruptly resigned from the bureau in May 1973 to avoid being investigated right then and there for leaking. It was a fate he didn’t entirely escape, because a yearlong internal investigation was launched a few months later anyway. Subsequently, the Inspection Division learned from Carol Tschudy, a bureau secretary for 17 years, that she was unable to recall how many calls transpired between a Washington Post reporter and her former boss, Felt. However, she said, “the frequency of Woodward’s calls seemed to depend upon various developments in the Watergate case.” Felt tried to make a go of consulting and the lecture circuit, and worked on his memoir after he retired from government service. In 1980, Felt made news when he was tried and convicted of ordering illegal FBI break-ins targeting the left-wing Weather Underground, a violent faction of domestic antiwar radicals. Nixon contributed to Felt’s defense fund and testified at his trial, and President Ronald Reagan later pardoned him.
Meanwhile, Deep Throat went down in history as a do-gooder who saved the rule of law and American democracy from a criminal president. This was largely thanks to the large dose of bunkum in Woodward and Bernstein’s initial 1974 description of their source in All the President’s Men, and greatly magnified by the depiction in the eponymous Hollywood movie. Deep Throat, they wrote, was “trying to protect the office [of the presidency].” It wasn’t until 2005 that Woodward admitted in his book about Felt, The Secret Man, that Felt “never really voiced pure, raw outrage to me about Watergate or what it represented” (which is not surprising, given Felt’s contemporaneous role in sanctioning illegal FBI break-ins).
It remains true that Felt’s information, regardless of his motive, helped keep Watergate in the news at a time when few Americans cared, and that was important. Stories in the Post, Time and elsewhere helped shield the three original federal prosecutors from political interference. And after they won convictions of all five burglars, plus Hunt and Liddy, in January 1973, the prospect of serious prison time finally broke the back of the coverup. One of the burglars, James McCord, alleged that perjury had been committed during the trial, precipitating a footrace to the prosecutors by Dean and deputy campaign director Jeb Magruder, which, in turn, unleashed a flood of revelations that eventually put the president himself at risk.
Primarily because the Post (most prominently) reported increments of the break-in story (but never the coverup, remember) before the burglars were actually tried, the fable took hold that the press “exposed” Watergate. This was a legend propagated by a media eager to bask in the Post’s reflected glory. The press was the decidedly junior partner to the legal machinery. For an authority on the subject, one need look no further than Sandy Smith, who broke as many significant stories about Watergate as anyone in the media. “There’s a myth that the press did all this, uncovered all the crimes,” he was quoted as saying in an official history of Time Inc. published in 1986. “It’s bunk. The press didn’t do it. People forget that the government was investigating all the time. In my material there was less than two percent that was truly original investigation. There was [a federal] investigation being carried out here.”
This fact, in all likelihood, is the reason Felt never came forward to claim the riches and acclaim that supposedly awaited Deep Throat. Indeed, he perpetually lied about being Deep Throat after the Washingtonian fingered him in June 1974 as the first prime suspect, just as All the President’s Men was being published. Felt had to fear his actions could not withstand close scrutiny. His motive would be exposed as base and self-serving, and he would be roundly condemned in the only fraternity that he knew and cared about, the society of current and former FBI executives and agents. When finally outed in Vanity Fair in 2005 by his family, who had understandably imbibed the fable, Felt was dehabilitated by dementia and the few remaining peers able to recognize Felt for who he was and what he did were drowned out by the wave of nostalgia for the legacy media.
|Journalist Bob Woodward, center, is cheered and greeted by Joan Felt, left, and Carl Bernstein, right, after speaking at a memorial service for W. Mark Felt in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Jan. 16, 2009. | Eric Risberg/AP|
Felt’s admission left Pat Gray reeling; he likened it to being hit with a sledgehammer. Suffering from pancreatic cancer with only a few weeks to live, Gray summoned the strength to denounce publicly the man he considered, until that moment, his loyal and trustworthy executive officer. He had never grasped Felt’s treachery despite ample contemporaneous warnings. Now Gray belatedly realized that Felt had been a “formidable foe” primarily because he was such “a skilled liar.” The Vanity Fair story also stunned John J. McDermott, the special agent-in-charge of the Washington Field Office when it conducted the Watergate investigation. McDermott had long thought that the mysterious Deep Throat was actually a reporter’s invention and composite, meant to fuzz up the identities of several discrete White House sources. But once Felt claimed the mantle and Woodward confirmed it, McDermott immediately recognized that Felt had engaged in the same underhanded tactics as Sullivan. McDermott expressed “shock, dismay, and disgust” at Felt’s perfidy, and the bogus media-driven theory that Felt had a need “to expose information which otherwise would have been suppressed.” He defied anyone to prove that the FBI had failed to follow a single Watergate lead, concealed information from the Justice Department or did anything to warrant Felt’s behavior. “It’s embarrassing … for the bureau to be exposed as having had such people as Felt and Sullivan,” McDermott said in November 2010.
When the biopic comes out later this month, don’t be fooled. Felt betrayed the bureau, and more importantly, the investigative and legal machinery that is, more manifestly than ever, the last barrier between a government of laws and not of men or women.
There should be no pining for another Deep Throat. Leaks from bona fide whistleblowers are one thing. Leaks from a self-aggrandizing FBI executive in the know, even if good for a few headlines, are bad for the rule of law. Nor would it be helpful to have an FBI executive plying reporters with false stories, indifferent to what gets printed or broadcast so long as it harms his bureaucratic enemies. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is far too important for that.
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