Max Holland: Richard Nixon's Own Deep Throat

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Holland, author of The Kennedy Assassination Tapes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), is completing a history of the Warren Commission for Knopf.]

When W. Mark Felt unmasked himself as Deep Throat, in May 2005, the ballyhoo was dampened by a distinct feeling of anticlimax. As the FBI's number two man in 1972, Felt was the first real suspect: speculations that he had been Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's Ÿber-source appeared in print as early as 1974. And despite 30 years of denials, he never lost his status as the most likely leaker in most observers' eyes. His eventual admission was less a thunderbolt than a confirmation of what was already widely believed.[1]

    Much more surprising is that the Nixon White House knew about Felt, with a degree of certainty far beyond mere suspicion, almost from the start. In October 1972, H. R. Bob Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, told the president that Felt was the Post's primary source. This conversation was revealed in November 1996, when the National Archives released the so-called abuse of governmental power tapes.[2] In hindsight, it should have been seen as an important clue about Deep Throat's identity. However, it received little attention, probably because it conflicted with the popular narrative of the scandal, which holds that Felt was both principled and incognito.[3]

   Haldeman, of course, turned out to be right, which begs the question: how did he know? The answer is that the White House had its own secret sources, including one who had access to The Washington Post's inner workings. We might think of him as Nixon's Deep Throat.

    Uncovering the identity of this Deep Throat is a thornier matter. While it was one of the lawyers working for or in proximity to the Post on Watergate-related matters, apart from that fact, it may be that nothing more definitive can ever be said. Even so, exploring the possibilities one by one helps illuminate how Washington worked then, and probably how it still really works. As Benjamin Franklin once observed about keeping confidences, Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

What Haldeman Knew

   On October 10, 1972, The Washington Post published what Woodward would later describe as perhaps [the] most important Watergate story he and Carl Bernstein ever wrote.[4]Stretching over three columns on the upper right quadrant of the front page, the piece began,

FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon's re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.


    Until then, the Post's coverage had been piecemeal and inchoate: a steady drip of articles with intriguing information but unclear implications, whose ins and outs could be followed only by dedicated lawyers or political junkies. The October 10 story was the first to put the break-in in context. With it, Watergate became a story of national import.[5]

    Nine days later, Nixon and Haldeman had a desultory but revealing afternoon conversation about Watergate coverage. Nixon had sensed for weeks that someone, somewhere, was supplying the Post with its incremental but relentless scoops.[6] The FBI was high on his list of suspects, even though several factors argued against its involvement. L. Patrick Gray, the acting director since J. Edgar Hoover's death in May 1972, was beholden to Nixon for his appointment, and the Bureau had  a reputation for discipline insofar as sensitive White House matters were concerned. It seemed especially hard to conceive that the FBI would leak information contrary to the interests of a president who seemed certain to win  re-election a month hence. But Haldeman's information, captured on the president's voice-activated tape recorder, left little doubt.

NIXON: You know . . . materials are leaked out of the FBI. Why the hell can't [Patrick] Gray tell us what the hell is left? [You] know what I mean?

HALDEMAN: We know what's left.

NIXON: [Did you] read the file?       

HALDEMAN: We know what's left, and we know what's leaked, and we know who the leak is.

NIXON: Is it . . . somebody in the FBI?

HALDEMAN: Yes, sir.

NIXON: How'd you find out?

HALDEMAN: Through . . . a full circle through the

NIXON: [Justice] Department?

HALDEMAN: place where it's come from. The FBI doesn't know who [the leak] is. Gray doesn't [know] who the leak is, but we do . . .  and it's very high up.

NIXON: Somebody . . . next to Gray?

HALDEMAN: Mark Felt.

NIXON: [puzzled] Now why the hell would he do that?[7]

    The conversation meandered for more than  12 minutes before Nixon again pressed Haldeman about how he had learned of the leak. The chief of staff explainedHRHRMN the information had come from an official in the publication who knows where the reporter in the publication is getting his stuff. The official, Haldeman said, was a legal guywhose knowledge came directly from the reporter.  

HALDEMAN: I believe he's a former Justice Department man or a former FBI man.

NIXON: So who made the contact with him?

HALDEMAN: He made the contact here with . . . with a guy at the Justice Department.

NIXON: Why did he do that?

HALDEMAN: Because he knows what the problem is. He has been extremely concerned about it. He is a former FBI man. He knows that the FBI is leaking to a reporter in his publication.

NIXON: What does he think about it?

HALDEMAN: He's going berserk about it. So he has told the guy at Justice, who he knows, what . . . what the route is. He said, I think you oughta know this, and I don't know what you can do about him . . . and how can you handle him.

The guy at Justice told [White House counsel] John Dean. He has not told anybody else, including [Attorney General Richard] Kleindienst or Pat Gray, because he's afraid that either of them might react in such a way as to do more harm than good.[8]

    Taking Haldeman's description at face value, Nixon's Deep Throat was a lawyer with access to the Post newsroom, perhaps one involved in vetting Watergate-related stories. Because of a background in the Justice Department or the FBI, the lawyer was perturbed by Felt's disclosure of information from a highly sensitive investigation. He may also have believed (although Haldeman made no allusion to this scenario) that the Post's investigation was tainted by partisanship or ideology as Richard Harwood, the Post's assistant managing editor, was suggesting internally.[9]


    Although, as noted, the Nixon/Haldeman exchange was largely ignored when the tape was released, it did capture the attention of the person who had the most reason to be curious and furious about the leak from inside the Post. In The Secret Man, his 2005 book about his relationship with Felt, Woodward alludes to the conversation and what it signified.

    On October 19, [1972], I moved the flowerpot back, hoping to set a meeting that night in Rosslyn [with Felt].

    That same afternoon, as we would learn years later, Nixon met in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building with Haldeman. . . . Haldeman reported that he had learned authoritatively from his own secret source . . . that there was a leak in the FBI. . . .

    [When] Nixon pressed for the White House's source . . . Haldeman said the information came to them from some legal guy,presumably someone who worked at the Post . . . .

    This meant that we at the Post perhaps had our own Deep Throat problem, someone who was leaking information to the Justice Department and the White House about our sources. We never found out who might have been providing information from the Post, but the White House apparently came very close to establishing that one of our sources was Felt.[10]

    Although this description seems indicative of an internal inquiry, Woodward told me recently that There was no effort to find out who might have been that source that I know of.[11] Indeed, the October 19 conversation has been treated almost as if were apocryphal. Only in 2005 did the Post itself take note of it, in an article pointing toward a figure who was not even involved in the Post's legal affairs in 1972.[12] Even Woodward attached enough qualifiers to the incident to effectively discount it (consider, for instance, the tentativeness in his remark that We never found out who might [emphasis added] have been providing information from the Post).

     Others at the Post have expressed deep skepticism. As Harry Rosenfeld, the assistant managing editor for metropolitan news in 1972, put it during a 2007 interview, It's not that I don't believe [Haldeman and Nixon] said it. [It's that] I don't believe what they said.[13]  

    Rosenfeld did not believe that any lawyer he knew at the Post would do such a thing; and he did not believe a legal person at the Post could have known the identity of Woodward's best source. After all, that knowledge had been expressly denied even to the three editors involved in the Watergate stories from the beginning: Rosenfeld, managing editor Howard Simons, and special Watergate editor Barry Sussman.[14] As of  October 10, only Ben Bradlee, the Post's executive editor, had any detailed information about Deep Throat, namely, his job, experience, access, and expertiseeverything, in other words, except his name.[15]

    But in the end, these doubts do not outweigh the facts, as expressed not just in the October 19 recording but in many subsequent taped White House conversations. An alleged source at the Post correctly fingered Mark Felt as the source of the leaks to the newspaper within days of the seminal October 10 story. This is, to say the least, strong evidence that Nixon's Deep Throat existed....

[HNN Editor: This piece continues. In the remainder Mr. Holland explores the possible identities of the Post leaker. ]

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