David Corn & Jeff Goldberg: How Deep Throat Fooled the FBI

Roundup: Talking About History

David Corn & Jeff Goldberg, from the Nation (6-13-05)

[David Corn is The Nation's Washington editor and also the"Loyal Opposition" columnist for www.TomPaine.com and www.Alternet.org. Corn's work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Harper's Magazine. His books include Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusade and the 1999 bestselling novel Deep Background.. He writes a personal blog at www.davidcorn.com.]

The recent dramatic revelation about W. Mark Felt--the former top FBI man who has confessed to being Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's secret source during the Watergate scandal--has yielded what seems to be the final chapter in the Deep Throat saga, and thus the conclusion to a three-decade-long whodunit rich in detail, psychology and irony.

But Felt's role as the most famous anonymous source in US history was even more complex and intrigue-loaded than the newly revised public account suggests. According to originally confidential FBI documents--some written by Felt--that were obtained by The Nation from the FBI's archives, Felt played another heretofore unknown part in the Watergate tale: He was, at heated moments during the scandal, in charge of finding the source of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate scoops. In a twist worthy of le Carré, Deep Throat was assigned the mission of unearthing--and stopping--Deep Throat.

This placed Felt, who as the FBI's associate director oversaw the bureau's Watergate probe, in an unusual position. He was essentially in charge of investigating himself. From this vantage point Felt, who had developed espionage skills running FBI counterintelligence operations against German spies in World War II, was able to watch his own back and protect his ability to guide the two reporters whose exposés would help topple the President he served.

Felt at different points became an FBI plumber--in the parlance of the Nixon White House, a "plumber" was an operative who took care of leaks--even though he was the number-one leaker. He was in the perfect spot to deflect any accusations that might implicate him and to misdirect suspicion. And when President Nixon and his top aides became convinced that Felt was a key source for the Washington Post--they still couldn't touch him because of what he knew about their skulduggery.

The Felt memos do not cover the entire time period (from right after the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters to November 1973) during which Felt assisted Woodward. But when placed alongside the recent disclosure and the previously available accounts--most notably, the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President's Men; Felt's 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid (in which he denied he was Deep Throat); and the Nixon White House tapes--these memos (snapshots from inside Felt's world) significantly expand and shift the view that historians and the public now have of the unique, secret space Felt occupied during Watergate.

Immediately after the June break-in, Bob Woodward covered the arraignment of the five burglars. Two days later he called Felt, whom he had been cultivating as a mentor and contact for two years. Woodward had gotten a clue from Watergate burglar Bernard Barker's seized address book that Howard Hunt of the White House might have been involved in the break-in. He was hoping that Felt could confirm his suspicion about Hunt, or steer him off if he was wrong. Felt reported that Hunt was definitely involved in the burglary. He added that things were going to "heat up." Later that day, a nervous Felt assured Woodward that "the FBI regarded Hunt as a prime suspect in the Watergate investigation for many reasons." Thus, Felt had a hand in the first Post front-page story that tied the White House to the break-in.

From June to early September, Woodward and Bernstein produced more than twenty Watergate-related stories based on interviews with a variety of confidential sources. In All the President's Men Woodward and Bernstein are vague about Woodward's meetings with Felt that summer. The two rendezvoused at a parking garage in Rosslyn, Virginia. Felt's guidance was fairly general. At one meeting, he said "the FBI badly wanted to know where the Post was getting its information." He warned Woodward and Bernstein "to take care when using their telephones" and to be aware that they "might be followed." He advised that the White House was very worried.

But in the summer of 1972, the White House already suspected someone in the bureau was leaking to the Post (though it's unclear whether Felt was providing Woodward the information causing this suspicion). Woodward and Bernstein often cited "sources close to the investigation" or "federal sources" in their stories. White House officials presumed this mainly meant FBI officials, who were the primary investigators. FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray--who had been appointed by Nixon immediately after J. Edgar Hoover's sudden death in May--was cooperating with the White House to thwart a full FBI investigation, and the White House was pressuring him to shut off the various leaks to the media. According to FBI records, Gray held a meeting to chastise angrily all of the twenty-seven FBI field agents working on Watergate and told them not to talk to the press.

The Post's stories continued, and Gray, responding to White House pressure, assembled an intimidating FBI inspection team to question these same agents. Felt later wrote: "When that did not stop the leaks, he [Gray] ordered Assistant Director Charles Bates [head of the FBI's criminal division] to personally grill the men under oath." And when Gray was out of town, White House counsel John Dean would call Felt and demand that he stop the leaks. In one instance in late June, Felt, already helping the Post, ordered an investigation of whether any FBI official had leaked information to the Washington Daily News, but that inquiry produced nothing.

Through the summer of 1972, no one at the White House yet suspected Felt, according to the public record, but it was reasonable for him to fear the Nixon team was focusing on him, Bates, their underlings and the agents working on the Watergate case--the people with direct knowledge of the investigation.

On Saturday, September 9, the Post ran a major page-one story by Woodward and Bernstein that reported that federal sources were indicating that the Watergate criminal investigation was now "completed"--"without implicating any present officials of either the White House or the Committee to Re-elect President Nixon." FBI agents, the story added, were not being allowed to investigate allegations involving illegal campaign contributions to Nixon. (In All the President's Men there is no indication that Woodward spoke to Felt while preparing this story.) Two days later, in response to this article, Felt wrote a one-page memo to Assistant Director Bates that had at least two purposes. One was to make sure that senior officials inside the bureau understood that the FBI's investigation, despite the Post's claim, was not finished. The other was to suggest that Woodward and Bernstein might have been receiving secret FBI information from someone outside the FBI. Deep Throat was shrewdly taking this opportunity to direct suspicion toward another Woodward and Bernstein leaker.

In the September 11, 1972, memo, Felt noted that the county prosecutor in Miami, Richard Gerstein, might be the Post's main source. Gerstein was investigating how a $25,000 check from Nixon's campaign had ended up in the account of a Watergate burglar. Felt wrote: "It appears that much of the information which has been leaked to the press may have come from [Dade] County Prosecutor Gerstein in Florida." To search for the Post's leaker(s), Felt instructed the FBI's Special Agent-in-Charge (SAC) in Miami to interview every FBI official who had been in contact with Gerstein. Felt also expressed concern in the memo that the Post reporters had obtained information directly from an FBI report (called a "302") based on an official interview with a Watergate conspirator. Felt wrote, "I personally contacted [Washington] SAC [Robert] Kunkel [who was supervising the agents probing Watergate] to point out that it appeared the Washington Post or at least a reporter had access to the...302. I told him he should forcibly remind all agents of the need to be most circumspect in talking about this case with anyone outside the Bureau."

In retrospect, Felt's memo looks like an attempt to convince Pat Gray and other senior officials at the bureau that he was on top of the leak issue. But the leak probe he had triggered in Miami was a wild goose chase. A county prosecutor could not be the type to supply inside information to Woodward and Bernstein about the FBI's Watergate probe. (In late July Bernstein had obtained information from Gerstein about the suspicious bank transactions, but nothing about the federal investigations in Washington.) No FBI leakers were ever found via the Miami inquiry Felt orchestrated.

In the week after he wrote that memo, Felt broke his own admonition about discussing the investigation with people outside the bureau. According to All the President's Men, in two phone calls with Woodward he confirmed that two top campaign aides to former Attorney General John Mitchell (Nixon's close confidant who had suddenly resigned as his campaign manager on July 1) had been in charge of the campaign money that financed the Watergate break-in, that these funds also supported "other intelligence-gathering activities" and that these same aides had seen wiretap logs from the Watergate bugging. So while the FBI officials in Miami, spurred on by Felt, were busy trying to plug the supposed leak to the Post with a going-nowhere investigation, Felt was handing page-one information to Woodward. He was not just a high-level leaker or undercover whistleblower. He was a master manipulator. (Whether Felt had accomplices within the FBI, as has been alleged recently by former FBI agent Paul Daly, remains a matter of speculation, especially since the main suspects--Kunkel, Bates and another assistant director--are dead.)

At one point (probably in the early phase of Watergate), Felt even officially met with Woodward--in what appears to have been another move to cover himself. In his 1979 memoir--in which he declared, "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!"--Felt noted that he spoke to Woodward "on one occasion." He claimed that after Woodward requested an interview, he agreed to see him; Felt then asked his assistant, Wason Campbell, a senior-level, twenty-five-year-veteran FBI agent, to be present "to make sure what I said would not be misquoted." In this account, Woodward "was not looking for information." He "simply wanted" Felt to confirm information he and Bernstein already had obtained. "I declined to cooperate with him in this manner," Felt wrote, "and that was that." It now seems obvious that Felt (probably with Woodward's cooperation) staged this meeting to make it look as if Felt was not assisting Woodward. (Perhaps Woodward will explain this in his forthcoming book on Deep Throat.)

Today Campbell, retired since 1974, is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's and has no memory of those days. His wife, Mary, told The Nation that whenever the subject of Felt and Deep Throat came up in the post-Watergate years, her husband never indicated he believed Felt could have been this source. "I am sure that Wason never knew it," she says. "He's not that good an actor. Mark was able to keep this a secret from his assistant."

Unbeknownst to Felt, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, began talking about him in the White House weeks after Felt wrote that September 11, 1972, memo. In a taped conversation on October 19, Nixon complained to Haldeman that Gray could not stop the media leaks. Haldeman told Nixon that Felt had been identified as the primary leaker--but they could not do anything about it. Haldeman explained: "If we move on him, he'll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that's to be known in the FBI."

Continuing the conversation, Nixon asked: "What would you do with Felt?" Haldeman replied that he had been advised by Dean that Felt could not be prosecuted. "The bastard," Nixon called him. Later that afternoon, Nixon asked. "What's the conveyor belt for Felt?" "The Post," Haldeman replied. He explained that an unnamed "legal guy" for the Post, who formerly worked at the Justice Department or FBI, had contacted an official in Nixon's Justice Department because he was "deeply concerned" about the FBI leaks to Woodward and Bernstein, and this person maintained that Felt was leaking to the Post. The Justice Department official slipped the information to Dean, who told Haldeman. The next day, Nixon told Haldeman he was most worried because Felt knew all about the incriminating clandestine operations that senior aide John Ehrlichman had supervised for the White House. The Nixon gang had in a way pegged Felt as a leaker. But years after All the President's Men was published in 1974 and the character Deep Throat was created, Haldeman instead mistakenly fingered Fred Fielding, Dean's assistant, as Deep Throat, and Dean proposed a variety of candidates other than Felt. "It was right under our nose," Dean sighed to The Nation.

Felt continued to assist Woodward during the last three months of 1972; they met four times in the garage in Rosslyn and spoke once on the phone. In those conversations, Felt provided extensive information on Nixon's "dirty tricks" campaign--which went beyond Watergate--and the cover-up, and he urged on Woodward. In early January Gray confronted Felt with the first direct accusation that Felt was the Post's covert source. As Felt wrote in his memoir, Gray warned him that Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, a Nixon loyalist who had replaced John Mitchell, had said to Gray that Felt might have to be fired. The reason, Gray explained, was because "he [Kleindienst] says White House staff members are convinced that you are the FBI source of leaks to Woodward and Bernstein." Felt wrote that he replied, "Pat, I haven't leaked anything to anybody. They are wrong!" Gray responded that he believed Felt, "but the White House doesn't." Gray, according to Felt, stood up for Felt, telling Kleindienst that Felt was "very competent" and "completely loyal," and that he was not going to remove him. A few weeks later Nixon complained to Gray that Felt had to be removed because he was still suspected of leaking. He told Gray to have Felt "take a lie detector test." Gray countered that Felt was the innocent victim of a "gossip mill" at the FBI. Subsequently, Gray never ordered Felt to be polygraphed; he remained loyal to his number two. Felt had dodged a bullet.

Meanwhile, in late January, when Felt met Woodward again late at night in the parking garage, he revealed that the FBI had confirmed that Charles Colson, Nixon's special counsel, had played an "active" role in the burglars' illegal activities. "Colson and Mitchell were behind the Watergate operation," Felt said. Afterward, Woodward and Bernstein debated whether to publish a story. Bernstein was eager, but Woodward wanted to wait until they could better document the information.

Then, on February 21, Woodward and Bernstein wrote a page-one story linking Colson to the operations of the so-called "plumbers"--the secret White House/Nixon campaign team specializing in targeting leaks and spying, bugging and break-ins. In that article, Woodward and Bernstein cited "sources close to the Watergate investigation," "Department of Justice sources," "Federal sources," "Republican sources" and Colson's secret testimony given to "federal investigators" (meaning the FBI).

Responding to a request from Attorney General Kleindienst, Gray ordered another investigation to uncover Woodward and Bernstein's sources. And he handed the job to Felt. This was a bizarre decision, given Kleindienst and Nixon's earlier fears that Felt was leaking. Once more, Felt was on his own trail. He wrote a memo to his subordinate ordering a full and immediate investigation. Given his secret role as Deep Throat, Felt's memorandum was full of irony and dissembling:

As you know, Woodward and Bernstein have written numerous articles about Watergate. While their stories have contained much fiction and half truths, they have frequently set forth information which they attribute to Federal investigators, Department of Justice sources, and FBI sources. We know that they were playing games with the case agent in the Washington Field Office trying to trick him into giving them bits of information. On balance and despite the fiction, there is no question that they have access to sources either in the FBI or in the Department of Justice.

Acting Director Gray, Felt wrote, "has instructed that you immediately institute an analysis of this article to determine those portions which could have come from FBI sources and in such instances to set forth the persons having access to that particular bit of information."

Felt was going through the appropriate motions. Did he wonder if such an analysis would point to him? Was he confident that his underlings wouldn't catch on or that they wouldn't dare suspect--or cast suspicion upon--their boss? Did he have a plan for what to do if the net closed in?

Later that same day, a detailed, four-page reply was sent to Felt that reviewed all the Post article's possible sources. It concluded there were alternative sources, besides FBI personnel, for everything reported. The analysis did not mention any FBI sources as potential leakers. Felt routinely forwarded this analysis to Gray. And two days later, Gray sent a memo to Kleindienst suggesting that possible sources for the leak were the US Attorney's office in Washington and a White House official. The inquiry Felt launched ended up leading not to Felt but to possible leakers at the Justice Department and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

No sooner was the latest leak investigation finished than Felt was again feeding information to Woodward. On February 25, Felt and Woodward met in a bar. Felt cautioned Woodward to be careful and patient, noting that the White House was now very concerned that the full story would soon come out. And inside the White House, meanwhile, Nixon and his men were indeed worrying that Felt could on his own bring them down. In a taped conversation on February 28, Nixon asked Dean what would happen if "Felt comes out and unwraps the whole thing." The Nixon answered himself: "Everybody would treat him like a pariah." Dean agreed: "He can't do it."

Woodward and Felt spoke briefly by phone twice in April, with Felt giving advance warning of the bombshell announcement that Dean and Haldeman would soon resign. (Ehrlichman and Kleindienst left with them). And on April 27 Gray resigned from the FBI after disastrous confirmation hearings (and after the press reported he had burned Hunt's secret office papers at the behest of Ehrlichman and Dean). Nixon quickly named William Ruckelshaus, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the new acting FBI director.

Ruckelshaus, who wanted to reform the bureau, and Felt, the leader of the pro-Hoover faction at headquarters, clashed immediately. Meanwhile, Nixon was still fretting about Felt. On May 11 Nixon, who was now politically wounded by Watergate, expressed his frustration to his new chief of staff, Alexander Haig. They believed Felt had leaked damaging information, but they could not expose him. "We've got to be careful as to when to cut his nuts off," Haig said. Nixon responded: "He's bad." The next day Nixon told Haig that Felt was a "goddamn traitor." "Just watch him damned carefully," Nixon added. He said that he would let the "new man"--Ruckelshaus--"clean house" at the FBI. Presumably, that would take care of the Felt problem.

On May 16 Felt and Woodward met briefly in the garage; it was the night before the Senate Watergate hearings were to begin. Felt hurriedly delivered an apocalyptic message full of new allegations and warnings: "everyone's life is in danger"; watch out for "electronic surveillance" by the CIA; Nixon had threatened Dean with jail; the list of Mitchell's illegal activities was "longer than anyone could imagine"; Nixon had been blackmailed by Hunt; Nixon ordered the CIA to cover-up Watergate; the cover-up had cost about $1 million; Dean has detailed documents; and much more. Woodward departed stunned.

After further conflict with Ruckelshaus--during which the new director accused Felt of leaking to the press to undermine Ruckelshaus and to position himself to become director--Felt left the bureau on June 22, 1973, ending thirty-two years with the FBI. According to the book FBI by Sanford Ungar, he retired to a home boasting an elaborate collection of Hoover memorabilia, and he went on to lecture at colleges, where he would decry Gray's mishandling of the Watergate investigation. He was also subjected to an FBI investigation looking for inside-the-bureau leakers. But that endeavor did not amount to much; Felt dismissed it as a "tempest in a teapot."

By Woodward's account, Felt met with the reporter only one more time during Watergate, in early November 1973, when Felt told Woodward there were "deliberate erasures" on the White House tapes.

Woodward and Felt kept Felt's identity as Deep Throat a secret for over three decades. The pre-revelation account of Deep Throat's derring-do (All the President's Men) and the recent stories about Felt's days as Deep Throat do not convey all that Felt had to do to survive during Watergate. He was much more than a secret sharer. He was an operator. Nixon, Dean, Haldeman, Mitchell, Kleindienst and Haig--they were all dead-on correct in suspecting Felt of being a chief source for Woodward and Bernstein. But he actively engaged in bureaucratic ploys so he could come across as the loyal soldier and cover his tracks. His cunning worked. He fooled Pat Gray. Nixon never came after him. And this clever bureaucrat continued to do exactly what Nixon feared: telling Woodward and Bernstein secrets that would help destroy a presidency.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.

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