Michael Dobbs: Watergate and the Two Lives of Mark Felt

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Dobbs, in Washington Post (6-20-05)

The Watergate scandal had reached a peak, and President Richard M. Nixon was furious about press leaks. His suspicions focused on the number two man at the FBI, W. Mark Felt, a 31-year bureau veteran. He ordered his aides to "confront" the presumed traitor.

Another man may have panicked. Over the previous six months, Felt had been meeting secretly with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, helping him and fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein with a series of sensational scoops about the abuse of presidential power. But the former World War II spymaster had an exquisite sense of how to play the bureaucratic game.

In a Feb. 21, 1973, FBI memo, Felt denounced the Post stories as an amalgam of "fiction and half truths," combined with some genuine information from "sources either in the FBI or the Department of Justice." To deflect attention from himself, he ordered an investigation into the latest leak.

"Expedite," he instructed.

Recently identified as the secret Watergate source known as "Deep Throat," Felt is the last and most mysterious of a colorful cast of characters who have captured the national imagination. Now 91, and in shaky health, the former FBI man joins a pantheon of Watergate figures ranging from H.R. "Bob" Haldeman and G. Gordon Liddy to John J. Sirica and Archibald Cox.

Unlike many of the heroes and villains of the Watergate saga, Felt defies easy pigeonholing. Admirers, beginning with his family, have presented him as a courageous whistle-blower. Detractors depict him as driven by overreaching personal ambition. Neither description captures the bravura, almost reckless, performance of a man leading two very different lives.

By day, Felt was the loyal, super-efficient government executive, ordering leak investigations and writing obsequious notes to acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. By night, in 2 a.m. meetings with Woodward in an underground parking garage, he fulminated against the dirty tricks of the Nixon White House and worried about threats to the U.S. Constitution.

A review of tens of thousands of pages of declassified White House and FBI documents, and interviews with more than two dozen people who had dealings with Felt, reveal an exceptionally complicated personality. It is impossible to disentangle Felt's sense of outrage over what was happening to the country from his own desire to scramble to the top of "the FBI Pyramid," a phrase he later used as the title of a little-noticed autobiography.

As a protege and ardent supporter of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's legendary first director, Felt was determined to perpetuate Hoover's vision of the bureau as an almost autonomous institution, feared by criminals and politicians alike. In nighttime conversations with Woodward, and later in his own book, he made clear that he resented attempts by Nixon and his acolytes to turn the world's premier law enforcement agency into "an adjunct of the White House."

In some ways, Felt comes across as that archetypal Washington figure, the master manipulator more concerned with bureaucratic turf than constitutional principle. At the same time that he was blowing the whistle on Nixon for illegal break-ins, he was authorizing similar "black-bag jobs" against left-wing radicals, according to evidence presented at his 1980 conspiracy trial.

Declassified documents and White House tapes show that Nixon aides initially saw Felt as "our boy," but became suspicious after hearing through the bureaucratic grapevine that he was leaking information to Woodward and other reporters. Nixon ordered his aides to "set traps" for Felt, but held back from moving against him for fear that the FBI man would "go out and unload everything."

Felt is as "cool as a cucumber," marveled White House counsel John W. Dean III, in a Feb. 27, 1973, conversation with the president in the Oval Office. Felt was eventually forced to resign from the FBI in June 1973 on suspicion of leaking a story about illegal wiretaps to the New York Times.

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