Ivan Greenberg: Deep Throat and Government Records

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ivan Greenberg is the author of The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties since 1965.]

The ongoing publication of secret U. S. Department of Defense and State documents by Wikileaks points once again to the important role that government records can play in documenting abuse of power. But there are other ways to obtain important government documents without relying on unauthorized disclosures. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I recently obtained the 3,500-plus page FBI file on W. Mark Felt, who died almost two years ago. The file suggests new ways of looking at the demise of Richard Nixon and the role of the FBI in American society.

To begin with, when Felt’s role as Deep Throat first was made public in 2005 few in the media, with the exception of the Albany Times Union, adequately appreciated that he did not act alone. At least three other top-level FBI officials or agents worked with him to coordinate the leaks to the press. What might properly be called a “coup” inside the government, led by Felt, forced the President to resign. The actions of this FBI faction were extraordinary. Instead of targeting political liberals or radicals, they went after the chief executive using information as a weapon.

Felt’s motives have been discussed at length. He saw himself as a patriotic whistleblower acting to preserve the integrity of government. Nixon broke the law during Watergate and so the President should be exposed. Critics see less noble purposes. Felt resented being passed over for the Director’s job by Nixon after J. Edgar Hoover died in early May 1971. In addition, Felt acted as a vigilante against Nixon because the President wanted to run “dirty tricks” intelligence operations directly out of the White House bypassing the FBI altogether. The latter point is critical: Felt hoped to preserve the dominant role of the FBI to spy on Americans in domestic politics. Felt called it preserving the FBI’s “independence.”

FBI files show that the Felt faction engaged in a high-level of deception within the Bureau to protect its secret contact with the press. Soon after the Watergate break-in, Director L. Patrick Gray III put Felt in charge of finding sources of FBI leaks to the press. In short, the fox had been put in charge of protecting the chickens.

On several occasions, Felt and his collaborators investigated others knowing they had no part in the leaks. For example, in the summer of 1972 an agent working with Felt conducted several dozen interviews of FBI personnel in the hunt for the leaker. In another instance, Felt wrote a bogus memo suggesting that the source of leaks to the Washington Post came from outside the Bureau. In a third memo dated Sept. 11, 1972, Felt told one of his conspirators to “forcibly remind all agents of the need to be most circumspect in talking about this case with anyone outside the Bureau.”

By the fall of 1972, Nixon suspected Felt as the source of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s articles. When Nixon in early 1973 urged Gray to make Felt submit to a lie-detector test, Gray refused. Nixon later recalled the conversation:

’Pat,” I said. ‘I want you to check these leaks.’

“He said, ’Oh, they couldn’t be from the Bureau.’

“I said, ‘Yes they are…some are.’ And I said, ‘We have from very good authority that they’re from Felt.’

‘Oh, they could not be from Felt.’

“I said, ‘Dam it, they may be’ and I said, ‘You ought to give him a lie-detector test.’

“’Oh, we can’t do that,’ he said. ‘But,” he said, ‘I vouch for Felt.’”

In his 2008 memoir, Gray described this meeting with the President as a 30-minute “tirade” against leaks coming from the FBI. Gray refused to accept the President’s view of the source of the leaks. But Gray’s successor, Clarence M. Kelley, started a formal investigation the next year to ascertain if Felt had served as Deep Throat. On June 20, 1974, Felt -- now retired -- wrote a personal letter to the Director defending himself in false, blunt terms. “My contacts with the press have been limited. On only one occasion did I ever ‘leak’ information and that was years ago and on instructions from the Bureau….I am not ‘Deep Throat.’”

That this deception lasted for so many years is not too surprising. In early 1975, agents inside the Bureau suspected Felt continued to engage in press leaks despite his retirement. Felt again wrote the Director to deny it. “I want you to know that I am not the source of the unfortunate [text redacted] stories appearing yesterday and today in the ‘Washington Post,’” he said. He admitted a reporter had called him. “I tried to talk him out of writing the story but we both know that front page by-lines sometimes become more important to reporters than the facts.”

Felt’s declassified FBI file helps us understand the great lengths he went to cover-up his role in bringing down the President.

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