Opinion

Jack Shafer

What made Deep Throat leak?

By Jack Shafer
February 21, 2012

Why did Deep Throat leak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward?

Woodward and Carl Bernstein write in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that Deep Throat shared his secrets to “protect the office” of the presidency and “effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” Woodward amended his source’s purely patriotic motives in his 2005 book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. In it, Woodward held that Deep Throat — whom he confirmed was W. Mark Felt, a former high-ranking FBI man who outed himself as the leaker — supplied him with information to protect the FBI from the meddling Nixon White House. That harmonized with the rationale offered in A G-man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, Felt’s 2006 book published with the guiding hand of a co-writer (Felt was 92 and suffering from dementia): that Deep Throat leaked to Woodward to “spark a broader investigation” by the Justice Department of the break-in.

By 2010, Woodward’s appreciation of his leaker’s motives had expanded to include bureaucratic infighting. Woodward writes:

In brief, [Felt] knew there was a cover-up, knew higher-ups were involved, and did not trust the acting FBI director, Pat Gray. He knew the Nixon White House was corrupt. At the same time he was disappointed that he did not get the directorship. And I was pushing him and pushing him. [Emphasis added.]

This timeline of Woodward’s changing view of Felt appears in the opening pages of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University Press of Kansas), a dandy, detailed book by veteran journalist Max Holland. Holland, who has mastered the Watergate corpus, rewinds the complete story of the break-in, the cover-up, and the press and FBI investigations to reveal Felt as a mendacious, manipulating, and opportunistic source. Yes, on occasion, Felt deliberately and repeatedly disinformed Woodward, who was oblivious to his lies at the time and wrote in All the President’s Men that “Deep Throat would never deal with [Woodward] falsely.”

Holland makes the persuasive case that Felt, who died in 2008, used the classic techniques of counterintelligence he learned as an FBI agent to destabilize his main bureaucratic opponent inside the FBI (Acting Director L. Patrick Gray) with his leaks to Woodward (and other journalists). The goal of his leaks was to nudge President Richard Nixon in the direction of appointing him FBI director instead of Gray.

Leak overturns once and for all the romantic, popular interpretation of the Watergate saga of one inside source risking it all to save democracy. “Nixon’s downfall was an entirely unanticipated result of Felt’s true and only aim,” Holland writes. Although Holland never disparages the enterprise of Woodward and Bernstein, acknowledging the impact their reports had on Judge John J. Sirica and the senators who formed an investigative committee, neither does he bow to them. “Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post ‘uncovered’ Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI’s investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors’ case well in advance of the trial.”

Leak, to be published Mar. 6, vindicates journalist Edward Jay Epstein, one of the earliest critics of Woodsteinmania. In a Commentary piece published in July 1974, about a month after the Woodstein book came out, Epstein eviscerates what he calls the “sustaining myth of journalism.” NaĂŻve readers believe that intrepid reporters expose government scandals by doggedly working their confidential sources. Of course such scoops do occur, but the more conventional route to a prize-winning series is well-placed leaks from well-oiled government investigations, which Holland maintains was the case with Watergate. Epstein’s essay looks especially prescient in the context of Holland’s book. Epstein believed at the time that Deep Throat was not one person but a “composite character,” but noted that Justice Department prosecutors “now believe that the mysterious source was probably Mark W. Felt, Jr. [sic].” But he accurately divines the primary motive behind the leaks, which he says were designed

… not to expose the Watergate conspiracy or drive President Nixon from office, but simply to demonstrate to the President that Gray could not control the FBI, and therefore would prove a severe embarrassment to his administration. In other words, the intention was to get rid of Gray.

Holland’s deft book reads like lightning — no prior Watergate scholarship required. Recasting Deep Throat as an avenger and not a patriot, Leak illuminates our understanding of the press by explaining why sources leak. Anonymous sources — especially Washington’s anonymous sources — almost invariably have an ax to grind, as Betty Cuniberti established in her classic August 1987 Los Angeles Times story. One unnamed Reagan administration official tells her that most Reagan White House leaks are “personal,” aimed at other White House officials. “There’s a great deal of infighting,” he tells her.

Reagan White House staffers who couldn’t get the president’s attention would slip “Message-to-Reagan” leaks to the press to generate news stories or press conference questions to which he would have to respond, Cuniberti writes. The art of the leak requires information to be packaged just right, she notes. A national security adviser who wanted to plant a story in the press — a so-called authorized leak — might avoid giving the information directly to a reporter because the reporter would rightly view it as a self-serving leak designed to advance the administration’s views. Even rookie reporters get suspicious of sources’ motives. Better to have a subordinate convey the leak to disguise the motive and make the information seem more authentically newsworthy.

Leak‘s persuasive position is that Felt gamed Woodward, making him think that he was on the side of the angels when what he was trying to do was screw his enemies and become the next J. Edgar Hoover. That’s not a criticism of Woodward or his Watergate work, which by the standards of any day was very good. I doubt that Woodward and Bernstein’s copy would have been remarkably different had they appreciated the degree to which Felt’s leaks were self-promoting.

Also, Felt was one of many Watergate sources for the Washington Post; the memory of the movie version of All The President’s Men makes him loom larger than he did in real life. In his 2011 book, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse, Jon Marshall writes: “Although Deep Throat became Woodward and Bernstein’s most famous source, he was hardly their only one.” (Bob Woodward contributes the foreword for Marshall’s book.) Barry Sussman, who was editor in charge of Post Watergate coverage, writes that “Deep Throat barely figured in the Post‘s Watergate coverage. He was nice to have around, but that’s about it.”

Nor was Felt’s gaming of Woodward unusual. Every source leaks for a reason, and it’s usually not about preserving the Constitution and the American way. As Stephen Hess writes, sources have many reasons to leak. They leak to boost their own egos. They leak to make a goodwill deposit with a reporter that they hope to withdraw in the future. They leak to advance their policy initiative. They leak to launch trial balloons and sometimes even to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. But until contesting evidence arrives, it’s usually a safe bet that a leak is what Hess calls an “Animus Leak,” designed to inflict damage on another party.

Mark Felt was not quite the master of the animus leak that he thought he was, as Holland notes. The White House figured out that Felt was leaking, but Nixon feared that firing him would do even more damage because Felt knew many of the politically explosive secrets that J. Edgar Hoover hoarded. Students of journalism — defined as anybody who consumes news — will profit from reading this Watergate redux: They’ll never read the phrase, “the source, who asked to remain anonymous,” the same way again.

******

Disclosure: A Leak footnote briefly discusses a column I wrote in Slate after Deep Throat was unmasked. (Some of the ideas in that column are reprised here.) If you have a headnote you’d like to share, send it to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is leak-free. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt waves to the press as his daughter Joan Felt (L) and grandson Nick Jones (R) look on from the front door of his home in Santa Rosa, California, May 31, 2005. REUTERS/Lou Dematteis

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Jack: Did Max leak you a copy of the book, or did he make you pay for it?

Posted by ENegin | Report as abusive
 

Fairly intuitive work, if you ask me…. Not many people ‘truly care’ about the Constitution…. most care about themselves and getting ahead.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive
 

As a matter of regular maintenance, it’s a good idea to periodically plumb the depths of this leak business. Otherwise, we might never be able to answer the question, “Is this about moral fiber, or can it be Felt?”

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive
 

Every journalist should know people have motives when they speak — no one can force them to talk. That’s why you have to check out what they say. It’s too bad journalists like Judy Miller thought one should just report the leak. Of course, I thank God that Felt leaked.

Posted by jamesjoseph | Report as abusive
 

1. No one knows.
2. No one will ever Know, even if they convince themselves that they Believe.
3. It’s a deflated football. Stop running with it – you look ignorant.

Posted by blogoleum | Report as abusive
 

Let’s not forget that consumate investigator of government misdeeds, IZZY STONE, who learned the truth from his meticulous study of official and unofficial documents.

Posted by observer9 | Report as abusive
 

The impact of Nixon’s visit to China 40 years ago has been enormous and mainly beneficial.
It may be the time to re-examine what actually happened at Watergate.
Nixon was a favorite son of Yorba Linda and the Thirty-seventh President of the US.
He was re-elected with 60.7 per cent of the vote beating Senator McGovern by 18 million votes. He was the first president to have won all the southern states at a single election. Yet he had to resign two years later.
Was Watergate any worse or out of character with the actions of Presidents before and after?

Why were the culprits arrested only at the THIRD attempt?
Why did the $100 dollar bills have consecutive serial numbers?
Why was Howard Hunt’s details in the address books of TWO of the four arrested Cubans?
There was a coup attempt in China to prevent the rapprochement. Could the same have happened in the US?
Why were the leaks of Deep Throat’ regarded as the gospel truth?
What has Richard Dawkin’s memes got to do with Watergate?
Read about all these in ‘Watergate – The Political Assassination, ISBN 9780956911940.
The book is available at http://www.smashwords.com in many ebook formats.

When Nixon took the dollar from the gold standard in 1971, did he lay the foundation of today’s financial crisis? He did bring about untold wealth to US citizens for several decades

Posted by renechang | Report as abusive
 

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