FBI's No. 2 Was 'Deep Throat'
Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Deep Throat, the secret source whose insider guidance was vital to The Washington Post's groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, was a pillar of the FBI named W. Mark Felt, The Post confirmed yesterday.
As the bureau's second- and third-ranking official during a period when the FBI was battling for its independence against the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, Felt had the means and the motive to help uncover the web of internal spies, secret surveillance, dirty tricks and coverups that led to Nixon's unprecedented resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, and to prison sentences for some of Nixon's highest-ranking aides.
Felt's identity as Washington's most celebrated secret source had been an object of speculation for more than 30 years until yesterday, when his role was revealed by his family in a Vanity Fair magazine article. Even Nixon was caught on tape speculating that Felt was "an informer" as early as February 1973, at a time when Deep Throat was supplying confirmation and context for some of The Post's most explosive Watergate stories.
But Felt's repeated denials, and the stalwart silence of the reporters he aided -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- kept the cloak of mystery drawn up around Deep Throat. In place of a name and a face, the source acquired a magic and a mystique.
He was the romantic truth teller half hidden in the shadows of a Washington area parking garage. This image was rendered indelibly by the dramatic best-selling memoir Woodward and Bernstein published in 1974, "All the President's Men." Two years later, in a blockbuster movie of the same name, actor Hal Holbrook breathed whispery urgency into the suspenseful late-night encounters between Woodward and his source.
For many Americans under 40, this is the most potent distillation of the complicated brew that was Watergate. Students who lack the time or interest to follow each element of the scandal's slow unraveling in comprehensive history books can quickly digest the vivid relationship of a nervous elder guiding a relentless reporter.
As dramatic as those portrayals were, they hewed closely to the truth, Woodward said.
"Mark Felt at that time was a dashing gray-haired figure," Woodward recalled, and his experience as an anti-Nazi spy hunter early in his career at the FBI had endowed him with a whole bag of counterintelligence tricks. Felt dreamed up the signal by which Woodward would summon him to a meeting (a flowerpot innocuously displayed on the reporter's balcony) and also hatched the countersign by which Felt could contact Woodward (a clock face inked on Page 20 of Woodward's daily New York Times).
"He knew he was taking a monumental risk," said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor of The Post whose catalogue of prizewinning and best-selling work has been built on the sort of confidential relationships he maintained with Deep Throat.
Felt also knew, by firsthand experience, that Nixon's administration was willing to use wiretaps and break-ins to hunt down leakers, so no amount of caution was too great in his mind. Woodward rode multiple taxis, sometimes in the wrong direction, and often walked long distances to reach the middle-of-the-night meetings.
For once, real life was as rich as the Hollywood imagination. But yesterday Woodward and Bernstein expressed a concern that the Deep Throat story has, over the years, come to obscure the many other elements that went into exposing the Watergate story: other sources, other investigators, high-impact Senate hearings, a shocking trove of secret White House tape recordings and the decisive intervention of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.
By tethering the myth to a real and imperfect human being, Americans may be able to get a clearer picture of Watergate in the future, they said. "Felt's role in all this can be overstated," said Bernstein, who went on after Watergate to a career of books, magazine articles and television investigations. "When we wrote the book, we didn't think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions. You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources."