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The identification is also likely to encourage new arguments about the essential meaning of Watergate, which has been construed by partisans and historians as the fruit of Vietnam, of Nixon's obsession with the Kennedy family, of the president's mental instability, and as a press coup, a congressional uprising and more. Felt's role places the fact of a disgruntled FBI front and center.
Felt, 91 and enfeebled by a stroke, lives in California, his memory dimmed. For decades, Woodward, Bernstein and Benjamin C. Bradlee, The Post's executive editor during the Watergate coverage, maintained that they would not disclose his identity until after his death. "We've kept that secret because we keep our word," Woodward said.
The secrecy held through some amazing twists of fate. In 1980, Felt and another senior FBI veteran were convicted of conspiring nearly a decade earlier to violate the civil rights of domestic dissidents in the Weather Underground movement; President Ronald Reagan then issued a pardon.
Woodward had prepared for Felt's eventual death by writing a short book about a relationship he describes as intense and sometimes troubling. His longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, is rushing the volume to press -- but the careful unveiling of the information did not proceed as Woodward or The Post had envisioned.
Yesterday morning, Vanity Fair released an article by a California lawyer named John D. O'Connor, who was enlisted by Felt's daughter, Joan Felt, to help coax her father into admitting his role in history. O'Connor's article quoted a number of Felt's friends and family members saying that he had shared his secret with them, and it went on to say that Felt told the author -- under the shield of attorney-client privilege -- "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat."
O'Connor wrote that he was released from his obligation of secrecy by Mark and Joan Felt. He also reported that the Felts were not paid for cooperating with the Vanity Fair article, though they do hope the revelation will "make at least enough money to pay some bills," as Joan Felt is quoted in the magazine.
Woodward and others at The Post were caught by surprise. Woodward had known that family members were considering going public; in fact, they had talked repeatedly with Woodward about the possibility of jointly writing a book to reveal the news. An e-mail from Felt's daughter over the Memorial Day weekend continued to hold out the idea that Woodward and Felt would disclose the secret together.
Throughout those contacts, Woodward was dogged by reservations about Felt's mental condition, he said yesterday, wondering whether the source was competent to undo the long-standing pledge of anonymity that bound them.
Caught flatfooted by Vanity Fair's announcement, Woodward and Bernstein initially issued a terse statement reaffirming their promise to keep the secret until Deep Throat died. But the Vanity Fair article was enough to bring the current executive editor of The Post, Leonard Downie Jr., back to Washington from a corporate retreat in Maryland. After he consulted with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, "the newspaper decided that the newspaper had been released from its obligation by Mark Felt's family and by his lawyer, through the publication of this piece," Downie said. "They revealed him as the source. We confirmed it."
Downie praised Woodward's willingness to abide by his pledge even while the Felt family was exploring "what many people would view as a scoop."
"This demonstrates clearly the lengths to which Bob and this newspaper will go to protect sources and a confidential relationship," Downie said.
Bradlee said he was amazed that the mystery had lasted through the decades. "What would you think the odds were that this town could keep that secret for this long?" he said.
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