W. Mark Felt always denied he was Deep Throat. "It was not I and it is not I," he told Washingtonian magazine in 1974, around the time that Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace after a lengthy investigation and threat of impeachment, aided in no small part by the guidance Felt had provided to The Washington Post.
It was a denial he maintained publicly for three decades, until yesterday. Throughout that period, he lived with one of the greatest secrets in journalism history and with his own sense of conflict and tension over the role he had played in bringing down a president in the Watergate scandal: Was he a hero for helping the truth come out, or a turncoat who betrayed his government, his president and the FBI he revered by leaking to the press?
There were plenty of reasons that he felt such conflict. He was an FBI loyalist in the image J. Edgar Hoover had created for the bureau in its glory days -- a career official who lived by the bureau's codes, one of which was the sanctity of an investigation and the protection of secrets. He chased down lawbreakers of all kinds, using whatever means were available to the bureau, and was convicted in 1980 of authorizing illegal break-ins -- black-bag jobs, as they were known -- of friends of members of the Weather Underground. He was later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
But if there were reasons to resist playing the role of anonymous source, there were other motives that drove him to talk. Felt believed that the White House was trying to frustrate the FBI's Watergate investigation and that Nixon was determined to bring the FBI to heel after Hoover's death in May 1972, six weeks before the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's Watergate offices occurred.
"From the very beginning, it was obvious to the bureau that a cover-up was in progress," Felt wrote in his 1979 memoir, "The FBI Pyramid."
Felt may have had a personal motivation as well to begin talking to Post reporter Bob Woodward. At the time of Hoover's death, he was a likely successor to take over as FBI director. Instead the White House named a bureau outsider, L. Patrick Gray III, then an assistant attorney general, as acting director and then leaned on Gray to become a conduit to keep the White House informed of what the FBI was learning.
Felt's identity was revealed with the help of his family in a Vanity Fair article released yesterday. A statement from the family, read by Nick Jones, Felt's grandson, described how conflicted he was over whether his role was noble or dishonorable.
"Mark had expressed reservations in the past about revealing his identity and about whether his actions were appropriate for an FBI man," Jones said. "But as he recently told my mother, 'I guess people used to think Deep Throat was a criminal. But now they think he's a hero.' "
Felt operated during extraordinary times in U.S. history, and in the history of the bureau he had been trained to protect at all costs. Faced with a rogue White House, an explosive investigation and political pressure that must have been excruciating, he decided to spill secrets, anonymously helping to change the course of history through clandestine meetings with Woodward in the middle of the night in underground parking garages.
Nixon and his White House colleagues during this period were engaged in what the House Judiciary Committee would eventually call a series of criminal acts -- obstruction of justice, withholding of material evidence, coercion of witnesses, and misuse of the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service.
A secret investigative unit was run from the White House, supported by the CIA and financed by campaign funds to spy on enemies and to break into a psychiatrist's office in a search for confidential files. Twenty-one participants in what came to be known as the Watergate scandal, including the president's counsel, chief domestic adviser, attorney general and campaign finance director, pleaded guilty or were convicted of the crimes documented by the FBI and brought to light -- with Felt's help.
Throughout his career, Felt was seen as a model FBI official. Harry Brandon, who retired from the FBI as deputy assistant for counterintelligence and counterterrorism, recalled making a presentation to Felt as a young agent in the bureau. "He was a tough guy," Brandon said yesterday. "Straight. Very honest. Very straight."
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