Prominent figures from the Watergate era expressed a mixture of reactions yesterday, from shock to admiration, upon learning that the number two official at the FBI had guided Washington Post reporters investigating illegal activities by the Nixon administration.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a top lawyer in the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, said W. Mark Felt's acknowledgment of his role showed that "the importance of whistle-blowers shouldn't be underestimated, particularly when there are excesses by the executive branch of government -- which in this case went all the way to the executive office."
But Charles W. Colson, a senior Nixon adviser who served seven months in prison for obstruction of justice in connection with Watergate abuses, declared that he was "personally shocked."
"When any president has to worry whether the deputy director of the FBI is sneaking around in dark corridors peddling information in the middle of the night, he's in trouble," said Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after leaving jail. "There were times when I should have blown the whistle, so I understand his feelings. But I cannot approve of his methods."
Speaking last night on MSNBC's "Hardball," former Nixon speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan labeled Felt a "traitor" for having worked with reporters on stories that did severe damage to the administration.
It was those kind of reactions that led Felt to keep secret for more than 30 years his role as source for Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
But others credited Felt with having performed a great public service, at a time when many top officials of the government, including officials in the FBI and the Justice Department, were attempting to brush the scandal under the rug.
Terry Lenzner, a senior Democratic counsel on the Senate Watergate committee, said the special panel "wouldn't have existed if those articles hadn't been written, because the whole thing would have been buried."
Felt's guidance helped Woodward and Bernstein understand that they were on the right track, and it was therefore crucial in keeping up the momentum that eventually led to criminal investigations, a full-fledged Senate inquiry and finally the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
"Frankly, I think the reason Felt turned into Deep Throat was that he had a sense that [FBI Director L. Patrick] Gray was participating in the coverup and that it would destroy the reputation of the FBI. He was a classic FBI guy," Lenzner said. "His motives were that he had to protect the FBI. And he did."
Scott Armstrong, who worked for Lenzner on the Senate Watergate committee and helped Woodward and Bernstein report and write "The Final Days," a book about the end of the Nixon administration, said Deep Throat did not supply detailed facts about illegal activities.
But he was invaluable to the two young reporters who at the outset were alone in attempting to unearth the connections between the White House and the burglary at Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate hotel and office complex. "Only journalists understand how important it is to have someone on the inside," he said.
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