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Woodward and The Post decided to confirm Vanity Fair's story yesterday because "Felt's family and lawyer made their decision for him, and we had no choice," Downie said.
The mystery and celebrity of Deep Throat grew for three reasons: His revelations were critical in keeping Woodward and Bernstein focused on the Watergate story; his shadowy portrayal by actor Hal Holbrook in the Oscar-winning "All the President's Men" in 1976; and the fact that his identity was so closely held for so many years. Bradlee said that until recently, he, Bernstein, Woodward and Woodward's wife, Elsa, were the only people other than Felt who could confirm Felt's secret.
Bradlee said neither Katharine Graham, the late chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., nor her son and successor, Donald Graham, asked him for Deep Throat's identity. "I don't think I would have told them if they had," he said. "It's classy that they didn't ask."
Vanity Fair's story hinted at but did not answer a key journalistic question: Was Felt, who is 91 and in ill health from a stroke, of sound enough mind to have confirmed his identity to O'Connor, or to have told Woodward that their agreement had ended?
The Vanity Fair story muddies the issue somewhat. O'Connor notes in the story that Felt told him, "I'm the guy they called Deep Throat," but the context is lacking. For one thing, O'Connor played a dual role: He was providing the Felt family with legal advice while also writing a magazine story, which meant that Felt's revelation may have been information provided under attorney-client privilege and therefore not subject to unilateral disclosure.
What's more, as O'Connor makes clear in his story, the Felt family was seeking to profit from Felt's secret identity and therefore had an incentive to pressure a clearly conflicted Felt into going public.
Up until yesterday, two of the best investigations into Deep Throat's identity have come from former Washington Post journalists, both of whom worked for the paper during the Watergate years, 1972 to 1974.
James Mann, now an author-in-residence at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, published his speculation in the Atlantic magazine in 1992, around the 20th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Mann didn't know who Deep Throat was, but he narrowed the field to an FBI official -- in part, because Woodward himself had mentioned this fact in conversation, according to Mann.
But Mann added his own corroborating analysis: "For a senior FBI official like Deep Throat, talking to Woodward and The Post about Watergate was a way to fend off White House interference with the [FBI's] investigation. The contacts with the press guaranteed that information developed by the FBI's Watergate investigative team would not be suppressed or altered by Nixon Administration officials. And, more broadly, the leaks furthered the cause of an independent FBI unfettered by political control."
Deep Throat, wrote Mann, "could well have been Mark Felt, who admitted that he harbored ambitions to be the FBI director [but was thwarted when Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray]. . . . Felt was known in Washington as a person willing to talk to the press." Mann's speculation about Felt was subsequently championed by Slate's Tim Noah, in a series of columns dating back to mid-1999.
Problem was, despite personal and professional reasons to leak to Woodward, Felt has long denied that he was Deep Throat. He denied it when Noah asked him directly in 1999, just as he denied it in his 1979 memoir, "The FBI Pyramid." Wrote Felt: "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!"
Tantalizing clues have emerged over the years. In his book, "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI," Ronald Kessler, a former Post reporter, recounted a meeting between Woodward and Felt in the summer of 1999. Woodward had shown up unexpectedly at the home of Felt and his daughter, Joan, in Santa Rosa, Calif., parking his limousine several blocks away in an apparent effort not to be seen and thus raise questions about his relationship with Felt. Kessler's anecdote also leads off Vanity Fair's story.
Over the years, other writers have misfired in identifying Deep Throat: Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean, has made several guesses since 1975, all of them wrong. The University of Illinois, in a journalism project involving faculty and students, named Nixon deputy White House counsel Fred Fielding in 2003.
Leonard Garment, a special counsel to Nixon during the Watergate years and author of the 2000 book "In Search of Deep Throat," speculated in his book that the source was John Sears, a former deputy special counsel to Nixon. "I would have to apologize to John Sears for any embarrassment I caused him," said Garment, reached by phone yesterday at his home in Manhattan. Garment, who said he had not read the Vanity Fair story, added that Felt was considered a "prime candidate by many people" and that he himself had not spoken to Felt.
"When all is said and done, it will be a relief to everyone to have this settled," Garment said.
Staff writer Mark Leibovich contributed to this report.