When Bob Gast was a junior agent at FBI headquarters in the early 1970s, W. Mark Felt "loomed large" as the bureau's second most powerful official and an acolyte of the legendary late director, J. Edgar Hoover.
"He was not one of those flashy guys, particularly," Gast recalls. "He wasn't the type of fellow who was in front with PR appearances and all that. . . . He got things done quietly. He was a real force within the bureau."
But Felt's biggest impact turns out to have been his role as "Deep Throat," the unidentified Nixon administration official who helped guide two young Washington Post reporters as they chased the unfolding Watergate scandal.
Tuesday's revelation that Felt was Washington's most famous anonymous source has come as a shock to many retired and current agents at the FBI, some of whom say they are discomfited by a senior FBI executive leaking details of an investigation to the press. In some chat rooms frequented by retired FBI veterans, Felt is even being accused of betraying the bureau.
But for the most part, many current and former agents said in interviews yesterday, Felt is viewed as a reluctant hero who was seeking to preserve the integrity of a criminal investigation that was under political attack from the Nixon White House and its allies.
"Having a senior bureau official go around the system and go to the media is probably something most of us would not condone in general," said Gast, who is president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. "But it was also a very difficult time, and the bureau was caught in the middle."
Glenn F. Kelly, executive director of the FBI Agents Association, which represents current bureau employees, said "people are a little bit shellshocked" by the revelation.
"Agents are typically very loyal to the bureau," Kelly said. "I'm sure that's what he saw himself as doing."
Felt's identity as a key source for reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was revealed Tuesday with the help of Felt's family in an article for Vanity Fair magazine. Woodward, Bernstein and former Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee confirmed Felt's role.
Now 91 and in poor health, Felt worked for 31 years as the prototypical FBI loyalist. Although Felt hoped to be named director after Hoover's death in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon turned instead to a Justice Department official, L. Patrick Gray III.
Several former FBI agents argued that Felt felt trapped by the presence of Nixon loyalist Gray, who would be identified as a conduit of information to the White House in the Watergate scandal.
Paul V. Daly, a former longtime FBI official who was involved in many of the major Watergate-related inquiries in the 1970s, said Felt's aid to The Post "was done for a noble purpose," though he is not sure whether he approves of the methods.
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