The Surprise Ending

A 33-Year-Old Pledge Was Kept at a Price: The Post's Lost Scoop

Bob Woodward, left, and Ben Bradlee confer in the Post newsroom on Tuesday after Vanity Fair broke the story. Bradlee felt the disclosure meant the end of the confidentiality deal with W. Mark Felt, but Woodward initially balked at confirming the story.
Bob Woodward, left, and Ben Bradlee confer in the Post newsroom on Tuesday after Vanity Fair broke the story. Bradlee felt the disclosure meant the end of the confidentiality deal with W. Mark Felt, but Woodward initially balked at confirming the story. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 2, 2005

How, after 33 years of secrecy, did The Washington Post get scooped on its own story about the tantalizing mystery of Deep Throat?

The answer is that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee felt they were in a box -- the promise of confidentiality made to W. Mark Felt during the Nixon administration -- and were not convinced that the 91-year-old former FBI agent was lucid enough to release them from that pledge.

Family members "have said he just doesn't have any memory now," Woodward said yesterday, referring to e-mails he received from Felt's relatives. The dilemma, said Woodward, was whether "someone in his condition and age" was "competent" to make the decision to go public.

"I had been in touch with Mark Felt," said Woodward, the best-selling author who is an assistant managing editor at The Post. "How was his health? Had he changed his mind about being identified? This was an ongoing reporting enterprise." Felt suffered a mild stroke in 2001.

Woodward said the Vanity Fair story detailing Felt's role came as a total surprise to him when it was released Tuesday morning. "I didn't know he was gearing up to go public," he said.

To Bradlee, who was the paper's executive editor during Watergate, there was no decision to be made. "If you give your word you're not going to do it, you can't do it," said Bradlee, now a Post Co. vice president. "We were the only people who were clinically and morally bound not to break this story, so how could we break it?"

What's more, Bradlee said of Felt, "the guy has not got all his marbles. The question was whether he could have given us permission."

The image of Woodward meeting Deep Throat in a Washington parking garage -- stamped on the public consciousness by Robert Redford and Hal Holbrook in the movie "All the President's Men" -- had made Felt the most famous unnamed source in modern history.

The unexpected disclosure of Felt's role as the former No. 2 official at the FBI who guided Woodward about the investigation of Nixon administration corruption has re-energized the debate over the press and unnamed sources. It is a debate with particular resonance in 2005, as a special prosecutor seeks to jail reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller for refusing to reveal their sources in the Valerie Plame leak probe, and as Newsweek is reeling from a retracted story about the alleged desecration of the Koran that was based on inaccurate information from an unnamed government official.

Vanity Fair Deep Throat Article
( - Vanity Fair)
"Reporters live by the law of the jungle," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism. "You have your word, and the words have to mean something literally. Your credibility with all the future sources you might deal with, and the credibility of your organization, depends on people understanding that. The Post looks better today because Woodward and Bernstein allowed themselves to be scooped."

The Post began planning for a Deep Throat story about two months ago, when Leonard Downie Jr., who became executive editor in 1991, heard Woodward say in an interview that the legendary source was very old. Downie recalled telling Woodward that he didn't want to be "caught flat-footed" if Deep Throat died, and Woodward offered to let him read a lengthy piece he was preparing on their relationship, "with the obvious implication that for the first time I would know who Deep Throat was," Downie said.

Woodward, who had visited Felt in California in 1999, said Felt's daughter, Joan, forwarded him a May 29 e-mail from John D. O'Connor, a San Francisco area lawyer who had been working with Felt and is the author of the Vanity Fair article.


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