The Secret That Didn't Reach Washington's Lips

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

No. I did not know who Deep Throat was. And no. I never asked my husband, Ben Bradlee. Why not? For several reasons. I have too much pride, to begin with. I knew perfectly well Ben wouldn't tell me and I didn't want to be refused. Secondly, I . . . how shall I say this? . . . have a big mouth. It would have been a huge responsibility to know. It was also clear that if somebody else spilled the beans, fingers would be pointed at me.

The most important reason, though, was that I really didn't want Ben to tell, not just me, but anybody. Deep Throat was Bob Woodward's source, not Ben's. And Ben had promised Woodward he would not reveal the source.

Did it make me crazy that I didn't know? Of course! But the thing that really got to me was that Woodward had told his wife, Elsa Walsh. Now Elsa is the Sphinx when it comes to secrets. And it was Bob's source, after all. Still. Every time we were together and the subject of Deep Throat came up, Bob would grin mischievously and say something provocative like, "there are no secrets between Elsa and me," and I would go wild all over again. How could I resist saying to Ben, "Bob must really love Elsa a lot for him to tell her who Deep Throat is"?

There is always a special aura about secrets and about the keepers of those secrets. Washington has a culture of power, and the more power there is, the more secrets there are.

This is why "the leak" has long been an honorable tool in Washington. It is the thing that drives everybody in the White House, no matter what political party, completely nuts, and is the driving force behind effective journalism. So much of what is "secret" in any administration is really about mistakes and wrongdoing. This is why anonymous sources are so invaluable and why journalists have to rely on them in many instances. If nothing else, Deep Throat has brought that idea home this week. He revealed a corrupt administration that could have seriously damaged the country.

There is a saying in Washington that nothing is ever really off the record, and if a story is too good it will eventually get out. That's pretty much true. Which is what makes the Deep Throat story extraordinary and why it's become such a legend. It's also why there were so many theories that there really was no Deep Throat, that he was probably a composite or something Woodward made up to protect himself.

Administrations are always -- and mostly in vain -- trying to protect even small things just to show their power. During Lyndon Johnson's presidency, my husband wrote a story for Newsweek that Johnson had a search underway for a new FBI director to replace J. Edgar Hoover. His source was a leak from the White House. Johnson was so furious over the leak that he held a news conference the day the story ran and announced that he was reappointing Hoover. He turned to a friend of Ben in the room and said, "You can tell Ben Bradlee to go [expletive] himself!"

Years later, John Tower, the powerful Republican senator from Texas, was nominated to be secretary of defense, a job he badly wanted. Tower had a reputation as a serious womanizer. It was a poorly kept secret on the Hill, but most women wouldn't talk. Only one or two had the guts to speak up. Tower, who was a friend of my father, had attempted to sexually assault me when I was 18 and a college freshman. Embarrassed and ashamed, I had kept this story a closely guarded secret for years.

One day, during Tower's confirmation hearings, two FBI officials showed up at my front door and asked me to tell them about the incident. I refused to confirm it. "But you don't understand," one of them said to me, "this will be totally confidential." I burst out laughing. "Are you kidding?" I said. "Where do you think The Washington Post gets its stories? From guys like you who leak."

As it turned out, there were enough stories like mine to deny Tower his confirmation. And later, Anita Hill made a mistake I did not, when she agreed to testify "confidentially" about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Republicans are much better than Democrats at keeping secrets. They are more disciplined and they punish people who leak. Democrats talk too much and are too disorganized to make people pay.

The Bush crowd is the most tightlipped group of people I have ever seen in Washington. Shortly after 9/11, at a brunch at Don and Joyce Rumsfeld's, the Cheneys were guests. Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld were relaxed and calm, chatting with guests and generally appearing to enjoy themselves. Hours later the United States began bombing Afghanistan. Nobody in the room had a clue what was about to happen. It was a stunning performance.

But most secrets are a lot more prosaic.

I grew up here, the daughter of an Army general who had spent most of his career in intelligence. He had been the G2 (intelligence officer) in the 7th Army in Germany during World War II and afterward helped turn the Office of Strategic Services into the CIA. My father never told what he was doing and my mother knew never to ask. We weren't the only ones. Since we knew so many who were in positions of responsibility it was simply a given in our lives that everyone held some secret.

I worked in the Pentagon in G2 one summer in the office of protocol and even had a top secret clearance. Guess what was top secret? Embassy party guest lists, menus and flower arrangements. That was the beginning of my disillusionment with Washington secrets. But boy, did I get a lot of mileage out of my top secret clearance. I really loved the mystique that had been bestowed upon me. People hovered around as if they were going to find out the secrets of the Kremlin. Little did they know, the best I could do was tell them that the French Embassy was serving frog legs for dinner that night.

During Watergate, when Richard Nixon claimed that nothing could be revealed for reasons of "national security," what he really meant was "personal embarrassment." I became even more skeptical. I suspect, for instance, that the leaker of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name is being protected for reasons of personal embarrassment. That's the biggest secret in Washington today, but it doesn't have the mythical proportions of Deep Throat, and it certainly won't be a secret for 30 years.

How do I feel about Deep Throat being revealed? Well, I had always suspected it was W. Mark Felt, so I wasn't surprised. Now I feel a mixture of relief that it's out, pleasure that it ended well and sadness that it's over. For Washington, Deep Throat has been part of the myth of the city. The good guys against the bad guys. Now, Deep Throat is no longer, but even so he was only a part of the Watergate legend, and that legend will always be there.

How is it that the identity of Deep Throat remained a secret for so long? Integrity. Mark Felt didn't leak to Woodward because of money or fame. He did it because he was a good citizen.

Ben and Bob and Carl Bernstein understood the importance of protecting a source and how damaging it would have been to journalism if they had revealed his identity. It's that simple.

So all those years I never asked Ben who Deep Throat was. But when I told people that I didn't know, they never believed me anyway. They would always allude, confidently, to "pillow talk." That was fine with me. I enjoyed the aura of being a secret-keeper, even if it was unjustified.

And Elsa, well, as I said, she is the Sphinx and besides, Bob really loves her very much.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company