Deep Throat's Other Legacy
I share the pride of my Post colleagues in our newspaper's pursuit of Watergate, "the biggest political story in modern American history," as reporter Michael Dobbs described it in an article on Thursday. And as a member of The Post's editorial board, I also echo our Wednesday commentary, which said that former FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt, aka "Deep Throat," deserves to be honored for his role in bringing to light Richard Nixon's serious abuses of power. That honor, however, is not the full extent of Felt's legacy. Felt's devotion to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI caused him, I believe, to place the bureau ahead of the Constitution and his own faithfulness to the Bill of Rights.
Felt's Watergate heroics notwithstanding, he was also on board when the FBI's series of covert action programs against Americans was well underway. He was a high FBI official when the bureau, arrogating unto itself the role of judge, jury and vigilante, trampled with impunity on the rights of citizens. Felt was there when the FBI sought to get teachers fired, when it tried to stop people from speaking on campus, when it prevented the distribution of books and newspapers and when it disrupted peaceful demonstrations and antiwar marches. Those shameful activities are cited in stark detail in Book III of the April 1976 Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate.
In the name of protecting national security and preventing violence, the FBI tried to promote factionalism and violence between groups it regarded as domestic threats. It planted informants to spread false rumors, labeled innocent people as "snitches" and passed along derogatory information to the families and friends of investigative targets, sometimes through anonymous letters or telephone calls. These despicable actions were carried out under COINTELPRO, an FBI acronym for "counterintelligence program."
Mark Felt knew all about it. At one time he was an assistant FBI director in charge of the inspection division. Consider the Senate committee's report on Felt's involvement: "The inspection division attempted to ensure that standard procedures were being followed. The Inspectors focused on two things: field office participation and the mechanics of headquarters approval. But the Inspection Division did not exercise oversight in the sense of looking for wrongdoing. Rather, it was an active participant in COINTELPRO by attempting to make sure that it was being efficiently and enthusiastically conducted."
Felt himself testified before the Senate committee that he did not investigate the "propriety" of COINTELPRO. To quote the Senate report: "[Felt] agreed that his job was 'to determine whether the program was being pursued effectively as opposed to whether it was proper,' and [Felt] added, 'There was no instruction to me, nor do I believe there is any instruction in the Inspector's manual that the Inspector should be on the alert to see that constitutional values are being protected' " (Felt's testimony before the Senate select committee, Feb. 3, 1976).
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Felt was not a passive observer as FBI agents conducted clandestine and illegal operations against innocent Americans. As The Post stated in Wednesday's editorial, Felt "was convicted of (and later pardoned for) authorizing illegal acts in pursuit of leftist radicals in the early 1970s." Here's the rest of the story.
When Felt was the No. 2 official in the FBI, he and Edward S. Miller, chief of the bureau's intelligence division, authorized burglaries at the homes of friends and relatives of members of the radical Weather Underground. The break-ins were illegal and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Felt and Miller were prosecuted in 1980 for their unconstitutional invasion of privacy by John W. Nields Jr., later chief House counsel to the Iran-contra hearings and earlier chief counsel to the 1977-78 House investigation of Korean influence-peddling in Congress. Nields told the jury: "You will hear the sounds of the Weatherman bombs ringing in your ears. We ask you also to listen for the sound of the Constitution of the United States. It doesn't make quite as much noise as the Weatherman bombs. It doesn't shriek at you. It doesn't even whisper. It just sits there silent, as it's done for 200 years, through war and depressions, through good times and bad." The jury heard Nields.
Felt and Miller, after an eight-week trial, were convicted of conspiracy for authorizing illegal searches and fined a total of $8,500. The Post stated in an editorial at the time [Dec. 15, 1980]: "The crime of which they were convicted by a jury is a serious one. It grew out of one of the more tawdry episodes in federal law enforcement -- the burglaries of private homes by FBI agents in pursuit of opponents of the war in Vietnam. . . . The dimensions of the wrongdoing by the FBI in those days -- and before -- are far larger than the specifics of the case against Messrs. Felt and Miller. The 'black bag jobs' were only part of a system of so-called law enforcements that ignored the principles of individual rights and personal privacy that are at the heart of this nation's political legacy."
Four months later, without talking to the prosecution, consulting the judge or conducting the customary Justice Department review, President Ronald Reagan, asserting that Felt and Miller were motivated by "high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation," pardoned the two high-ranking FBI officials.
To be sure, Mark Felt's role as "Deep Throat" earned him a place in history. So, however, did his complicity in COINTELPRO, the FBI's dirty little secret war against Americans.