Antidote To Secrecy

By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 5, 2005

The great benefit of W. Mark Felt's decision to identify himself as "Deep Throat," the famous Watergate secret source, is that a whole new generation of Americans now has a chance to learn just how perverse were the values that infected the Nixon White House.

Some -- but not all -- of the surviving Nixon loyalists reacted in "shoot-the-messenger" fashion to Vanity Fair's revelation that the former No. 2 man in the FBI was the shadowy figure who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unlock the Watergate story in the pages of The Post.

Chuck Colson, Nixon's special counsel, who was jailed for his part in the criminal conspiracy hatched in the Oval Office, told NBC's "Today" show that he was "in a state of shock" at learning it was Felt, because "I never thought anybody in such a position of sensitivity in the Justice Department would breach confidences."

Pat Buchanan, who sharpened his rhetorical claws as a Nixon speechwriter, told "Today's" Matt Lauer, "There's nothing heroic about breaking faith with your people, breaking the law, sneaking around in garages, putting stuff from an investigation out to a Nixon-hating Washington Post."

Colson added that Felt "broke the confidence of the president of the United States. If you're a president of the United States, you've got to have somebody in the FBI you can talk to with the confidence you talk to a priest."

And Buchanan threw in the extraordinary assertion that "what he did was help destroy an enormously popular president and, partly as a consequence of that, what 58,000 Americans died for in Vietnam was poured down the sewer."

In these comments, Americans born in the 1970s, '80s and '90s can learn everything they need to know about the dangerous delusions of the Nixon era. The mind-set that created enemies lists, the blind loyalty to a deeply flawed individual, the twisting of historical fact to turn villains into heroes and heroes into villains -- they are all there.

Such tendencies are not unique to one White House; they go with the territory. They must be consciously resisted by men and women of conscience working within an administration and checked by those on the outside -- notably journalists -- whose job it is to monitor the presidency.

That is why excessive official secrecy is always suspect and why the isolation of a president behind a closed circle of advisers can lead to abuse of power.

To get a balanced view of what Felt did in becoming a source for the Watergate reporters, it is wise to bypass Colson and Buchanan and listen to William Ruckelshaus.

As deputy attorney general, he followed the example of his boss, the late Elliot Richardson, and resigned rather than carry out Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

When I interviewed Ruckelshaus last week, he said there were obvious dangers when "somebody who is involved in an investigation," as Felt was involved in the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in, "puts out information to the press. You can hurt innocent individuals and damage the investigative process.

"But if you see the White House and the head of the FBI [L. Patrick Gray] interfering with the investigation, what are you going to do? If you go public with the charges, who is going to believe you?"

Mark Felt did what whistle-blowers need to do. He took his information to reporters who diligently dug up the evidence to support his well-founded suspicions.

The republic was saved and the public well served. That Colson and Buchanan still don't get it speaks volumes about them.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company