Ombudsman

'Deep Throat': An Omb's Observations

By Michael Getler
Sunday, June 5, 2005

Well, The Post got scooped last week on a story that it has owned, or thought it owned, for the last 30-plus years: the identity of the mysterious Watergate-era figure previously known to the public only as Deep Throat. The man whose insider's guidance was central to the paper's groundbreaking work in 1973 and 1974, uncovering the scandal that brought down the administration of Richard Nixon, was W. Mark Felt, the former second-ranking official in the FBI. With Felt now 91 and in poor health, his family revealed his role in an article by San Francisco lawyer John D. O'Connor in the magazine Vanity Fair.

So much has already been written since the initial disclosure early last week that it is hard to find anything more to say about this story. But from my perspective -- and by that I mean a perch that has absorbed many thousands of calls and e-mails from readers over the past several years -- I would make the following points.

First, although it is still not clear what role the family and the lawyer, as opposed to Felt, played in the decision to acknowledge his role, it is a good thing it happened the way it did.

The Post's Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had pledged not to identify their source until the source had died. They stuck to that pledge. But had Felt died and then The Post revealed his name, there probably would have been endless challenges to The Post's claim and version of events. Given the volatility of today's political and media environment, it might have been hard to be convincing about what was probably journalism's best-kept secret. And it is important to be convincing because Watergate was -- and remains -- a story of great historic and journalistic importance.

Second, although the media have been the focus of intense controversy these past few years, especially because of some high-profile blunders and failures by some of the country's best-known news organizations, Felt's story reaffirms the ability of smart and dogged reporters, courageous editors and owners, and truly informed yet anonymous sources to help get information before the public that is vital to a democracy's functioning.

Many of the recent attacks on the media have come because of the use of anonymous sources. In general, this is a healthy challenge because the use of such sources has become far too routine and has contributed to serious mistakes. But this attack is fairly easy to make and it is being used, in part, these days to undermine news organizations that report things some people don't want to hear. Watergate revisited reminds us that it is naive to believe that important stories involving potentially serious danger to sources can always be reported on the record or should not be reported at all.

Third, in being reminded of the extraordinary course of the Watergate episode, it is also good to keep in mind the tone of the time in which it unfolded. The war in Vietnam had long since turned sour for much of the public, as had trust in government and what it did, or did not, tell the public.

In May 1969, for example, William Beecher, the New York Times's Pentagon reporter, disclosed that the United States had been secretly bombing Cambodia. That story, too, was based on anonymous sources. It led to the establishment of a large, secret wiretapping and surveillance effort by the Nixon administration in a search for Beecher's sources. The process of surveillance had begun. In June 1971, the Times, followed by The Post, revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers, an archive of official papers and assessments documenting both a plan for a big war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, before the depth of that involvement was revealed to the public, and the internal doubts about its chances of success. That, too, came from an unidentified source at the time. The Pentagon Papers were mostly an indictment of the Democratic administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, but they fed the Nixon administration's preoccupation with finding leakers and, eventually, led to the secret White House "plumbers" group and then to Watergate.

Fourth, much undoubtedly remains to be written about exactly what motivated Felt to confide in Woodward. Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions. But without that early Post reporting, based frequently on Felt's guidance, the linkages from Watergate to the White House might never have been fully unraveled. So Felt turned out to be the most important -- albeit anonymous -- whistle-blower in modern American political history.

There were other whistle-blowers in the 1970s, such as Pentagon cost expert A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who went public with revelations about huge cost overruns on the new C-5A transport plane and then lost his position.

That brings me to another observation about the importance of whistle-blowers in a democracy: the relative absence of them nowadays. It is now common knowledge that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the main reason cited publicly for why the country needed to go to war. The press has been properly and widely chided, in this column and many other places, for not challenging these premises sternly enough before the war.

We now know, however, that there were experts inside the nation's atomic energy laboratories who believed that the nuclear weapons case was faulty, and there were specialists inside the Air Force who disagreed with the portrayal of the mission of Iraqi unmanned aerial drones. And there were experts in the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA who challenged other expressions of administration certainty. But there were no high-profile resignations, and no one stood up publicly, or even privately but authoritatively, to strengthen significantly the reporting challenges that were made.

For whatever reason, Mark Felt did this, at great personal risk, and Woodward, whose persistence had attracted Felt's attention, was there to ask questions and listen.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.


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