A Leak and a Promise

Reviewed by Bill Emmott
Sunday, July 10, 2005

THE SECRET MAN

The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster. 249 pp. $23

Journalists who proclaim how vitally important it is -- for democracy, life, the universe and everything -- that they not reveal their sources often sound pompous and always sound self-serving, because of course they are. Claims that this principle should be higher than the law, higher even than the Constitution, can ring hollow, coming as they do from a trade some of whose members have been known to indulge in lying, distortion, partisan manipulation, grandstanding and plagiarism, among other vices. And yet the principle really is worth defending. There can be no better testimony to that than the story of Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's most secret and influential source for the Watergate stories that made his and Carl Bernstein's reputations, brought down President Richard Nixon and turned Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham's Washington Post into a role model for journalists everywhere.

Woodward's new book, The Secret Man , was a mere 10 days in preparation, following the revelations in Vanity Fair on May 31 about Mark Felt's role in the drama, but in reality it was 30 years in the making and long written in draft form. This compelling and highly readable work charts the story of Woodward's relationship with his source but also chronicles his anxiety about keeping Felt's secrets and his puzzlement over Felt's motives. Given Woodward's penchant in recent books for using reconstructed dialogue, this book may be the first in years in which his dialogue can truly be relied upon.

There is something wonderfully reassuring -- at least for those of us inclined to believe in chance rather than conspiracies -- in the banality of the story of how Felt became Deep Throat. This most mysterious of men was simply there in a White House waiting room when Woodward met him by accident. Woodward was still in the Navy, and Felt was a rising star in the FBI, but from that day forward, Felt became both a mentor and a source for Woodward during his early days in journalism. By the time the Watergate burglary took place in June 1972, Felt was the No. 2 official in the FBI and had already provided Woodward with some important leaks. So what could be more natural than to provide more intelligence after the bureau's Watergate investigation became stymied by the White House? As Woodward writes, if you did not know Deep Throat's identity, it was not obvious; but if you did, it was entirely obvious.

To some extent, that sheer obviousness deflates the story. (Gosh, a good reporter's regular and trusted source, one in the very center of the investigation, provided more information as a way to keep the investigation alive!) That Felt had been passed over for the directorship of the FBI -- and resented Nixon's interference in the bureau that Felt's hero, J. Edgar Hoover, had made so (in Felt's view) autonomously noble -- makes the whole thing even more readily explicable. How could the Nixon White House not have spotted who the leaker was? As Woodward shows, it pretty much did. But by that time, it was already sliding down an extremely slippery slope.

If you are too young to remember Watergate, and want a chronicle of how that slide occurred and how Nixon ended up resigning, The Secret Man will be a disappointment. The Watergate narrative emerges only fitfully and tangentially in this short and very personal tale. Although the myth that Woodward and Bernstein relied on a single anonymous source (as reporters did in some currently notorious stories about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction arsenal) is knocked firmly on the head, this book will not do much to satisfy journalists wishing to learn how the story was developed, nor editors wishing to learn what it was like to sit in Bradlee's chair. To follow Watergate properly, you would need to read The Secret Man alongside All the President's Men and The Final Days , the mid-1970s books in which Woodward and Bernstein told those stories. It would even be hard, reading this book cold, to spot how crucial Deep Throat really was, as it contains only limited detail about what he disclosed or of the context into which those disclosures fitted.

That, however, is probably as it should be. Only a barroom bore would keep going over the fine details of past triumphs, and Woodward is not that. Nor, thankfully, is he indulgent about his part in history. His admissions of his mistakes, some of which annoyed Felt intensely, are disarming. He retells with relish the story of how Deep Throat insisted on using spy tradecraft -- all the well-known stuff about moving flowerpots on apartment balconies -- to signal the need for encounters in parking garages, but he does so less to glamorize the tale than to cast light on Felt's character and to remind us of the level of risk that Felt evidently believed he was taking.

What The Secret Man does most of all is to raise questions about two things: the motives of informants and the duties journalists owe their sources. Why did Felt do what he did? That the obvious explanations (outrage at Nixon's villainy and resentment at being passed over) are not enough becomes clear once one learns that Felt himself later authorized illegal break-ins by FBI agents pursuing far-left domestic terrorists in the Weather Underground. His justification -- that the country was at war and that the defense of the national interest required exceptional measures -- might just as well have by Nixon's. But his trial for that offense and later pardon from President Ronald Reagan may explain another part of the mystery: why he did not reveal himself as Deep Throat after that character had become a worldwide hero and after Nixon had left office. He must have harbored distinctly mixed feelings about his own betrayal of the bureau.

Unless Felt turns out to have kept a journal or written a secret memoir (other than the one he published in 1979), we will never know about his thoughts at the time. Woodward tells, at a slightly uncomfortable length and level of personal detail, the story of how he renewed contact in 2000 with the then 86-year-old Felt but found that the old man's memory had failed. It has failed even further since. That raises the question of whether a promise not to disclose a source's identity until after his death is altered by that source's mental incapacity -- and Woodward, surely rightly, concludes that it is not.

The larger question, though, is of the broader duty to protect a source's identity. This is of great contemporary interest. If, say, a stronger Nixon had managed to get Woodward and Bernstein before a judge, who in pursuit of the leaker had ordered them to hand over their notes and other documents, and if the Supreme Court had refused to hear the case -- as has happened in this year's trial involving Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times -- should they or The Washington Post have complied, as Time has now done to keep Cooper out of jail? No reader of The Secret Man could think so. Felt would easily have been identified from Woodward's memos, which he rather clumsily marked with the initials "MF," supposedly for "my friend"; and the pressing public interest in uncovering presidential malpractice could have been thwarted. But one cannot imagine that a paper with an editor and publisher with the evident nerve and judgment of Bradlee and Graham would have said, as Time's Norman Pearlstine has done, that the law must be obeyed, even if it overrides this journalistic principle.

It is a principle that matters both for pragmatic reasons and for moral ones. Although the world of journalism and confidential sources would not implode after a single disclosure, as journalists sometimes seem to imply, it is certainly damaged every time such things happen. For the individual journalist, disclosure is more or less fatal: Why should anyone give information to that person again? Woodward argues that his later books, which have depended on confidential conversations with countless officials, were made much easier to report by the very public knowledge that everyone knew he had kept his promise to Deep Throat, and that is probably true. Another practical lesson for reporters and editors is to keep the group that knows a source's identity to an absolute minimum; you never know for how long the secret will need to be kept.

The moral reasons are also compelling. If you have promised an informant that his identity will remain a secret, how could you look yourself in the mirror if you then break that promise? The mirrors in the houses of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the others who kept the secret of Deep Throat for so long are safely still in regular use. As The Secret Man shows, history has been the loser from such fealty, for it has been deprived of a full, personal explanation by Mark Felt. But that was his choice. And both morality and journalism can be counted as winners. ยท

Bill Emmott is the editor of the Economist.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company