Secret Agent Man

Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward in 1973. At right, Mark Felt, the No. 2 man at the FBI and the Woodward source known as Deep Throat
Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward in 1973. At right, Mark Felt, the No. 2 man at the FBI and the Woodward source known as Deep Throat (AP)
Reviewed by Richard Gid Powers
Sunday, April 23, 2006


The FBI, Being "Deep Throat," and the Struggle for Honor in Washington

By Mark Felt and John O'Connor

PublicAffairs. 319 pp. $26.95

Once upon a time -- for if any newspaper story has become legend, it is Watergate -- a young man full of doubts about his future met an older man schooled in secrets. Step by step, like Merlin tutoring the young Arthur, the source who came to be known as Deep Throat taught the young Bob Woodward what he needed to know to win something like the Holy Grail of journalism, the greatest newspaper exposé ever written -- ever.

Deep Throat's price was Woodward's promise never to reveal who his source really was. Then last spring, more than 30 years after President Nixon's resignation, Deep Throat's family told the world that Woodward's secret guide through the labyrinth of Watergate had been their father, Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI during the scandal and a J. Edgar Hoover loyalist. Thus released from the bonds of his promise, Woodward told his side of the story last summer in his own book, The Secret Man . Now Merlin is telling what he remembers of his side.

Which, alas, is not a heck of a lot. The Merlin of legend slipped under a spell of perpetual sleep, and so never explained how and why he had selected Arthur and pointed him toward his destiny. And Mark Felt, long before his family decided that it was time to reveal his secret, had forgotten all about his years in the FBI, his war with Nixon -- indeed, all his memories except, it seemed, the bits about "Hoover and me" (as Woodward summed up what was left of Felt's memories of Watergate). So now, a year after the Felt family's lawyer, John O'Connor, revealed Deep Throat's identity in Vanity Fair, we have A G-Man's Life , published over Felt's and O'Connor's names.

What will readers learn from this unusual memoir beyond what they know from the Vanity Fair article and Woodward's own Deep Throat book? Not much, if anything. To some degree, that's because the story's outlines are by now familiar. In 1969, Woodward was serving as a Navy lieutenant, stationed in Washington, when he bumped into Felt outside the Situation Room while both men were running errands in the White House. Very much the young man on the make, Woodward chatted up the older man, then an FBI assistant director and Hoover's enforcer of discipline in the ranks. Woodward pursued the relationship with this prospective mentor, even begging Felt for counsel on what he should do after he left the Navy. He came to regard Felt's advice that he should follow his heart as the "Rosebud" explaining his career. So when Woodward was hired in 1971 by The Washington Post as a metro reporter, he had an unparalleled source in the FBI who had just been promoted to a spot right below Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson. Since Tolson had been disabled by strokes, Felt was in effect the No. 2 official at the bureau.

Then five men were caught burgling the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. Hoover had been dead for six weeks, and the inexperienced L. Patrick Gray III, a Nixon crony, was acting FBI director -- which left Felt, for all intents and purposes, running the bureau. When the White House and the Justice Department began leaning on the FBI to confine its investigation to the burglars and leave any higher-ups alone, Felt -- who, as Woodward had come to know, always had the "integrity and independence" of the bureau uppermost in mind -- put his inside view of the cover-up at Woodward's disposal. To hide his tracks, he parceled out his knowledge to Woodward in homeopathic doses. Inside The Post, Woodward's artfully concealed source, who spoke (in journalistic argot) on "deep background," was nicknamed "Deep Throat" after a pornographic movie of the day.

A G-Man's Life also adds little because it's an odd publishing venture, evidently assembled under trying circumstances: The man whose revelations were supposed to drive the book was unable to recall anything about the revelations he was contracted to reveal. The resulting book is hardly more than an abridgement, lifted word for word, from Felt's 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid , in which he stoutly denied being Deep Throat, supplemented by extracts from an unpublished manuscript written with his son sometime after 1983 in which Felt provided more material on his early days in the FBI and, in O'Connor's words, "edged closer to his Deep Throat identity." Added to the mix, according to O'Connor, are some of Felt's FBI memos and some interviews conducted by Felt's family, his caretaker and O'Connor from early 2002 to late 2005, but Woodward's accounts of his meetings with Felt during that same period establish that Felt could remember next to nothing about his past by then. The new book also contains an introduction and conclusion by O'Connor and a speculative aside (inserted into the Watergate chapter) in which O'Connor guesses at Felt's motives for helping Woodward uncover the Nixon White House's cover-up of its role in the burglary.

Felt's own portions of the book, derived almost entirely from his 1979 memoir and his 1980s reminiscences, have not been adjusted to reflect his "edging" toward admitting that he was Woodward's source, let alone his 2005 admission that "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat." O'Connor appears to have been scrupulous in ensuring that the words in the Felt sections are actually by Felt, but this makes for some perplexing narration. You will read Felt musing, "People will debate for a long time whether I did the right thing by helping Woodward" just after Felt has said that his contact with Woodward was limited to "one occasion during the Watergate investigation" -- a statement itself contradicted a few pages later when Felt adds, "I met with Woodward over the next few months, again only confirming or not confirming information he already had collected from other sources." This is as close as this book (in the sections that are supposed to be Felt's) comes to discussing his role as Deep Throat, and it is impossible to tell exactly which words he wrote himself or when he wrote them.

While A G-Man's Life is on the whole complimentary about Woodward and his relationship with Felt, some traces of the family's ambivalence come through. The result is a somewhat contradictory mixture of criticism of Woodward (notably for mentioning Deep Throat at all in his and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men -- thereby, O'Connor writes, breaking faith with Felt), gratitude to him (for keeping his word and preserving the secret), respect for him (for being one of the few people Felt can still remember, and remember as a friend) and frustration with him (for refusing to be persuaded that the family's decision to identify Deep Throat permitted Woodward to confirm the disclosure; Woodward was not convinced the ailing Felt was competent to authorize such a decision).

Still, Woodward emerges in Felt's book, as he did in The Secret Man , as a straight shooter whose preservation of Deep Throat's secret helps explain his amazing access to officials at the highest levels; his sources know that when Woodward says he will keep their confidences confidential, he means it. Felt's book and his earnest but unavailing efforts to recall his relationship with Woodward make it clear that Woodward was far more than just a press conduit for Felt. He was a friend. Similarly, The Secret Man showed that Felt was far more than just Deep Throat to Woodward, who was boyishly eager to reconnect with the old wizard during Felt's sad years of decline. Felt and Woodward appear in the two books as kind, thoughtful men of honor: In a characterization both men seem to relish, they are "stand-up guys."

That carries over to the fascinating question of motive. O'Connor's theories about Felt's reason for becoming the character so memorably portrayed by Hal Holbrook in the movie "All the President's Men" do not differ much from Woodward's own speculations -- he was careful not to call them conclusions -- in The Secret Man . Both feel that Felt was moved primarily by professional outrage at the Nixon White House's attempt to corrupt Hoover's FBI, which Felt had long idealized. Woodward went a little further, arguing that Felt viewed the bureau as the fundamental pillar of American society and saw Nixon's efforts to corrupt the bureau as, implicitly, subverting the nation. "So Watergate," Woodward wrote, "became Felt's instrument to reassert the Bureau's independence and thus its supremacy."

So why did Felt go public? A G-Man's Life gives the family's reasons for its unilateral decision to identify Deep Throat: simple pride in what they -- and for that matter, almost everybody -- regarded as their father's signal service to the nation, performed at great risk. The uncharitable, of whom there is never any shortage, immediately assumed that financial considerations had been paramount -- that the family was, to borrow a phrase from Holbrook's Deep Throat, following the money. Ironically, this book's defects may convince skeptics that the family's motives were as pure as claimed; if all they were after was a trip to the bank, they could surely have cooked up something far more exciting and readable than A G-Man's Life . Felt's family was probably right to insist that his role in the Watergate drama be properly appreciated (as it probably will be if a movie based on his life is ever produced). Deep Throat was an honorable whistle-blower who deserves the republic's thanks for exposing a crooked presidency, but since Woodward has already made that case far more ably, this book, which has so little new to say, need not have been written.

That makes this volume a significant missed opportunity. For even after A G-Man's Life and The Secret Man, many of the most interesting questions about Deep Throat remain unanswered. How did Felt (and the FBI, for that matter) know the substance -- sometimes the very words -- of conversations in the Oval Office almost as they were taking place? Were Nixon's tapers themselves being taped? Did Deep Throat know more than he told Woodward, more than anyone ever learned about the ways of Watergate? Why, besides avoiding the disapproval of his FBI colleagues, did Felt remain silent until he could speak no more? Only Merlin knows, and Merlin, though he lives on, is asleep -- forevermore. ยท

Richard Gid Powers is the author of "Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company