Earlier versions of this story, including in the print edition of Friday's Washington Post, incorrectly said Mark Felt died at a hospice. Felt died at his home in California, under hospice care. Also, this article said that Felt believed he was acting with the approval of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when he authorized break-ins at the homes of people thought to be affiliated with the Weather Underground. Hoover had died several months earlier; Felt believed he had the approval of the interim director, L. Patrick Gray.
Lawman's Unwavering Compass Led Him to White House Showdown
Saturday, December 20, 2008
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1972, Washington awoke to this startling news:
"FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon's reelection and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President," The Washington Post reported.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that story, but it would not have been possible, they would later tell the world, without the clandestine help of the most famous unnamed source in history, W. Mark Felt -- the man they called "Deep Throat."
He was the associate director of the FBI, and he guided the reporters, all along insisting that Watergate was not an isolated incident but part of a wider conspiracy designed to destroy Democratic presidential candidates who might run against Nixon.
Instead, the Watergate scandal subsequently destroyed the Nixon presidency. Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace less than two years after that day in October when, one of his key lawyers would later say, it was apparent that "in a general way and with the help of Deep Throat, (Woodward and Bernstein) figured out Watergate." Felt died Thursday at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. He was 95.
As the second-ranking official in the FBI, Felt possessed authoritative knowledge of what came to be known as the Watergate conspiracy. Felt had personally witnessed the Nixon administration's attempt to subvert the bureau's investigation into the complex of crimes and coverups that began unraveling with a 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate complex in Northwest Washington.
"He helped stiffen the spine of The Washington Post, which went out on a limb more than any other publication did, and broke stories that other outlets shunned," said Mark Feldstein, a George Washington University faculty member who is writing a book on Nixon and the media. "Had Woodward not run with it, Felt had a network of connections in Washington, (other reporters) he was talking to . . . but no one knew of his connection to Woodward."
Felt, a dashing figure with a full head of silver hair and a reputation as a taskmaster, adamantly denied over the years that he was Deep Throat, even though Nixon suspected him almost from the start. Nixon ordered interim FBI director L. Patrick Gray to fire Felt five times. But Gray, convinced by Felt's denials, never did.
A master of bureaucratic infighting and misdirection, Felt seized upon a Post story that had not used him as a source. In a bold stroke, he denounced it in an internal memo and ordered an investigation into the leak. "Expedite," he commanded. The next day, in a notation on another memo that passed across his desk, he pointed to a prosecutor as the source of the leak.
"I was impressed. My guy knew his stuff," Woodward wrote in "Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat" (2006). "The memo was an effective cover for him, the very best counterintelligence tradecraft. Not only had he initiated the leak inquiry, but Felt appeared to have discovered the leaker."
Felt had insisted on remaining completely anonymous, or on "deep background." A Post editor dubbed him "Deep Throat," a bit of wordplay based on the title of a pornographic movie of the time. The source's existence, but not his identity, became known in Woodward and Bernstein's 1974 book, "All the President's Men," and in the subsequent movie version, in which actor Hal Holbrook played the charismatic but shadowy source.
It wasn't until May 30, 2005, that Felt's family revealed his identity in an article for Vanity Fair magazine. The story, written by San Francisco lawyer John D. O'Connor, did not make clear why Felt, who was suffering from dementia, admitted his role after more than 30 years. Woodward confirmed the revelation, and the secret was finally out.