W. Mark Felt
In an ambiguous career, an anonymous source did his country a great service.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"OLD MEN forget," says the Shakespearean warrior-king on the day of battle, yet there are those who will "remember with advantages" what feats they did in times of strife, when great issues were decided. W. Mark Felt Sr., who died Thursday at the age of 95, never really availed himself of that old man's privilege. He played a key role in bringing down an administration that badly abused its powers, but he did it in secret, and he kept that secret almost to the grave. By the time he revealed his identity -- just 3 1/2 years ago -- the anonymous source known as "Deep Throat" had been struck down by common calamities of age -- stroke and dementia. So much for remembering with advantage.

But, then, Mr. Felt was never all that certain whether he would be regarded as a hero or a turncoat. As a high FBI official with intimate knowledge of what was going on in the Nixon administration during its frantic efforts to cover up Watergate and other misdeeds, he helped Bob Woodward of The Post immeasurably. He served as a valuable anonymous source while the team of Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked the biggest scandal story in ages. Mr. Felt could tell himself -- and certainly many would have told him -- that he was doing the country an invaluable service, that he had no choice but to reveal the secret information entrusted to him.

But Mark Felt was also a creature of the FBI -- J. Edgar Hoover's FBI -- and he knew that what he was doing would be seen by many of his colleagues as a betrayal. Given what we know, and continue to learn, about Mr.

Hoover's abuses of power, the loyalty that Mr. Felt displayed to him and to his legacy only adds to the ambiguity of his career. In fact, it led to his conviction on charges of authorizing illegal break-ins at the premises of antiwar radicals and their families -- for which Mr. Felt received a pardon from Ronald Reagan.

Mark Felt inhabited a world in which good and talented and diligent people such as himself could feel it was a justifiable act to spy on someone of the stature of Martin Luther King Jr. It is a world in which many things, good and bad, come under the broad rubric of "security." Few who operate in it emerge as pristine heroes, as we continue to be reminded. But Shakespeare notwithstanding, there's not much likelihood by this time that the good Mark Felt did will be interred with his bones.

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