Journalist Ronald Kessler on the Death of W. Mark Felt Sr., Watergate Anonymous Source "Deep Throat"
Friday, December 19, 2008; 1:00 PM
W. Mark Felt Sr., the associate director of the FBI during the Watergate scandal who, better known as Deep Throat, became the most famous anonymous source in American history, died yesterday. He was 95.
He secretly guided Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as he and his colleague Carl Bernstein pursued the story of the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate office buildings and later revelations of the Nixon administration's campaign of spying and sabotage against its perceived political enemies.
Ronald Kessler was a Washington Post staff writer at the time of the Watergate story and named Felt in his 2002 book, "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI." In it he revealed the details of a 1999 lunch Bob Woodward had with Felt, as relayed by Felt's daughter.
Kessler was online Friday, Dec. 19, at 1 p.m. ET to recall the era.
A transcript follows.
Ronald Kessler: There's been a lot of revisionist history about Watergate as you can imagine and about the roles of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. I sat next to Carl Bernstein throughout Watergate and Woodward would come over and they would argue everything out, so I was really tuned into what happened. First, Deep Throat was not their only source as they point out in their book, All the President's Men. They did tremendous leg work knocking on doors until midnight. Some of those sources have since come forward. On the other hand the FBI was doing its criminal investigation into Watergate and the constant stories that Woodward and Bernstein did assured that the investigation would not be suppressed as Nixon was attempting to do.
So in my view, Woodward and Bernstein did a tremendous service to the country because Nixon very possibly, if he had gotten away with suppressing the investigation, might have simply suspended the Constitution.
Anonymous: When did you learn Mark Felt was Deep Throat? Did he ever tell any close friends?
Ronald Kessler: Of course, I could never be absolutely sure but I was convinced that Mark Felt was Deep Throat and wrote that in my 2002 book called The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, based primarily on the fact that I went to interview Felt in 2001 for the book and when I arrived at his home and his daughter Joan greeted me, she said, "You know this guy Bob Woodward was out here about a year ago and he came in a white limousine and had the limousine park ten blocks away. He then walked to our house."
She wasn't quite sure who Woodward was but I knew that Woodward never would've taken that precaution unless he was still concealing his relationship with Felt.
In addition to that, Felt was in the perfect position to know the details of the FBI's investigation. And another tip-off was that Felt's instructions to Woodward on how they should meet were classic instructions used in spy work and I knew that Felt has spent most of his career in the FBI in counterintelligence, which has to do with these signals that spooks give each other.
Raleigh, N.C.: Do you know if Woodward and the Post had decided how to reveal Deep Throat's identity if Felt had not come forward on his own? I'm just curious how it would have played in the paper today. Thanks.
Ronald Kessler: I don't think that the Post had decided what to do about revealing Felt's identity except that Woodward promised not to reveal his identity until after he died.
Fairfax, Va.: How is Felt being remembered in history?
Ronald Kessler: There are people on both sides of the fence on this question. Some think he abused his position by cooperating with Woodward. Others think he was a patriot because he helped bring down Nixon who was engaged in criminal activity and might have abolished elections. I agree with those who think he was a patriot. People ascribe a number of motives to him, both bad and good.
Some say he helped Woodward because he wanted to be named FBI director by a new president. I suppose that was part of it but I believe he was personally outraged by Nixon's actions and some of the instructions that Nixon was giving the FBI.
For example, when the FBI arrested Arthur Bremer after Bremer shot Gov. George Wallace, Nixon said to Felt, "I hope you guys rough him up." That was an astounding thing for a president to say to an FBI official who would never stand for police brutality. So, I believe Felt helped Woodward for mainly altruistic reasons.
Washington, D.C.: Everyone has always known that Deep Throat was a member of the Nixon administration, but until 2005 few knew that Deep Throat was second in command at the FBI. How can we know that Woodward and Bernstein were not simply being used by the FBI? Since they spoke with Deep Throat about other topics, they were collecting domestic intelligence and transferring it up the chain of command. How far afield did their investigations take them? When Deep Throat said "don't pursue that," did that settle things, or was the decision made independently?
Ronald Kessler: Woodward and Bernstein, as I said earlier, had a number of sources besides Mark Felt so they were able to corroborate what he told them and develop new information. In fact, a lot of Felt did was simply tell them they were on the right track which was very important, given the tremendous pressure that the Nixon administration was applying to The Washington Post and the threats that people like John Mitchell, the attorney general, were making to Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Post, and to others. In the end almost every story that Woodward and Bernstein did proved to be correct.
Raleigh, N.C.: What was the reaction to the revelation in your book about Woodward's trip to see Felt? It seems like it certainly pointed to Felt being Deep Throat. Did you ever talk to Woodward about it?
Ronald Kessler: Page Six of the New York Post picked up my claim at the time and after it turned out that Felt was Deep Throat they ran another item boasting about their original scoop.
Suspend elections? Suspend the Constitution?: Aren't you going a bit too far? There was a campus whispering campaign that Nixon would suspend the 1970 elections for national security reasons. It never happened!!
Ronald Kessler: Thank God it didn't happen. I base that on the fact that Nixon fired the prosecutor investigating him. And also, on the fact that we hear Nixon on the tapes talking about misleading the FBI and taking retribution against those who were investigating him. I don't think it's unreasonable to conclude from that that he might very well have gone further and suspended elections in order to remain in power.
Washington, DC: Felt was convicted of federal crimes for illegally wiretapping the Weather Underground. Did this wiretapping occur before or after June, 1972, the time of the arrests at the Watergate?
Ronald Kessler: That happened afterwards and I think the indictment was unfair because J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had ordered these wiretapping practices and everyone in the FBI therefore believed that they were legal.
Kansas City, Mo.: In today's world of sensationalism, competition and general apathy of the public, do you think any investigation by a newspaper or any other media would take the time to go through the steps the Post did in Watergate.
Ronald Kessler: Yes, I see The Washington Post spending up to a year or more on an investigation.
Anonymous: I know a number of folks had done research into trying to determine Deep Throat's identity. Did any of them identify Felt as the most likely candidate before he came forward?
Ronald Kessler: There's lots of speculation and guess work about Felt and other possibilities but I think what I reported in my 2002 book on the FBI was the only credible tip-off because it was based on new information -- that Woodward had concealed his recent meeting with Felt.
Ronald Kessler: Thank you for your interest.
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