I missed my shot at uncovering the Watergate story. That could have been James Earl Jones in "All the President's Men," playing me.

Admittedly, the odds were pretty long. I spent the summer of 1972, following my sophomore year in college, as an intern at the late, lamented Washington Star. My editors sent me to cover the routine arraignment of one of the Watergate burglars, Eugenio Martinez, knowing that nothing of interest was likely to happen. They were right. The whole thing lasted maybe 15 minutes, and I think I wrote three paragraphs.

Where was W. Mark Felt when I needed him?

Years later, when I came to work at The Post, Watergate was still fresh history. The newsroom looked just like it did in the movie. Jason Robards hired me. Robert Redford, newly promoted, was my boss. And somewhere, I imagined, Hal Holbrook still lurked in the shadows of a parking garage, whispering truth.

This week, the most famous anonymous source in history, Deep Throat, finally stepped into the light. Mark Felt is a true American hero, a patriot who deftly steered Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toward the criminal conspiracy that festered at the core of the Nixon White House.

Now, at 91, he has performed a second great service for his nation: reminding us what men and women of principle do when they see great injustice being committed and covered up.

It's ironic that Felt has taken us back to Watergate on a week when the Bush White House, from the president on down, is conducting a well-coordinated campaign to deflect criticism of the shameful -- and quite possibly illegal -- way our nation has treated thousands of detainees in the war on terrorism. Thirty years from now, I'll wager, we will look back on this episode with the same sense of shame we now have for Watergate.

And this time, we don't have to wait for another Deep Throat to guide us. What we already know is more than enough of a scandal -- and certainly more than enough of a stain on the nation's honor.

The administration has adopted its usual tactic: Blame the messenger. The president, the vice president, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and assorted spokesmen have all made a great show of taking umbrage at one word: gulag.

That's the incendiary term the secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, used to describe the prisons where the United States has held untold numbers of detainees, without formal charges or basic legal rights. The administration attacks that one word to deflect attention from the facts: The United States, land of the free, has swept thousands of people off the streets and held some of them for as long as three years, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons officials won't tell us about. At Abu Ghraib, prisoners were tortured -- and please don't quibble about the word, because in the age of digital cameras and e-mail we've been able to see the torture for ourselves.

We also know the administration has turned other prisoners over to less fastidious regimes, where they could be tortured without our getting splattered by the blood.

Look at the big picture: This is a wholesale trashing of our own ideals, an abandonment of the rule of law. It's already a huge scandal in the rest of the world, undoubtedly creating more enemies of the United States than it has taken out of circulation. And it was the White House that set this policy, not a bunch of poorly trained reservists at Abu Ghraib.

At his news conference the other day, President Bush made a show of bristling when someone asked about the gulag accusation. The charge was "absurd," he said. After all, it was based largely on complaints from the prisoners themselves, and these were "people that had been trained, in some instances, to disassemble."

He paused and then clarified: "That means not tell the truth."

No, it doesn't, Mr. President. The word you wanted is dissemble, which means to evade the truth. Which, I'm afraid, is what you were doing.

Thank you, Mark Felt, for reminding us that when the truth about Watergate began to come out, people got angry. Congress held hearings -- real hearings, not shadow plays. Officials resigned rather than acquiesce in an abuse of power. Independent-minded judges upheld our Constitution and our values.

Richard Nixon tried to blame the messenger, too. But we didn't let him.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com