Max Holland’s Leak: reconsidering Watergate’s Deep Throat

Deep Throat never really said “follow the money.” †

Nor did he consciously intend to bring down the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

And Nixon and his closest aides knew in mid-October 1972 the name of the FBI insider—W. Mark Felt—who was leaking details of the agency’s ongoing Watergate investigation, but hesitated to move against him for fear that he would expose White House-ordered wiretapping of journalists. (Felt didn’t publicly acknowledge his role as Deep Throat until 2005.)

Those are just a few of the many intriguing historical insights found in journalist and author Max Holland’s superb new book Leak: Why Mark Felt became Deep Throat, a meticulously researched look at Felt’s instrumental, and misunderstood, role in the Watergate scandal.

Holland has crafted a page-turner—which in itself is quite a feat after the saturation media coverage of the Watergate story and the popularity of the book and film versions of All the President’s Men. At the center of Leak are two men: Bob Woodward, the Washington Post cub reporter whose career skyrocketed because of Watergate, and his secret source, Felt, a high-ranking FBI executive who was nicknamed Deep Throat (a moniker borrowed from the title of a notorious 1972 pornographic movie).

In 200 tightly-written pages Holland retraces Felt’s steps during the crucial initial Bureau investigation of the bungled black-bag job in the Democratic National Committee Watergate complex offices. Relying on interviews, transcripts of Nixon White House conversations, and memoirs from many of the participants, Holland carefully reconstructs Felt’s actions and possible motives—borrowing from, Holland says, a technique used in the world of counterintelligence to determine “in whose interests the suspected double agent was genuinely working all along.”

Motive and means

Holland shows convincingly that Felt acted solely in his own self-interest; he was not motivated by any principled need to defend the Republic against Oval Office lawbreaking or to preserve the FBI’s independence. Instead, the reader is introduced to an ambitious bureaucrat, a careerist consumed by office politics following the May 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover. The infighting over who was to succeed Hoover became what Holland dubs the “War of the FBI Succession.”

When Nixon passed over veteran Bureau executives and named L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official without law enforcement experience, as interim FBI director, an embittered Felt resolved to derail the appointment. He had a powerful motive to leak. Thus Felt became Gray’s Iago, appearing to support the new FBI head while secretly undermining him.

The ongoing Watergate investigation gave Felt the opportunity—the means—to damage Gray’s credibility by leaking to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith and to Woodward the false notion that Gray was impeding the FBI’s inquiry into the break-in. Felt hoped to so tarnish Gray’s reputation that the Administration, anxious to avoid a Senate confirmation battle, would instead turn to an agency insider—Felt, the No. 2 man at the agency—as an alternative.

Felt proved quite good at the double game. He lied convincingly to Gray, who never doubted his loyalty, even when warned repeatedly about Felt by the White House. Felt personally launched several half-hearted internal investigations to try to uncover who was leaking to the press, careful to keep his own role hidden. He successfully manipulated both Smith and Woodward, feeding them the information that advanced his ends while disguising his contempt for the media.

Deep Throat as double agent

Holland’s portrait of Felt is telling: an icy personality, ambitious, vain, calculating, capable of flattery and of deception. (Some in the Bureau had nicknamed Felt the “white rat” for his shock of white hair and “tendency to squeal whenever he thought it might help his own agenda.”) After decades at headquarters in Washington, Felt had an insider’s knowledge of all things FBI and, Holland suggests, recruited confederates in the Bureau to assist him in leaking to the press.

For those familiar with the history of Cold War espionage, Felt’s sense of entitlement, his lack of empathy or remorse, and his smooth duplicity match the characteristic traits of a double agent. Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, noted in his (now-declassified) paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, is found in many moles; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” And it is not that hard to imagine Felt meeting his underlying psychic needs for control and a sense of superiority by passing secret information to the Soviets, instead of the Washington Post.

In the end, Felt failed in his scheme to succeed Gray. When it became clear that Gray didn’t have the votes in the Senate, Nixon instead chose William D. Ruckelshaus in May 1973 as the interim director, again bypassing Felt. (In his memoir Felt noted that he technically became head of the FBI, “if only for two hours and fifty minutes” —the period of time between Gray’s resignation and Ruckelshaus’ appointment.) Ruckelshaus wasted no time in forcing Felt into retirement after a confronting him over leaks and what Ruckelshaus saw as Felt’s attempts to undermine his authority.

After Felt’s role as Deep Throat was exposed, an FBI contemporary of his, John McDermott, called him “the Bureau’s Benedict Arnold…Arnold betrayed his oath, his country, and his fellow-citizen soldiers to pursue his own ambitions. Felt did no less to the Bureau and his fellow agents.” McDermott noted that Felt had no evidence that the FBI investigation of Watergate was “impeded or thwarted” by Nixon, the Justice Department, or Gray. “Some have called Felt a hero,” McDermott wrote in 2005, “but heroes don’t lurk in the shadows for 33 years.”

Questions of journalistic ethics

Bob Woodward is also not cast in the most flattering of lights in Leak. Felt found it relatively easy to steer Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein toward stories that would damage Gray. He fed Woodward “plain untruths—things Felt didn’t know because the FBI didn’t know them; exaggerations or misrepresentations of facts the Bureau had developed; and falsifications of what Felt knew to be the truth.” The Post published two such false stories: that Gray had essentially blackmailed Nixon into appointing him FBI acting director and that the White House was behind the “Canuck letter” that damaged Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign.

Perhaps Felt’s wildest claim (made right after his confrontation with Ruckelshaus) was informing Woodward that “everyone’s life was in danger” and the CIA had instituted wide-spread wiretaps. This fabrication prompted the dramatic scene in All the President’s Men where Woodward summoned Bernstein to his apartment and—now worried about electronic surveillance— typed out the disturbing claims from Deep Throat. It did make for great drama, even if (as Holland reminds us) one Washington Post editor wondered at the time whether it was “a kind of paranoid delusion of persecution.”

Holland also raises questions about the ethics of the relationship between Woodward and Felt. Woodward’s decision to include Deep Throat in All the President’s Men represented a violation of the deep background agreement the two men had made in 1972. As Holland notes: “The fascination, if not fixation, over Deep Throat obscured the unilateral abrogation of the agreement…”

This expedience paid off: All the President’s Men made Woodward a celebrity (being played by Robert Redford in the film version certainly didn’t hurt) and he and Bernstein benefited handsomely from book sales and film rights. The decades-long guessing game about Deep Throat’s identity also translated into financial rewards: Woodward pocketed a healthy advance for his 2005 book The Secret Man about his relationship with Felt, and the Felt family sold his story to Hollywood for an estimated $1 million.

Deep Throat’s legacy

Holland’s painstaking scholarship in Leak makes it impossible to see Mark Felt/Deep Throat as a principled whistleblower determined to expose the “dirty tricks” of Richard Nixon. Yet Holland’s correction of this Watergate myth comes decades after the mysterious figure of Deep Throat captured the American imagination.

For many, Deep Throat made leaking honorable, even glamorous. Deep Throat appeared to have been motivated by a higher morality, one that justified his violating whatever secrecy oaths he had sworn. The public perception was that without his furtive meetings with Woodward in that darkened underground parking garage Nixon’s cover-up of Watergate would have succeeded (a conclusion sharply challenged by Holland and other historians of the period).

This meme of Leaker as Hero had an impact in Washington in the post-Watergate years. Government officials, whether career bureaucrats or political appointees, got the message: if you don’t like a Presidential or departmental policy, or consider it legally suspect, you have the right to anonymously leak sensitive or secret information. Anonymous leaking is a less risky course of action, as well. Resigning in protest means losing your job. Pursuing a formal complaint through official legal channels can jeopardize a promising career. Leaking is the safer route.

Yet while it is true that too much government information is routinely classified as secret, there are secrets—especially those involving national security—that should be kept. The problem, of course, is who decides what exactly should remain secret. The Leaker as Hero suggests that individuals can unilaterally make those decisions based on their own ethical principles (while avoiding any unpleasant legal consequences).

This approach to secrecy has some obvious flaws. If Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and Deep Throat are both heroic figures, what about Bradley Manning (accused of leaking confidential U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks)? What about the outing of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent by Richard Armitage/Scooter Libby? In all cases, the leaker can plead conscience as a defense.

Power has a way of changing attitudes. The liberal-left apparently no longer automatically accepts the Leaker as Hero construct. How else to explain the Obama Administration’s aggressive legal pursuit of leakers? As Adam Liptak of The New York Times has noted the Eric Holder Justice Department has “brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined.” (Critics have noted that many of these leak prosecutions have not been confined to national security matters). No doubt Richard Nixon would have appreciated the irony, if not the double standard.


† According to Holland, Felt never gave that famous advice “at least according to Woodward’s contemporaneous notes, and now it appears likely that this useful thought was actually dispensed by Henry E. Peterson, or possibly Edward Bennett Williams.”

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved