Why did Deep Throat leak? He wanted his boss’s job
by JAMES ROSEN
Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat
by Max Holland
University Press of Kansas
On June 17, 1972, a decade after plainclothes policemen, guns drawn, raced into the darkened offices of the Democratic National Committee and arrested five burglars outfitted with wiretapping devices—the opening act in the morality play that climaxed in President Richard Nixon’s resignation—Nightline anchor Ted Koppel asked Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, the scandal’s celebrated sleuths, what Watergate meant to them.
“I agree with Richard Nixon on one thing,” Woodward replied, almost sheepishly. “It’s not something I look back on . . . Maybe someday, when we’re 60 or 70, we’ll sit around and try to be philosophers. It was essentially a learning experience for me.”
Next week, Woodward will turn 69, and the recent publication of Leak, by historian Max Holland, promises to educate Woodward still further about the secretive source that made him famous. The longtime No. 2 official in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, W. Mark Felt was the savvy lawman-bureaucrat who seethed with anger in May 1972, when Nixon, following Hoover’s death, appointed an outsider, L. Patrick Gray III, as acting director.
The series of unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information that Felt made to Woodward, and other reporters, over the next 17 months—as Watergate metastasized from “caper” to constitutional crisis—were all designed, Holland argues persuasively, to portray Gray as inept and prod Nixon to give Felt the top job.
The book and film versions of All the President’s Men transformed Deep Throat into a unique Information Age figure: the anonymous celebrity. For fun and profit, journalists, historians and Watergate conspirators spent decades guessing at his identity.
Felt was a frequent suspect; the Nixon tapes would later show the president and his men were onto Felt’s leaking by October 1972. But it wasn’t until 2005, when Felt—92 and senile, three years from death—was definitively unmasked as the executive-branch official who used late night rendezvous in an Arlington parking garage to aid Woodward.
Best known for his scholarship on the Kennedy assassination, Holland has conducted fresh interviews and sifted through mountains of previously unpublished FBI files, Nixon tapes and other relevant documents. Leak is a crisp and engrossing page-turner, essential reading on Watergate, a detailed and unsparing accounting of the Machiavellian machinations practiced by that self-serving anonymous source.
How many lies Felt told! How long he kept them up—across decades! With a novelist’s skill, Holland unravels all the unlikely coincidences that enabled Felt to escape the obloquy, and prosecution, he deserved for these obstructions of justice.
Yet some wobbly columns in the Deep Throat temple Leak inexplicably lets stand. “Felt was much too busy and prominent a man to circle page 20 of Woodward’s home-delivered New York Times . . . or monitor the movement of a red-flagged flower pot on the balcony of Woodward’s apartment,” Holland notes. Such chores, he shrugs, “were probably entrusted to reliable [FBI] agents.” Who, exactly—and why haven’t they been identified? Perhaps, alternatively, Holland is wrong to accept Woodward’s statements about this signaling system.
Likewise, Holland describes in detail Deep Throat’s “last great leak”: the accurate disclosure to Woodward, in November 1973, that the Nixon tapes contained a deliberate erasure. Felt had been forced out of the FBI five months earlier, in June 1973, and the existence of the “tape gap,” a rather recent development, was a secret held closely by President Nixon, his secretary Rose Woods and only a few White House intimates and attorneys; so how could Felt have been in a position to tell Woodward about it?
Holland ignores this problem. The only logical conclusion—especially since other Nixon-era officials, like Alexander Haig, Donald Santarelli, and Robert F. Bennett, are known to have served as sources for Woodward—is that “Deep Throat” was more than just Mark Felt. Holland’s unusual silence on this point suggests his otherwise indefatigable research turned up no other satisfactory answer.
There may not be one. At the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, which houses Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate papers, visitors will find no contemporaneous documents relating to the November 1973 garage encounter. Meanwhile, the reporters retain custody of an unknown quantity of Watergate-related papers.
For all its success in decoding Mark Felt, Leak also reveals how much remains mysterious, if not forever unknowable, about Bob Woodward, the other man in the garage.
James Rosen is Fox News chief Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.