A new book sheds light on the Watergate whistleblower's real motives.
Athan Theoharis | July 18, 2012
Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland, University Press of Kansas, 285 pp., $29.95.
The timely publication of Max Holland's Leak, coming on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, promotes a needed reassessment of two myths about the Watergate scandal. The first myth is that the reporting skills and diligence of two Washington Post cub reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the abuses of power in Richard Nixon's White House and led to the president's forced resignation in August 1974.
Holland, editor of the website Washington Decoded, acknowledges the limited importance of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting but contends that their contribution pales in contrast to that of Federal Judge John Sirica, Sen. Sam Ervin's investigation and public hearings, the testimony of White House aides John Dean and Alexander Butterfield, and the inquiries of the special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee (the latter when considering articles of impeachment).
The second, more important myth involves W. Mark Felt, the acting FBI associate director who in 1972 became Woodward's secret source, dubbed "Deep Throat." Holland rebuts Woodward and Bernstein's portrayal of Felt as a principled official who leaked information because he was concerned over the lawlessness of the Nixon White House. Felt's motives, as Holland convincingly documents, were more prosaic: He wanted Nixon to question whether he could trust Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to control the FBI, thus leading the president to appoint Felt as the permanent FBI director, filling the vacancy caused by J. Edgar Hoover's recent death. Holland further documents that Felt withheld from Woodward some particularly explosive information about the White House attempting to use the CIA to contain the FBI's Watergate investigation. At other times, Felt passed on misinformation.
Holland's disclosure of Felt's insubordination does raise an important question: What emboldened this senior FBI official to betray his ostensible superior (while cunningly conveying the impression of a loyal acolyte), in the process unintentionally undermining Nixon's presidency?
The answer requires an understanding of the FBI's political culture forged during J. Edgar Hoover's 48-year tenure as the bureau's director. Since the mid-1930s, Hoover had expanded the FBI's role beyond federal law enforcement to operate surreptitiously as a political containment agency. FBI agents, accordingly, began to amass derogatory information about the personal and political activities of radical activists and prominent Americans, at times through the use of recognizably illegal investigative techniques. This information did not (and could not) advance legitimate law enforcement interests. Instead, Hoover and his senior aides exploited the information they acquired to advance their own bureaucratic and political agendas.
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