Shallow Thoughts on Deep Throat

by , June 11, 2005

Somewhere during the aftermath of the news that Mark Felt, formerly Number 2 at the FBI, was the fabled "Deep Throat" source for then-Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I heard former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pontificating on Fox News to this effect:

"’Hero’ is not the first word that comes to my mind," quoth the good Dr. Kissinger. "I view him as a troubled man. I don’t think it’s heroic to act as a spy on your president when you’re in high office. I could fully understand if he resigned … or if he went to the prosecutor. That would be heroic."

The key phrase here is "to spy on your president when you’re in high office." Making all due allowances for Mr. Kissinger’s advanced age, from all that I’ve read and some that I remember, Mark Felt didn’t have to spy on "his" president. His position made him aware of much that was going on in the White House in the course of his daily work without having to go out of his way to "spy." What really seems to offend Mr. Kissinger is that Mark Felt chose to make some of what he knew available to Woodward and Bernstein, apparently in a nicely clandestine way that still evokes a certain sense of romance from aficionados of the spy genre.

The most important implication in Mr. Kissinger’s comment, however, is that Mark Felt owed complete, unflinching, undying, unquestioning loyalty to the president. What about the FBI, an agency he had served in for most of his life? And not to be too corny, but what about the American people, for whom everybody in government ostensibly works? Or the U.S. Constitution, which government employees swear to protect and defend? The implication in Mr. Kissinger’s comment (although he may have been speaking more forcefully than he might have upon further reflection and might well sincerely disagree) is that personal loyalty to the president, who is elected for a fixed period and subject to impeachment, trumps all these other possible loyalties.

Loyalty to Whom or What?

Does that mean somebody in high office should just remain quiet if he believes the president is committing, or is even an unwitting participant in crimes of systematic subversion of the constitution? That sounds distressingly close to – I know it’s a cheap shot but I’m going to take it anyway because my last name is more Germanic than his – an Americanized version of the fabled Fuehrerprinzip. It doesn’t sound like anything the Founders would recognize as a guiding American principle.

None of this is to suggest that Mark Felt had entirely pure or unmixed motives when he made the decision to act as a source for Bob Woodward. As any number of retrospectives, including Bob Woodward’s own in the Washington Post, have pointed out, Mark Felt, for better or worse – and most of us today would view it as for worse – was if anything unflinchingly loyal to J. Edgar Hoover, the fabled and notably manipulative lifetime director of the FBI. It is possible that at the very time he was acting as Bob Woodward’s "Deep Throat," or shortly before, he was himself ordering illegal surveillance on the Weather Underground faction of the once-influential Students for a Democratic Society.

Mark Felt was upset that Nixon had appointed L. Patrick Gray to be interim head of the FBI when Hoover died. I am not as persuaded as some that this was a matter of personal pique, that he had coveted the top job himself, although this is certainly possible. It is also quite possible that he saw the FBI, to which he seemed to render the kind of loyalty Herr Kissinger thought he owed the president, becoming politicized (or politicized in ways he disapproved of) with the powerful Hoover gone, and he didn’t like seeing that happen to the agency.

So, like most of us, Mark Felt undoubtedly had mixed motives when he decided to cooperate with Bob Woodward. It seems unlikely to me – I remember him as an especially smarmy and unattractive sort at the time of Watergate, when I was working on Capitol Hill – that he did it purely out of a higher patriotism or commitment to American principles of openness in government, due process, and executive accountability, although such motives might have played a role (there are government employees sincerely committed to such principles). But it also seems unlikely that all his motives were strictly ignoble either.

Motives or Actions?

Interestingly, Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times summed up my own feelings the best of any of the commentators I have read.

"[T]here’s nothing in the old G-man’s history to suggest that he would have recoiled at demands to sacrifice constitutional niceties to the demands of ‘national security.’

"Yet he did, and he did it when it counted. That he almost surely did it for a mixture of reasons, self-interested or principled, matters not at all. For all we know, his personal opinion of his conduct, and his explanation to himself for why he did what he did probably has changed many times over the years.

"Real lives are like that."

I have little more to say myself, but for those interested in further commentary, here are some links. Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s media commentator, has interesting things to say and provides some context. I must say however, that I disagree in part with his comment that

"[W]hile Watergate and All the President’s Men briefly turned journalists into heroes, they may have contributed to the long-term credibility problems of the profession. Too many journalists became sloppy with anonymous sources, some of whom didn’t have first-hand knowledge of what they were talking about, and some reporters tried to pump every two-bit scandal into a ‘-gate.’ Having been lied to by the Nixon White House, journalists became more confrontational, more prosecutorial, and more willing to assume that politicians must be lying. And the news business is still paying the price for some of those excesses."

I agree with much of what Mr. Kurtz writes about sloppiness, but I think the besetting sin of most journalists, most of the time, is that they write as if they believe every word that pours from a politician’s mouth. A journalist’s job is to assume, as a default position, that a politician is probably lying, and to treat him as guilty until proven innocent. Government institutions, all of whose denizens act most of the time act to promote their own bureau or agency and increase its power, should be treated with even more skepticism. I know from my own experience and conversations with journalists dating back further than I should care to admit that many reporters are much more skeptical than you might think about the politicians or agencies they cover, but it doesn’t show often enough in what they write.

The simple trick of presenting two opinions, which seldom represent the full range of opinion on a matter, without comment or context, and thinking you have thereby achieved "objectivity" is not satisfactory. Digging for the truth behind public statements or investigating the motives of those who leak or make public statements – or even finding out something resembling the truth and presenting it – is more difficult, but it’s what readers should expect from a journalist. I’m talking about discerning readers, of course. Many readers feel discomfited by truths that challenge their ideological or emotional commitments, but journalists really should write, whenever possible, for the more discerning kind of reader who doesn’t mind having his assumptions or preconceptions challenged. Not that any of us achieve this ideal as often as we would like, but that’s what real journalists should strive for.

The story of how Vanity Fair got the scoop is interesting and well told by Todd Purdum and Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, and here as well. National Review online had an interesting interview with Donald Ritchie, who wrote Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, in which he surmised Deep Throat must have been a top FBI man. He says that in his book,

"I noted that J. Edgar Hoover had died a month before the Watergate break-in, and that top officials at the FBI suspected that President Nixon aimed to politicize the bureau (a fear that now seems amply justified by Nixon’s remarks on the White House tapes). The FBI had 1,500 agents investigating various aspects of Watergate and related illegal activities. Had the White House succeeded in suppressing the investigation, morale within the bureau would have suffered and the independence of the bureau would have been jeopardized."

I seem to remember that National Review was at least conflicted about Nixon and sometimes even skeptical when he was in office. Inasmuch as he expanded government power and imposed wage and price controls, Nixon was hardly NR‘s kind of conservative. I’m old enough to remember that Russell Kirk, a frequent and often every-issue contributor to NR and author of the influential The Conservative Mind, worried about the Imperial Presidency and how deeply unconservative it was, long before liberals started using the term once Nixon came into office (although to be fair some used it during Lb.’s tenure as well).

The current crowd at NR, although hardly as fawning as Fox News, is much less skeptical than a Kirkian conservative should be about the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. I wondered if that latent loyalty to the office itself, and to the idea of "energy in the executive" might color its commentary on that long-ago president, but apparently it didn’t. This interview with Ronald Kessler, who said Deep Throat was Felt in his 2002 book, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, is interesting as well.

Some have expressed something close to disappointment that the secret is finally out and Washington’s favorite parlor game is ended, or that it was not someone with a little more glamour or name recognition. I’m pleased that it’s out before Mark Felt died, and I would love to see plenty more secrets from all sectors of American society come out as quickly as possible.

Read more by Alan Bock