‘Deep Throat’: What Secret?

Official seal of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Enemies, Tim Weiner’s new book on the FBI, contains at least one fascinating revelation.  While the most of America had to wait some 30 years to learn the identity of ‘Deep Throat,’ the mysterious informant whose leaks to reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward helped topple Nixon in the Watergate scandal, Nixon knew of his identity within just ten days.

‘Deep Throat’ was Mark Felt, the number 2 man at the FBI.  It turns out that he and others within the Bureau were disaffected because Nixon passed over Felt for the directorship of the FBI after J Edgar Hoover‘s sudden death of a heart attack in 1972.  Felt had been Hoover’s chosen successor.  Nixon instead chose L. Patrick Gray, a man with no intelligence experience.

Nixon’s selection of a man some regarded as a clueless hack may have been deliberate; small wonder, then, that Felt’s loyalists were enraged.  They felt the selection demeaned the Bureau.  Thus, a disgruntled faction loyal to Felt became inordinately interested in the doings of Richard Nixon and formed a determination to bring him down.  Far from wanting to serve the president, they began to regard him as a ‘person of interest.’

This configuration of forces resulted in a comical double game.  As Russell Baker, reviewing Weiner’s book for the New York Review, put it:

While Felt was leaking to the press about the president’s Watergate involvement, someone else, perhaps another FBI agent, was leaking to the White House about Felt’s leaking to the press.  Such was life in the world of top secrecy.

Knowing who was responsible for the leaks didn’t help Nixon much. Again Baker:

Why didn’t Nixon fire Felt immediately?  The answer is preserved in the Nixon White House tapes, with Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, saying, “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything.  He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. . . . He has access to absolutely everything. . . . Gray’s scared to death.  We’ve got to give him warning. . . .”

Then Nixon: “What would you do with Felt? . . . Christ!  You know what I’d do with him?  Bastard!”

Judging from Baker’s review, Weiner’s book is a meaty read, casting light on the workings of an agency whose role in our history has been shadowy indeed.

5 responses

  1. There was an interesting argument a while ago that Woodward and Bernstein buried the lede on Watergate: not ‘President engages in electoral manipulations and skullduggery,’ but ‘disaffected Federal employees engineer a coup.’

    Hard to parse the rights and wrongs of this, but it does alter our political self-image as a stable, well regulated political Republic.

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  2. Very intriguing. So much subterfuge going on. . . . When an intelligence agency of any type gets a lot of authority, I always ask,”Who polices the police?”…..Even though Nixon was a crook, was what Felt did “moral?”

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    • “Who watches the watchmen,” indeed. If it was a coup, it was a very clever one, with most Americans still unaware of what happened 30+ years on. But it seems more a personal vendetta than anything–or office politics writ very VERY large. . . . Of course this one episode is just the tip of the iceberg. Baker’s recap of Weiner’s treatment of the Palmer Raids (some 20,000 Americans rounded up overnight and herded into “detention centers”–such as hospitals??) got across the very serious force our intelligence agencies wield. And that was back in 1920. SB

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