Career FBI Agent W. Mark Felt, the number three man at the FBI by the early 1970s, denied for decades and on innumerable occasions that he was Deep Throat.
“Deep Throat,” of course, was the secret leaker to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post investigating the Watergate scandal. As Woodward described it, Deep Throat would give him leads but only limited direct information. It’s clear from All the President’s Men, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s post-Watergate book, that it was Deep Throat who kept the story alive in the crucial pre-Watergate Committee period. Watergate buffs will recognize WC’s frequent coda, “Follow the money,” as Hal Holbrook’s line in his role as Deep Throat in the movie version of All the President’s Men.”
Felt was an ambiguous character. As a senior member of the FBI, he was deeply involved in COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal activities group exposed by the Medina burglary. He was a passionate defender of COINTELPRO, and defended it quoting, “The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact“, Justice Robert H. Jackson‘s comment in his dissent to Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949). In fact, Felt made it the first line of his ghost-written, difficult autobiography, The FBI Pyramid: From the Inside. It says a lot about Felt that his ghostwriter was J. Edgar Hoover’s biographer Ralph de Toledano. Felt was convicted of criminal violation of the constitutional rights of suspected members of the anti-Vietnam War group Weather Underground, a part of his COINTELPRO activities, but was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in April 1981.
Not until 2005 did Felt finally admit he had been the secret source. His claim was initially doubted, but was confirmed by Woodward and Ben Bradlee, the Editor of the Post at the time the Watergate story was breaking.
While Felt finally admitted to being the source of the information that helped bring down President Richard Nixon, he was never clear in his explanation of why he violated his oath of office. He had been passed over for promotion to Director of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover’s death; some speculate that it was revenge against Nixon for passing him over. Bob Woodward, writing Felt’s obituary in 2008, said,
Felt believed he was protecting the Bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the Bureau for political reasons.
Felt, then the Associate Director of the FBI, leaked secrets in an ongoing FBI investigation to the press. We’ll never know his motives; it may have been altruism for Nixon’s perceived misuse of the FBI; it may have been personal revenge.
But it was a crime. And the United States is better for Felt’s actions. Another data point in the power-War history of whistleblowing.