Monday, June 06, 2005

Clearing Deep Throat


W. Mark Felt
Journalists cannot hope to approach an accurate rendering of an event without revealing their sources. Every source who has supplied a journalist with a part of a story has selected that bit of information, whether it is true or false, for a particular purpose. That purpose may be to advance his own career, to advance (or subvert) the interests of the agency he works for, to discredit an enemy, to advance an ideological agenda, or simply to assist a reporter. The bits of information thus supplied can be properly evaluated only in light of the circumstances and context in which they were given. It is not enough simply to present the assertion of an interested party— even if it can be shown that it is "accurate," in the trivial sense of accuracy" (which simply means correctly specifying the details touching on the event). One must know who made the disclosure and, ideally, why he made it to that particular individual at that particular moment in history. Concealing such information from the public amounts to a deliberate disguising of the event itself, since such a process hides all the interests that selected, shaped and possibly distorted the disclosures. To be sure, concealing the interests behind the disclosures of sources often serves the self interest of the journalist by making more likely that his sources will provide him with information for public disclosure. This makes his job much easier, but it also may omit a critical part of the story.

Consider, for example, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’ celebrated Watergate stories– described on the jacket of their book, All The President’s Men, as "the most devastating political detective story of the century." For 30 years, they kept secret one of their principal sources, W. Mark Felt, the FBI’s Associate Director, who now they identify as the "Deep Throat" character in their book. Felt, who began his career in the FBI in 1941 as a disinformation officer, was himself deeply involved with illegal break-ins. After J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, and his secret files purged, Felt was gained control over some of the most sensitive files, including one entitled "Black Bag Jobs." Prior to Watergate, Felt had authorized a number of highly-secret FBI operations, including warrentless and illegal break-ins into the homes of relatives of political radicals (for which he in 1980 was convicted in Federal court of "unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to injure and oppress citizens.") In June 1972, when the Watergate burglars were arrested, and then one of their co-conspirators Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent, provided the FBI with details of a wide ranging wire-tap operation, Felt, and other FBI officials who had authorized their own illegal black bag jobs, had a motive in controlling the press reaction. In addition, Nixon's appointment of L. Patrick Gray to succeed Hoover as FBI director had set off a brutal power struggle. So Felt's efforts to steer Woodward, Bernstein and other journalist may be a relevant part of the event.

Felt carefully controlled the information he (as well as possibly others in the FBI) fed to journalists. For instance, he did not tell Woodward in the summer of 1972 about the prior break-ins and extensive electronic eavesdropping that the ex-FBI officer Baldwin had revealed to the FBI. Instead, as the prosecutors determined, he supplied Woodward with FBI "302" reports that detailed activities about one Donald H. Segretti. Segretti, a young Republican lawyer, had been playing "dirty tricks" on various Democrats in the primaries-- such as sending two hundred copies of a defamatory letter to Democrats-- but had nothing to do with illegal break-ins or Watergate. Felt, however, told Woodward that these dirty tricks were an integral part of Watergate, and that there were fifty other Segretti-type agents, all receiving information from Watergate-type bugging operations. Felt’s "50 other agents" never materialized anywhere except in a Woodward and Bernstein story. This detour-- which occupied almost one-third of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting-- led to a dead end.

To be sure, Felt also directed Woodward to a number of more profitable areas, such as the destruction of documents by his superior at the FBI,Gray. Less than 2 months after he supplied Woodward with this story, Felt was out of the FBI, but the flow of information to Woodward did not stop. According to a recent disclosure by another former FBI executive, Paul V. Daly, at least 3 other FBI officers were involved with Felt in this clandestine effort, all falling under the portmanteau cover of Deep Throat. Such a collaboratve effort might also explain how the Deep Throat package continue to pass White House secrets to Woodward 4 months after Felt had left the FBI. If so, the Machiavellian operation was effectively obscured by Woodward's Deep Throat. Instead of learning that a high-ranking FBI executive-- possibly with the aid of others in the FBI-- had been manipulating the press, the public was presented with a heroic tale of a patriotic loner, code named Deep Throat, who helped a dynamic duo of journalists defeat the governmental Goliath. The perpetuation of this myth for three decades is a triumph of the literary skills of Woodward and Bernstein over reality.
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