Monday, July 04, 2005

The Set Up

Bob WoodWard and Carl Bernstein

Bob Woodward had some concern that he and his partner Carl Bernstein were being set up by two government officials who had provided them with false information. Both officials worked for the FBI, one had arranged an elaborate series of meetings with Woodward; the other called Bernstein out of the blue with an offer to volunteer secret information. Then, in late October 1972, both of these sources confirmed to Woodward and Bernstein that Hugh W. Sloan Jr., the treasurer of Nixon’s reelection campaign, had testified to the Grand Jury that President Nixon’s top deputy, Bob Halderman, had been involved in dispersing secret funds used for illegal activities. To publish the story, the Washington Post required two independent sources, which the FBI had conveniently provided. The Washington Post ran the story on October 24, 1972 under the sensational headline. "Testimony Ties Top Nixon Aide To Secret Fund."

The story fell apart the next day. Sloan and his lawyer denied that Sloan’s Grand Jury testimony contained any such information about Halderman. The Washington Post had been caught flagrante delicto in a false story based on anonymous sources at a critical time. Since both FBI officials should have known from their access to FBI files that Sloan had not named Halderman, Woodward asked in All the President’s Men,"Had the entire thing been a set-up"?

Woodward had a point. Could it be a mere coincidence that two FBI officials sought out the Washington Post reporters during the same time period and provided them with the same misleading information? Woodward also knew-- although his editor did not-- that the source he described as working in the executive branch was actually W. Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI.

Felt was certainly capable of setting up a reporter. He had earned his spurs at the FBI in the 1940s orchestrating disinformation operations. He also was in charge of controlling the "leaks"on Watergate appearing in the Washington Post. In working against the Washington Post, Felt had an entire team of FBI agents at his disposal. According to Paul V. Daly, a former FBI bureau chief, whose account was recently published in the Albany Times Union, this team included Richard Long, who was chief of the FBI's white-collar crimes section during Watergate; Robert G. Kunkel, agent-in-charge of the Washington field office, which led the Watergate burglary investigation; and Charles Bates, who was assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division. They were all involved in the operation of "leaking" (the euphemism for planting) stories to the Washington Post. The FBI agent who approached Bernstein with information from secret FBI 302 reports and who confirmed the canard that Sloan had named Halderman presumably was a subordinate of Felt's. If so, the disinformation funneled to Woodward and Bernstein about the White House connection was part and parcel of Felt’s operation. Felt then continued to steer, if not control, Woodward and Bernstein by misdirecting them to search for no fewer than 50 non-existing political operatives who he claimed were the real heart of the Watergate conspiracy. One of the areas Felt may have been steering Woodward and Bernstein away from was the FBI's extensive program of illegal break-ins, which Felt had himself authorized.
Woodward did not find it profitable to pursue his suspicion of a set up. By submerging Felt into the mystery he brilliantly created about the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward managed to avoid that issue.