By George Friedman
Mark Felt died last week at the age of 95. For those who don't recognize that name, Felt was the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame. It was Felt who provided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post with a flow of leaks about what had happened, how it happened and where to look for further corroboration on the break-in, the cover-up, and the financing of wrongdoing in the Nixon administration. Woodward and Bernstein's exposé of Watergate has been seen as a high point of journalism, and their unwillingness to reveal Felt's identity until he revealed it himself three years ago has been seen as symbolic of the moral rectitude demanded of journalists.
In reality, the revelation of who Felt was raised serious questions about the accomplishments of Woodward and Bernstein, the actual price we all pay for journalistic ethics, and how for many years we did not know a critical dimension of the Watergate crisis. At a time when newspapers are in financial crisis and journalism is facing serious existential issues, Watergate always has been held up as a symbol of what journalism means for a democracy, revealing truths that others were unwilling to uncover and grapple with. There is truth to this vision of journalism, but there is also a deep ambiguity, all built around Felt's role. This is therefore not an excursion into ancient history, but a consideration of two things. The first is how journalists become tools of various factions in political disputes. The second is the relationship between security and intelligence organizations and governments in a Democratic society.
Watergate was about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. The break-in was carried out by a group of former CIA operatives controlled by individuals leading back to the White House. It was never proven that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon knew of the break-in, but we find it difficult to imagine that he didn't. In any case, the issue went beyond the break-in. It went to the cover-up of the break-in and, more importantly, to the uses of money that financed the break-in and other activities. Numerous aides, including the attorney general of the United States, went to prison. Woodward and Bernstein, and their newspaper, The Washington Post, aggressively pursued the story from the summer of 1972 until Nixon's resignation. The episode has been seen as one of journalism's finest moments. It may have been, but that cannot be concluded until we consider Deep Throat more carefully.
Deep Throat Reconsidered
Mark Felt was deputy associate director of the FBI (No. 3 in bureau hierarchy) in May 1972, when longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died. Upon Hoover's death, Felt was second to Clyde Tolson, the longtime deputy and close friend to Hoover who by then was in failing health himself. Days after Hoover's death, Tolson left the bureau.
Felt expected to be named Hoover's successor, but Nixon passed him over, appointing L. Patrick Gray instead. In selecting Gray, Nixon was reaching outside the FBI for the first time in the 48 years since Hoover had taken over. But while Gray was formally acting director, the Senate never confirmed him, and as an outsider, he never really took effective control of the FBI. In a practical sense, Felt was in operational control of the FBI from the break-in at the Watergate in August 1972 until June 1973.