PUBLICUSS by Robert F. Seibert

rseibert@knox.edu

 

Deep Throat Identified

 

There was great excitement this past week as the identity of “Deepthroat” was confirmed.  As many had previously speculated, the anonymous source that drove the Wategate investigation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was Mark Felt, deputy director and second in command of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In revealing himself as the source, Felt laid to rest one of the great mysteries of the twenthieth century, an unknown as important and frustrating as the location of Judge Crater and the identity of those who killed President Kennedy.

Given the importance of his influence on the Watergate investigation, many writers wondered just why Felt had been reluctant to identify himself.  Surely, we believed, the guidance he offered to those two young reporters was of immense importance and benefit to the republic.  Why would he be reluctant to stand up and receive the thanks of a grateful nation?

Well, the resulting furor following his announcement proves the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.  Almost from the instant of his announcement, our national media treated us to a barrage of attacks questioning his character, judgment and loyalty.  He was accused of breaking federal statutes regarding the unofficial “leaks” of information.

Within an hour of the announcement, I personally heard Mr. Felt’s character assaulted by such monuments of integrity as G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Colson, both perpetrators who had done time as a result of those Watergate actions and the attendant cover-ups.

The general tone of the criticisms were that Felt was a snitch, a traitor, a snake, disloyal to the president, disloyal to the bureau, and – horror of horrors – a friend of journalists.  The tone was of general outrage, and no one did it better than Buchanan, one of the few White House insiders that didn’t lose his job and/or go to prison.  Simultaneously acting as judge and jury, the perpetrators and survivors of the Nixon administration condemned Mark Felt to the depths of hell reserved only for the truly traitorous.

Mark Felt’s defense fell largely to media professionals.  Woodward and Bernstein themselves, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Andrea Mitchell and a fair sampling of other professional journalists defended both Felt and the necessity of anonymous sources.  Their tone was generally measured and somewhat incredulous about the accusations leveled against him.

As I listened in alternating states of outrage, incredulity, and sympathy for Mr. Felt, it occurred to me that we have come a long way since Watergate and that the actual facts of the story have long been dismissed and forgotten by most of us.  Hence, a short review is in order.

The main substantive criticism of Felt was that he went out of the chain of command when he snitched to Woodward and Bernstein.  He should have, instead, reported his suspicions to his immediate superior, L. Patrick Gray.  Or, if he believed that Gray was compromised, made his suspicions clear to the Justice Department.  Or, if he felt that Justice had been compromised, gone directly to the president to present his concerns.

What justifies Felt’s behavior then and now is that all of those institutions had in some way been corrupted and/or incorporated into the Watergate conspiracy.  There were no safe avenues through which Felt could make his concerns known to the administration.  Operating from a position in which he could see the evidence of the Watergate transgressions, Felt reluctantly turned to the press.  The rest, as they say, is history.

With the clarity of hindsight, it is possible to reconstruct the atmospherics of the Nixon White House.  It is not a pretty picture.

The best word to describe the administration near and during Watergate is
“paranoid.”  Paranoia about what the Democrats “knew” drove the initial burglary.  Fear and paranoia about the political consequences of getting caught drove the cover-up.  Paranoia about the intentions and capabilities of the anti-war movement, the civil-rights movement, and the Soviets.  The world was a dangerous place, and only hard-nosed and ruthless men could survive.  It was an atmosphere in which insiders could openly joke that Charles Colson would “walk over his grandmother” for Richard Nixon.  Loyalty to the president was the overriding value of the White House staff.  “Enemies lists” were constructed, refined and distributed. Careers were ruined and reputations damaged.  The Huston Plan was considered and reconsidered.  Traitors were everywhere.

How bad was it?  It was this bad:  in the last weeks of Watergate, we were ruled by a truly paranoid and isolated president awash in alcohol and given to wandering the corridors of the White House late at night engaging the portraits of past presidents in conversation.  We had a paranoid president speculating on whether a war or international crisis could help him out of his predicament.  We had an unstable drunk with his finger near the “button,” constrained only by the good judgment of his most senior staff.

The republic was never more in danger in the modern era.  Nobody knows where things might have gone had Mark Felt not engaged Woodward and Bernstein in their investigation of Watergate.  Mark Felt is a hero and should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, whistleblowers are not long honored in our society.  There is no statue that I know of in Washington to someone who uncovered and exposed fraud or malfeasance in our government. Is there a monument to the whistleblower that exposed Teapot Dome? Will Seymour Hersh get a mdeal for his exposure of the My Lai Massacre? Will Linda Tripp live out a full and honorable retirement after the Lewinsky scandal?  You judge.

Mark Felt exercised pretty good judgment in keeping his identity secret for so long.  His ambivalence toward his own role in the affair reflects our culture’s fundamental ambivalence toward the person who blows the whistle or raises the alarm..

We can only hope for more Mark Felts.  Should we again face a situation in which the presidency becomes malignant, in which an administration lies to the American people, violates the constitution, and engages in criminal behavior, and obstructs justice, our main line of defense will be people in the system whose moral outrage trumps their commitment to the president.  In this sense, our constitution is protected only by those willing to stand up for it regardless of the costs.

Thank you, Mark Felt.