By Thomas Peele
IT WOULD BE easy to call W. Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, a hero.
His death in Santa Rosa earlier this month was anti-climactic. It was
only now upon his passing that we were supposed to learn Felt's
identity as the secret source that helped topple Richard Nixon. Bob
Woodward and Carl Bernstein were only now supposed to be revealing
the greatest secret at the intersection of American politics and journalism.
But Felt outed himself as their Watergate source in 2005 as the
twilight of his life was fading. Woodward rushed to print with his
book "The Secret Man" the story of Deep Throat that he kept contained
for more than 30 years.
But at his death, Felt's story is worth revisiting, both as an
examination of anonymous sourcing and as a discussion of Deep
Throat's place in history. Last month, after I wrote about secrecy in
the Bush administration and its scoffing at the Freedom of
Information Act, a reader e-mailed me complaining about the use of
anonymous sources in newspaper stories. He'd never seen so many, he
said, trying to undermine a president.
The use of anonymous sources is never a journalist's first choice.
But when faced with the complete shutdown of access to meaningful
information, we are sometimes forced to use them.
Some news organizations refuse to do this under any circumstances.
But an ironclad rule makes little sense. Anonymous sourcing needs to
be weighed on a story-by-story basis. The best rule about it is to
have no rule, other than to first exhaust all other possibilities of
obtaining the information another way.
The first thing to examine is motivation. Why must a person be
anonymous? What do they have to lose? What stops them from being named?
Often, a good reporter tells a person this: Stand behind what you are
saying with full attribution or I am not going to write anything.
More often, someone within a bureaucracy will steer a reporter to
information to documents and keep their name out of the
newspaper. That happens all the time. It's when the information ends
up in print attributed to someone who is expressly not identified by
name that the use of anonymous sourcing becomes controversial.
Woodward and Bernstein never quoted Deep Throat directly. Anyone who
watched "All The President's Men" recalls Hal Holbrook as Felt, (we
know now), smoking nervously in the underground parking garage,
feeding info to Woodward about Nixon's men that had to be confirmed
elsewhere before it was printed.
It's what is known as "deep background" information that can only be
used if ferreted out elsewhere. (The source's code name, remember,
was a combination of deep background and the title of a popular X-rated movie).
Felt was not the perfect G Man. Like Nixon, he found those who did
not meet his criteria of righteousness unworthy of Constitutional
protections. In 1980, he was convicted of violating the civil rights
of families and friends of members of the radical Weather
Underground, authorizing nine searches without warrants.
That Deep Throat was convicted of ordering illegal break-ins is one
of the great, yet ignored, ironies of American history topped,
perhaps, only by this: Nixon testified at Felt's trial and said he
supported the practice to protect national security.
Was it justice that motivated Felt, or something else? He wanted to
be named FBI director and wasn't. He was angry that Nixon had
scuttled an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in. He hated L.
Patrick Gray, who Nixon named to succeed J. Edgar Hoover.
But in using anonymous sources, motivation is often not the final
determining factor. The public importance of the story and veracity
of information are. Contented people rarely rock boats.
Some have argued that Felt, the number two official in the FBI, bore
a responsibility to share his knowledge of events inside the Nixon
administration with someone other than an unproven Washington Post
reporter. The Justice Department or Congress, they claim.
But sometimes the only way to get to the bottom of things is to go
completely outside the bureaucracy. A free press is an awesome and
daunting responsibility but it is enshrined in the First Amendment
for a reason.
People who recognize that reason sometimes bring matters to the
attention of journalists at the risk of their jobs and futures. Some
have axes to grind. Others have motivations of wanting good government.
Being found out is always risky. It's why 49 states have laws
allowing journalists to protect the identity of anonymous sources,
and it's why one is desperately needed at the federal level.
Consider this conversation picked up by Nixon's ubiquitous White House bugs:
"We know what's leaked and we know who leaked it," Chief of Staff
H.R. Haldeman told the president in October 1972.
Nixon replied, "Someone in the FBI?"
"Yes sir," Haldeman said. "Mark Felt."
"Now why in the hell would he do that?" Nixon asked.
It's a question for the ages.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News
Group-East Bay. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.