Deep Throat: Was What He Did Unprecedented?


Mr. Theoharis is a professor of history at Marquette University and the author of the recently published The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief, Critical History.

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The revelation that Bob Woodward's source, "Deep Throat," was former FBI Acting Associate Director W. Mark Felt raises at least two questions. First, why would a senior FBI official leak critical information to a Washington Post reporter given its potential to affect a presidential election? This action appears contradictory to Felt's willingness in 1972 and 1973 (at the very time he was acting as Woodward's source) to authorize "clearly illegal" break-ins during an FBI investigation of the Weather Underground fugitives in this case in response to pressure from the Nixon While House. Felt's authorization of these break-ins eventually resulted in his indictment (in 1978) and conviction (in 1980) for his violation of the law. Second, was Felt's willingness to leak information from FBI files on the condition that his action not become known atypical insofar as FBI officials had consistently affirmed the confidentiality (and necessity for that confidentiality) of FBI files?

Felt's willingness to leak information was influenced by the troubling history of the FBI-Nixon White House relationship both pre- and post-break-in. Dating from Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, FBI officials had been willing to act as the intelligence arm of the White House both honoring White House requests and volunteering information that could further a president's political and policy interests. Nixon's presidency, however, proved particularly troublesome for FBI officials given the boldness of the requests and their potential impact on the FBI's independence and integrity. On the one hand, the Nixon White House was not simply interested in derogatory information about political radicals (e.g., the Weather Underground) but also Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, prominent Beatle John Lennon, anti-war activist John Kerry, prominent reporters and columnists and had also asked the FBI to wiretap reporters (and members of his own White House and National Security Council staffs) to ascertain the source of a leak to the New York Times (with the taps on two NSC aides continuing after they had left the staff and had signed as advisers to Senator Edmund Muskie, the prospective Democratic presidential nominee) Nixon's indifference to the consequences of his actions for the FBI is captured in one of his requests of November 25, 1970.

On that day, White House aide H. R. Haldeman telephoned FBI Director Hoover to relay a request on behalf of the president. Prefacing his request by noting that the president believed that the FBI would not have to conduct an investigation, Haldeman asked Hoover for a list of homosexuals (identifying one reporter by name, whose name has been redacted in the released FBI memo of this conversation) and "any other stuff" on members of the Washington press corps.1 Nixon assumed correctly. Within two days the requested report was hand-delivered to the White House--confirming both that the FBI had already compiled such information and had a system by which such information could be obtained relating to Washington-based reporters. To protect the FBI in the event that this assistance became known, Hoover retained the memo of this conversation--but not the copy of the report delivered to the White House--the latter of which would have confirmed the extent of the FBI's monitoring of the sexual activities of reporters. Hoover's concern in this case stemmed from another Nixonian initiative of June--July 1970.

Having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 on January 1, 1965 (waived by a 1964 executive order of President Johnson), Hoover had become concerned, in the more skeptical climate of the 1960s, that his tenure would be terminated should the extent of the FBI's illegal investigative techniques become known. Accordingly in 1965-1966, he issued orders prohibiting break-ins and mail openings, limiting the number of wiretaps and bugs, and raising the minimum age of informers to 21--techniques he had authorized dating from 1940. The FBI Director had not become a born-again constitutionalist; he had concluded only that continued use of these techniques was too risky. Learning of these restrictions in 1970, White House aide Tom Charles Huston helped draft a crafty strategy to circumvent Hoover's restrictions by having the president directly authorize them. Huston recommended that Nixon issue an order authorizing these "clearly illegal" activities and invite Hoover to the White House for a "stroking session" to get the FBI director aboard. Interested in deniability, Nixon instead had Huston issue the order under his (Huston's) signature. On receiving Huston’ s memo, Hoover recognized the FBI's vulnerability (there being no explicit presidential authorization) and was also concerned about another component of the Plan--the creation of a permanent inter-intelligence agency committee on which the White House would have a representative to ensure that the intelligence agencies would be fully responsive to the White House. Accordingly, the FBI Director advised Attorney General John Mitchell of his intention lo create a written record any time the FBI conducted any one of these "clearly illegal" investigative techniques--thereby submarining Nixon’s strategy of deniability. Mitchell briefed Nixon of Hoover's intentions, and the Huston Plan was recalled.

While Hoover had warded off this threat to the FBI's integrity, he and senior FBI officials remained leery of Nixon's purposes and indifference to the FBI's interests. This concern underlay Felt's responses to Nixon's appointment of L. Patrick Gray as Acting FBI Director following Hoover's death on May 2, 1972, six weeks before the Watergate break-in. Felt was not only miffed that he had been bypassed, but was concerned that the Gray appointment would politicize the FBI--a concern heightened by his subsequent awareness of White House efforts to contain the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.

Felt's decision to leak information to Woodward was thus done for both principled and bureaucratic reasons. Yet, his action was not unprecedented. Despite FBI officials' protestations about the confidentiality of FBI files, FBI officials since the 1940s had purposefully leaked information (again on the condition that the recipient not disclose the FBI's assistance) to members of Congress (most notably, Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy) and congressional committees (House Committee on Un-American Activities, Senate Internal Security Subcommittee). Their intent was to promote what became known as McCarthyite politics. In addition, FBI officials also leaked (again on the condition of confidentiality) information to certifiably reliable reporters and columnists. This practice became a central component of the FBI’s now-infamous COINTELPRO and was also employed as part of an orchestrated effort to discredit civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Was, then, Felt's action atypical only in that the target was a sitting president and that the consequence of the leak could influence the 1972 presidential election? We know of at least two occasions wherein FBI officials indirectly and covertly sought to influence presidential campaigns. As former FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan recounts in his memoirs, in 1948 as a participant himself and at the direction of FBI Director Hoover, FBI agents sought to help Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey defeat incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman "by giving him [Dewey] everything we had that could hurt Truman." Sullivan reports that the FBI provided information about Truman's association with corrupt Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast and information to "create the impression that Truman was too ignorant to deal with the emerging Communist threat." Sullivan adds that "We even prepared studies for Dewey which were released under his name, as if he and his staff had done the work." Then, in August 1952, following the Democratic National Convention's decision to nominate Illinois Governor as the Party's presidential nominee, Milt Hill (a former newspaper reporter) contacted FBI Assistant Director Louis Nichols about a particularly sensitive matter. Advising Nichols that he had been hired to write the "official Republican biography" of Stevenson, Hill sought Nichols's confirmation of two matters he had learned about from a former FBI agent. The first involved allegations of corruption in Illinois state government and the second "scuttlebutt" that Stevenson had been arrested in New York "on a morals charge." Nichols briefed Hoover on this matter, emphasizing Hill's reliability. And, while the homosexual allegation was not directly raised by Republican operatives or circulated in printed literature, it was circulated in rumor form.

The revelation that Felt was Deep Throat, thus, has interest beyond solving the mystery of who Deep Throat was. It highlights the costs of secrecy--and not only the elaborate cover-up orchestrated by the Nixon White House. A broader issue involved the nature of the White House-FBI relationship and FBI officials’ covert efforts to influence the political culture. It documents one consequence of the FBI's secret monitoring of the political and personal activities of American citizens (not for law enforcement reasons): FBI officials’ success in surreptitiously disseminating this information to influence public opinion and public policy. And while the catalyst to these earlier actions stemmed from a concern about the "subversive" threat, today the rationale involves an undefined "terrorist" threat as the justification both for the imperative of secrecy and unquestioned trust in the nation's leaders.


1Having failed in its "law and order" strategy to defeat incumbent Democratic Senators during the 1970 campaign, the Nixon Administration had shifted strategy to question the "liberal" bias of the media. This request would complement that tack.

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brandi smith - 6/22/2005

this place sucks ass u need a chat room

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James Spence - 6/10/2005

This article brings an old truisms to mind: abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Nixon's plan to concentrate executive power is Mickey Mouse compared to the Bush presidency.

And the footnote at the bottom of this article makes an important point about the necessity of muzzling the press to influence political culture. How relevant it is to today’s administration. An article by Sidney Blumenthal rounds out this issue: http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5211614-103677,00.html

Robert Howard Whealey - 6/6/2005

Excellent article on spying. I would like to see two more articles.

1. How Nixon's passion to continue the intervention in the Vietnamese war, led to the sabatoge of Presidential election of 1972.

2. A comparative article with East Germany. 1/3 of the people in that state were spying on the other 2/3. What did it all accomlish?

Robert Howard Whealey - 6/6/2005

Over several months, I have written three or four comments to hnn.us. Every time I submit a comment the machine rejects the message and I must submit the old password again.

Does one have to sign up each time BEFORE one writes the message?