Deep Throat and the FBI's History of Hiding Its Own Leaks


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 recent revelations—first, that former FBI Acting Associate Director W Mark Felt was Bob Woodward’s Deep Throat and then, that Felt had successfully orchestrated the FBI’s investigation into the source of this leak--has dominated news coverage. Yet, rather than understand this event as the actions of a crafty and sophisticated bureaucrat, we would do well to locate it in the broader context of the FBI’s history. For Felt’s role in containing an FBI investigation of his own role as leaker, if atypical, was not unprecedented. An even more dramatic example involved a 1950 FBI investigation of a leak to Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A first term and relatively influential first-term US senator, McCarthy catapulted to national prominence in Feb. 1950 when claiming to have evidence of “known communists in the State Department” (his cited numbers varying from 205 to 57 and, ultimately in a Senate speech of Feb. 20, to 81). Convinced that McCarthy lacked the evidence to support his 81 cases claim and intending furthermore to discredit an evolving Republican strategy of red baiting the Truman administration, the Democratic Senate leadership launched an inquiry into McCarthy’s claimed 81 cases. Chaired by Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, the committee’s Democratic majority issued its final report on July 20, dismissing McCarthy’s charges as a “fraud and a hoax.” Because President Truman, however, had denied the committee full access to the FBI’s files on these 81 cases, his restrictions enabled Sen. McCarthy to dismiss the findings as a “whitewash” and further in a Senate speech and a follow-up press release to claim that the FBI files--which the committee had reviewed--had been “raped.” In support of this latter contention, McCarthy cited the Edward Posniak case and cited FBI developed evidence of Posniak’s communist ties summarized in a Civil Service Commission investigation report (which he then publicly released).

McCarthy’s action infuriated the Truman administration. And because McCarthy had cited a classified government report, on July 25, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath ordered the FBI to conduct an investigation into his apparent violation of Title 18 sections 641 and 2071 of the US code criminalizing the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. McGrath’s order potentially could have compromised FBI officials who had covertly leaked FBI information to the Wisconsin senator. Yet, because FBI officials had both conditioned their earlier assistance on assurances of confidentiality and had not given McCarthy FBI files (instead summarizing FBI information in “blind memorandum” form), they could expect that their assistance would not be uncovered. Indeed, the resultant FBI investigation first confirmed that McCarthy’s claimed report was not an authentic Civil Service Commission report and further focused on Civil Service Commission or State Department Loyalty Review Board employees as McCarthy’s possible sources. An unanticipated initiative of McCarthy aide Don Surine in Sept. 1950, however, threatened to undermine this containment strategy.

During a meeting that month with an agent of the FBI’s Washington field office, Surine solicited a summary memorandum on Owen Lattimore. Surine conveyed to the agent his awareness of the FBI’s investigation involving the “Posniak case,” and outlined how he would handle this to avoid compromising the FBI as a source. As in the “Posniak case,” he would disguise the source as a Civil Service Commission and not an FBI report and further, the purported report, because not a government record, would not violate Title 18.

Surine’s unanticipated and “gratuitous” offer (FBI officials’ phrasing) troubled senior FBI officials whose automatic response was to order that Surine not be interviewed relating to this admission. Yet, because the summary report of the Washington field office referred briefly to Surine’s admission, Attorney General McGrath in November 1950 ordered the FBI to interview Surine. Until then, the FBI had not interviewed any member of McCarthy’s staff ostensibly because the senator during his FBI interview had refused to disclose his source and had added that he had ordered his staff not to disclose the source. When finally questioned about the Posniak case on November 27, Surine first told the interviewing agent that he knew nothing. When the agent then responded that he had “reliable information” that Surine in fact had such knowledge, the McCarthy aide amended his response “to say that he had refused comment on the matter.” The FBI report on this interview included only Surine’s refusal to comment and not his original claim of ignorance.

The McCarthy episode both resembles and differs from Felt’s later action in precluding discovery of his own role as Deep Throat. In Felt’s case, there is no evidence that any other FBI official was aware of his role as Deep Throat. The Acting Associate Director’s purpose, moreover, had been to subvert the Nixon White House’s efforts to politicize the FBI—both by limiting the agency’s investigation into the break-in and the possibility of discovery of the role of senior White House and Committee to Re-Elect the President officials in the break-in and resultant cover-up. In contrast, the McCarthy cover-up involved senior FBI officials whose purpose was to avert the president’s (and the broader public’s) discovery of a politicized FBI and their own covert involvement ion partisan politics.

The McCarthy episode, moreover, is not without contemporary relevance. On the one hand, it confirms how secrecy enabled FBI officials to assist the Truman administration’s Republican critics and then to avert discovery of their assistance. On the other hand, in contrast to other known examples of FBI officials’ purposeful leaks extending from the 1940s through at least the 1970s (whether to Congressman Nixon, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or conservative reporters and columnists), where FBI assistance might have been suspected, in this case FBI officials had been ordered to investigate an evident leak. Their condition of confidentiality combined with their sophisticated practice of never leaking actual FBI records enabled them to neutralize this potential problem—and the confirmation that the FBI was not a professional apolitical investigative agency. At a time of renewed anxiety, now about an omnipresent “terrorist” (rather than “subversive”) threat, we would do well to be skeptical about renewed calls for secrecy and expanded surveillance powers.

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Frederick Thomas - 7/18/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your remarks. As noted elsewhere, I am more of a libertarian than anything else. Strong states kill people. I like kings as little as I do leftist dictators.

As you are probably aware, the rest of the Western Hemisphere got rid of slavery by 1885, without war. The US probably would have not been the last to do so, so say, by 1875, it would have been at least on the way out.

One really must make a value judgment: The slaves lacked freedom, which is very bad. The civil war dead lacked life itself, which is far worse, not counting the wounded.

Are 10 years of increasingly liberalized slavery for a couple of million slaves, leading to real emancipation worth more on the scale of human rights than life itself for over 600,000 young men, and wounding for many others, followed by a devastating reconstruction which did not benefit the slaves materially, rather to the contrary? You are right in assuming that this is a more difficult decision for me than it is for you.

Of course all of this assumes that the Civil War was about slavery, when it was about economics and taxes, a conflict the North would have lost had there been no war. Follow the money, as deep throat might have said...

Thank you again for your comments.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/15/2005

<Hitler appoints Schacht, a free market genius. FDR appoints Morgenthau, a warmed over socialist. In 1936, Germany has an 11% growth rate and no unemployment. US has 12% unemployment, zero growth, and widespread misery. QED>

Could an argument/comparison be more ahistorical, irrelevant, and "righter"?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2005

Mr. Thomas, I'm afraid that we're so far apart that there's not much to talk about. Your decentralized government would have left millions of Americans in slavery. I should think that would cause you to be a little less full of hatred for that famous American Lefty, Abe Lincoln.

Frederick Thomas - 7/15/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your remarks.

Since you ask, I am for anyone who believes that the role of the Federal Government is strictly as defined in the Constitution, rather than the bastard stepchild of hack judges who use the commerce clause to let the feds take over anything. I support Jefferson's concept of a tiny fed, a bigger state, and a bigger yet locality. Big central governments kill people no matter how well intended, hence workers' paradises which murder 10 million per year in the 20th century. I dislike Lincoln as much as WW, FDR, Truman and LBJ because they all were warmongers, big government guys who killed many Americans.

Fidder a leftie? Demonstrably so. His election in New York was with the joint support of the Socialists, he staffed his government with Communists and Socialist traitors, as Venona proved, and made a Scoialist a VP. He and Communist Hopkins gave 100 million people over to Soviet tyranny and murder. Rather than giving the Soviets only token aid so they could be eliminated as a government, he made it possible for them to survive to kill again.

In economics, you must be kidding. FDR almost killed the American economy, by sabotaging business in a way which was almost pathological. See "FDRs Folly," which is enough to convince anyone of his economic mendacity.

Or consider the comparitive results. In 1932, FDR and Hitler become government leaders, each with depression 12% unemployment and negative growth. Hitler appoints Schacht, a free market genius. FDR appoints Morgenthau, a warmed over socialist. In 1936, Germany has an 11% growth rate and no unemployment. US has 12% unemployment, zero growth, and widespread misery. QED

Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2005

Mr. Thomas, A Leftist would be a critic of American capitalism. For all his faults, Franklin D. Roosevelt saved American capitalism from collapse at its greatest crisis. If you don't buy that, then I'm afraid that you are so off the scale to the Right that there's just not much for us to discuss. Richard Nixon and his operatives acted as if the president of the United States is above the law. For that and for obstruction of justice, very conservative Republicans told him that he did not have sufficient support remaining to survive a trial for impeachment. That's a constitutional process. Call it a bloodless coup if you wish, but if so it was led by such distinguished left-wingers as Barry Goldwater.

Bill Heuisler - 7/14/2005

So everybody's evil and crafty, and I'm full of bile. Should we assume you can't handle the truth or would you rather not hear adverse opinions from the costive?

You asked for documentation of a Leftist President who skated ("Perhaps you'd like to document your claim that "leftie presidents" have been given "a pass". For over a 100 years?"). LBJ was demonstrated to be both.

The Great Society was leftist.Urban Renewal was leftist. The coonskin socialist who allowed thousands of American fighting men to die in a Vietnam war he wouldn't dare to win was a Leftist. JFK was a conservative Democrat; Nixon was a Liberal Republican and both were closer to each other in perspective than they were to their parties. Neither man could fairly be considered evil, but they were treated very differently by the press.

Carter was an internationalist who consciously adapted Wilsonian principles that could be considered Left and Clinton was a supreme opportunist who had no core.

With the possible exception of Carter, however, each man had far worse incidents in their lives and Presidencies than Nixon's asking the FBI to lay off the Watergate break-in. None of the above received the press attention Nixon did. Mr. Thomas' statement is patently true.

Ralph, instead of worrying about my bowels, perhaps you could engage in the discussion by proving me wrong.
Bill Heuisler

Frederick Thomas - 7/14/2005

Mr. Luker:

This is not an effort to gang up.

You change the focus. I maintain that deep throat is a felon and malfeasant who was a tool in a bloodless coup against Nixon. You move the focus to "name the leftie". Ok, here is a list:


Wilson (WW I), Hoover (after the crash), FDR (Depression, WW II), Truman (Korea), LBJ (Vietnam), Carter (stagflation), and Clinton (expansion of government, Somalia, growth of terror).

TR, Eisenhower, Nixon and the GBs come close in some respects.

I emphasize wars because war is the ultimate government assumption of power, what lefties do, and because until recently, all 20th century wars were in democratic administrations. When I look at leftie governments, all over the world, back into history, I see dead people.

Hoover changed a recession into a depression by making all the government intervention mistakes that Roosevelt later copied, including restrictions on employers, loans, and imports, but adding tax increases, meddling agencies, and an effort to manipulate the Fed. This guy was my hero when he fought the Brits to get food to the starving Germans in 1919, then he blew it. Recession went straight to depression, and that took down the rest of the world. As a leftie will do, he promulgated failed stone age government-centered economics.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/14/2005

Bill, I'm glad you got all of that out of your system, though there's probably more bile where that came from. Look, you and I both know that no one who is thoroughly innocent gets to be president of the United States and no one should be president of the United States who is not fairly crafty at the manipulation of power. On the other hand, Brother Thomas made a claim about "Lefty" presidents, whatever the hell that means, going back a hundred years. Ah, that would include Woodrow Wilson -- or is he not a "Lefty"? I don't think there is a Lefty American president in the last 100 years.

Bill Heuisler - 7/13/2005

You can't be serious. LBJ is a study in lies deceit, gross political corruption and press pusillanimity.

After spending his whole life in politics, LBJ's net worth in 1964 was over $20 million. We know he stole the 1948 Senate election and we know his closest political advisor, Fred Black, was part of the Billie Sol Estes and Bobbie Baker scandals.

In '62 Baker formed Serve-U-Corporation - with Black and Ed Levenson and Benny Sigelbaum - to sell vending machines to companies working on federally granted programs. These machines were manufactured by a Chicago company (Red Lion, I think) owned by Sam Giancana. LBJ got a piece of the action in return for arranging Serve-U-Corporation vending machines be placed in most, if not all, Federally contracted companys' offices and factories.

Evidence also emerged that LBJ was also involved in awarding a $7 billion contract for a fighter plane, the TFX, to General Dynamics, a company based in Texas. In return, General Dynamics kicked back huge amounts, not only in donations, but in sub-contracts, deeds of trust, jobs and actual cash. Fred Korth - Navy Secretary, and a close friend of LBJ - negotiated this contract. The whole thing blew up in October, 1963, when Baker was forced to leave his post as LBJ’s secretary. In November Korth was forced to resign over the TFX contract and rumours began to spread that JFK was going to drop LBJ as his running mate in 1964, including information that LBJ would be investigated in the Senate for political corruption.

A key witness was about to testify in the Senate Rules Committee on 22nd November, 1963. His name was Don B. Reynolds, buddy of Bobby Baker who'd had a close business relationship with LBJ for many years. Reynolds stated under oath he had seen a suitcase full of money which Baker described as a "$100,000 payoff to Johnson for his role in securing the Fort Worth TFX contract".

LBJ would not immediately hear what was said on that day in DC because he was visiting Dallas with JFK.

After being sworn in as President, LBJ asked Senate Rules Chair, B. Everett Jordan to stop the information being published. Abe Fortas, a lawyer who represented LBJ and Bobby Baker, worked behind the scenes in an effort to keep this Senate testimony from the public.

The press and the politicians kept it quiet, largely due to the public grief and distraction over JFK's death. But the information is available in the record. LBJ might have been the most venal, corrupt President we've ever had. Add his connivance in the deaths of thousands in the knowingly futile Vietnam fiasco, and he will go down in history as a truly evil man. He was also a damned Lefty.
Bill Heuisler

Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2005

Mr. Thomas, I didn't miss your point -- if you had one other than some partisan propaganda. Perhaps you'd like to document your claim that "leftie presidents" have been given "a pass". For over a 100 years? Do you seriously believe Bill Clinton was of the Left? What offenses were committed by Jimmy Carter that required a pass? You want both Kennedy and Clinton impeached for sexual offences? I'd think that obstruction of justice was a more serious threat to the republic.

Frederick Thomas - 7/13/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments, but you missed the point.

If you could explain why leftie presidents over the past 100 years are given a pass for worse political and criminal transgressions, I would be happy to withdraw my concern with how Nixon was subjected to a press and FBI coup d'etat.

Graham Hick - 7/13/2005

Quaint if it wasn't such a prevelant notion among Americans, including elected officals. That makes the notion scary to me.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/12/2005

Mr. Thomas, Your notion that an elected government is above the law and not subject to the checks and balances of our federal government is, to say the least, quaint.

Frederick Thomas - 7/11/2005

Regarding all of the McCarthy discussion, above, the article fails to mention that most of these guys have been proven guilty because of the release of Venona intercept transacripts. "In their own words," as the saying goes, "they were traitors". The FBI had been trying to find a way to "out" them against the desire of FDRs rear guard to show then all consideration. Hence the secret communication with Mccarthy's committee.

But the fact that these guys spied for the Soviets is old news. There is a more interesting issue which is also not dealt with: the morality of Mr. Felt:

“A coup d'état (pronounced 'k&#363; d&#257; ta'), or simply a 'coup', is the sudden overthrow of a government, usually done by a small group that just replaces the top power figures.” - Wikepedia.

Only the most disingenuous would assert that the “opposition research” of the Nixon administration which culminated in the Watergate affair was materially different from what has gone on since at least the Jefferson administration, with its Hemmings pamphlet, etc. Politics is dirty as long as people are credulous and enjoy the show.

The dirt may have reached its zenith in the Johnson administration, when, having replaced Kennedy, LBJ used everything from libel to the meanest attack ads in our history to get rid of Goldwater. In effect, LBJ’s TV ads said the Goldwater would incinerate everyone’s kids, a premise which certainly came far closer under LBJ than under any Republican but Lincoln.

For LBJ, this was simply the way politics is played, illegal or not, libelous or not, and no one seemed to care when “detectives,” PR flacks, etc. violated various laws and regulations to find dirt, or manufacture it, or plant it. The press laughed at “politics as usual,” and biographers laughed indulgently. That stopped when Nixon beat Humphrey.

Was Watergate different than what had gone on in Democratic regimes? Apparently not-indeed it appeared rather modest. Did Nixon lie about it more than LBJ, FDR, etc? Surely not, though he did lie, like most politicians.

Yet the press did not go into paroxisms of hate speech about LBJ, as they did about Nixon, nor was he impeached, nor did high officials of the FBI violate their oaths and governing statutes, commiting serious crimes, in order to bring him down.

No, what was going on was a bloodless coup d’etat against Richard Nixon, elected president. Felt, like Princip, was simply the slug who carried out the deed.

The guilty parties are the liberal elites who saw Nixon as uncongenial to their vision of an increasingly statist America, (though God knows Nixon did precious little for conservatives,) and they did not care what they did to remove him. So they went to their corrupt spy in the Bureau. It was probably no accident that The Washington Post was complicit.

From my standpoint, the attempt at adulating Felt is disgusting. He was in effect the triggerman in a coup. He admitted to a crime and violated his oath of office which he justified as something somehow good for America.

He was too much a coward to do it openly, as Ellsberg did, and take the hit. No he waited until the heat is off to have his family enrich themselves from his criminal anti-constitutional activities.

Felt was a "crafty and sophisticated bureaucrat?" No, he was a felon who subverted our elected government.

Please, just one little request: no attack Chihuauas asserting how evil Nixon was, or how Felt such a hero.