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

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.