The Ambivalence of Deep Throat


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

When writing college letters of recommendation for my high school students, I often employ the somewhat pretentious phrase that the student displays a sophisticated appreciation for the role played by paradox and ambiguity in historical causation.  The saga of former FBI official Mark Felt provides yet another example of history’s ambivalence.  And with the death of Mark Felt and the acclaimed cinematic adaptation of Broadway’s Frost/Nixon by filmmaker Ron Howard, it seems that this holiday season will not escape references to the shadow which Richard Nixon continues to cast upon American politics.

Felt confirmed that he was the “deep throat” source who provided essential information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal which toppled the Nixon Presidency.  Felt is perceived by many as a hero whose whistle blowing exposed the threat posed to American democracy by the Nixon administration.  On the other hand, former Nixon loyalists such as Charles Colson criticized Felt for betraying the President and his government position.  Others censured the Felt family for attempting to cash in on the informant’s new found notoriety.  But who can blame the family?  After all, plenty of others, including Woodward and Bernstein, profited from their Watergate allegations.

If one accepts former Presidential counselor John Dean’s conclusion that a cancer was growing in the Nixon White House, then Felt emerges as a hero.  The isolated Nixon Presidency was a threat to American democracy as exemplified by the Watergate cover up, the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and the so-called “dirty” tricks campaign directed against such Democratic candidates as Ed Muskie.

Yet, Felt’s own actions as the number two man at the FBI during the 1970s raise some questions regarding the agent’s motivations.  Was Felt primarily concerned about issues of democracy and civil liberties or was he more afraid that the White House might intrude upon the national security prerogatives of the FBI?

For what has been termed the Watergate scandal was about a great deal more than the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.  The newspaper and Congressional investigations which evolved from the initial Watergate burglary and cover-up revealed widespread governmental abuse of power.  The Internal Revenue System was used to harass enemies of the Nixon administration, and Senator Frank Church labeled the CIA “a rogue elephant” for its lack of Congressional oversight and illegal covert operations. 

In addition, the FBI fashioned the COINTELPRO program, administered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s top assistant Mark Felt, to infiltrate and discredit such groups as the Black Panthers and Weather Underground faction of the Students for a Democratic Society.  Citing national security threats, the FBI carried out a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation which resulted in the deaths of several Black Panther leaders.  The FBI also authorized burglaries at the homes of Weather Underground family members, attempting to locate the fugitives implicated in a bombing campaign directed against the government and war in Vietnam.  The tactics of Felt and his associates led to many of the charges being dismissed against former members of the Weather Underground such as Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn.  In fact, the overzealous actions of Felt allowed Ayers to assume his career as a college professor and stay out of prison.  Without Felt’s violation of constitutional guarantees granted the Weather underground, it would have been difficult for Barack Obama, in the grandiose rhetoric of Sarah Palin, to “pal around” with an alleged terrorist such as Ayers.  For his role in orchestrating these illegal activities, Mark Felt was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1980 (President Reagan granted him a pardon.)

The ambivalent legacy of Mark Felt, who exposed corruption in the White House but was willing to violate the civil liberties of American citizens, should provide ample discussion material for my classes and students as we struggle with the complexity of American history.  All Americans, however, should consider the broader implications of Felt’s career and the Watergate scandal.  The greatest danger to our democracy and civil liberties may come from a President, as well as government bureaucrats, who are isolated from the American people and engage in secretive policies, employing the rationale of national security to deprive us of our precious liberties.  In recent years, the Bush administration has endangered American troops and national security by pursuing policies of torture and domestic surveillance.  Such affronts to civil liberties, whether at the highest levels of the executive branch or law enforcement, merit the full investigative powers of the new administration without the pardons which were bestowed upon Nixon and his nemesis Felt.  

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Maarja Krusten - 12/23/2008

For someone such as I (who once worked with Richard Nixon’s tapes and files as an employee of the National Archives) the definitive book about his administration has yet to be written. He was President during a very difficult and tumultuous time. The administration faced difficult challenges in foreign policy, the Vietnam war, how to respond to domestic opposition which ranged from the reasonable to the extreme (the Weathermen.) But, ultimately, as Nixon himself later put it, he gave his enemies a sword. Some of what happened during his administration might have been avoided. Other actions within and outside his administration seemed to have very complex causes, difficult to unravel even now.

Dan K. Thomasson asserts in Monday's Abilene Reporter that Mark Felt was just one of many FBI leakers. He speculates on the impact of Nixon's decision to name L. Patrick Gray rather than an FBI insider to head the agency after the death of J. Edgar Hoover. See

For historians, why Felt acted as he did will remain the subject of speculation.

And what about Watergate? On the face of it, it made little sense to break in to the offices of the DNC. Why the Watergate break-in occurred is and probably will remain the subject of various theories, too.

Beyond what spokesman Ron Ziegler initially termed a "third rate burglary," there was the harmful effect of a mindset regarding the political opposition (beyond anything justified by national security concerns) that proved destructive. Consider what led to G. Gordon Liddy actually meeting with Attorney General John Mitchell to present a plan such as “Gemstone.” Mitchell rejected the plan (James Rosen's _The Strong Man_ provides an interesting account of the meeting) but aspects of Gemstone lingered.

As for the environment in the Nixon White House, H. R. Haldeman's published diaries offer useful insights, as do books such as Egil Krogh's _Integrity_ as well as the memoirs of other Nixon administration officials. Misuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, and other sources of power resulted from a belief that this was what Nixon’s predecessors had done. It was “do unto others because they once did or before they later try to do unto you.”

And a number of people “did unto others,” in various ways. Nixon taped his conversations unbeknownst to most visitors and callers; Kissinger had transcripts made of his some of his telephone calls. And a Navy yeoman assigned to the White House spied on the administration *itself* on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Only with the release of records by the National Archives, in 2000 and later, were researchers able to learn how Nixon and his aides reacted to revelations about the yeoman and the Chiefs. (See this from 2002
and this from 2008 ("The Men Who Spied on Nixon: New Details Reveal Extent of 'Moorer-Radford Affair'") at

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2008/12/15/new-details-emerge-nixon-era-spying-case/ ) When Seymour Hersh covered some aspects of the story in the New York Times in early 1974, the administration sought to downplay the reports that Admiral Moorer had received the results of the yeoman’s spying.

As turbulent as this time period was, the one thing Nixon’s administration did not have to deal with was the blogosphere, where message boards often reflect a crush ‘em mindset towards those who deviate from the poster’s views. Of couse, on-line posters represent a self-selecting sample, some of whom engage reasonably, but others of whom exude fear, even hatred, of those who think differently from them. (We largely are spared the latter on HNN). I don’t think the latter are representative of the citizenry as a whole. But they do make it harder to assure the public that a President will use executive authority wisely and appropriately.

Politically it may be fun for online supporters to trash talk, but in terms of governance, it can undermine those charged with upholding the public trust. If there had been blogs and message boards in Nixon’s day, I wonder how many of them would have been buzzing about the some of the red-meat speeches that Pat Buchanan once wrote for Vice President Agnew? Would Nixon have encouraged whipping up supporters in on-line forums? Or would he have said, tone down the slams at opponents, we don’t need people to get the idea that we’re going to use our power against citizens who oppose us.

Back in Nixon’s day, the White House and the RNC encouraged letter writing campaigns, placement of advertisements in newspapers, and so forth. As much as Nixon talked public relations with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, I’m sure they would have chewed over the pros and cons of using the Internet in some fascinating talks, had the blogosphere existed back in Nixon’s day.

Posting from home

John Connally - 12/22/2008

How dare he mention the annointed one - Barack Obama the Irrefragable.

James W Loewen - 12/22/2008

... and an important one.

James W Loewen - 12/22/2008

The comment about Obama is a gratuitous and silly attempt to claim relevance more for this essay than it merits. It's enough to remind us that Felt had a lot to do with Cointelpro. That's a contribution.