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Deep Throat: More Hero Than Not | The Nation

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 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Deep Throat: More Hero Than Not

I realize the motto of The Nation is "Unconventional Wisdom Since 1865," but I would advise we don't confuse informed contrarianism with churlishness. My colleague John Nichols in his web column expresses disappointment that Deep Throat--a.k.a. W. Mark Felt, the No. 2 at the FBI--was not an anti-Nixon idealist but (gasp!) a Washington insider. Nichols writes,

In hindsight, we should have known that Washington Post writer Bob Woodward's source for the investigative reports he and Carl Bernstein wrote about Nixon-era corruption would not be an idealist who sought to expose a corrupt presidency. Rather, like so many of Woodward's sources over the years, W. Mark Felt was a consummate Washingtion insider. Far from being someone who feared for the Republic, Felt was a protégé of longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover.

For Nichols, this seems to discredit Felt and his work as an undercover source. But it was always assumed by Watergate-ologists that D.T. was an insider. Who else could have been a witness to the deep and dark secrets of the scandal? Would Nichols be happier had the most famous anonymous source in US history turned out to be Al Haig? Or Fred Fielding? Or Henry Kissinger? Or--yikes!--Patrick Buchanan? It had to be someone within the tribe, for only a person embedded in The System would have had access to the information and perspective D.T. shared with Woodward in that underground garage.

Actually, Felt was not a member of the ratfucking Nixon clique. (For those of you perhaps too young to get the "ratfucking" reference, click here.) Felt was a career FBI employee. He went after the Kansas City mob (a good thing). In the early 1970s he authorized FBI break-ins (without court orders) into the homes of persons suspected of being associated with supposed bombers linked to the Weather Underground (a bad thing). For the latter, Felt was convicted in 1980 of conspiring to violate the civil rights of American dissidents; the following year, President Ronald Reagan granted him a pardon. How's that for irony?

Felt was no Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers. And he probably never read The Nation (unless he was looking for subversives). But Nichols does him a disservice with this black-and-white characterization of his actions and motives:

Felt certainly couldn't have been all that worried about Nixonian skulduggery, as the tipster himself would eventually be convicted of authorizing federal agents to illegally break into the homes of suspected anti–Vietnam War radicals.

Indeed, it appears that "Deep Throat" was less concerned about defending democracy than about getting back at then-President Richard Nixon for refusing him the directorship after Hoover's death in May 1972.

So Watergate ends up as another story of powerful men undercutting one another in a squabble over turf and bruised egos.

As the Vanity Fair article that exposed Felt as Deep Throat makes clear, Felt was at odds with the Nixon gang for several reasons--including some laudable ones. In 1971--before Watergate and before Hoover's death--Felt resisted a Nixon White House request to wiretap suspected leakers who were driving Nixon bonkers. The following year--again, before Watergate and before Felt had reason to be upset about not being appointed Hoover's successor--Felt and Hoover turned down a White House request to have their vaunted FBI lab declare as a forgery a memo written by a lobbyist that outlined a deal in which a $400,000 contribution to Nixon's re-election campaign would lead to the Justice Department dropping an antitrust lawsuit against ITT, a major telecommunications firm.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Richard Perle's latest nonsense and the Republican Weasel of the Week.

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Felt apparently did fret about Nixonian skulduggery, and he was already concerned about Nixon's abuse of power prior to becoming Deep Throat. Then once Watergate was under way, he came to see that the White House was stonewalling his FBI's investigation. He also believed the CIA was handing the FBI false leads. And in those first months after the June 17, 1972, break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee, Felt worried that the White House's effort to make the story go away were close to succeeding. Few in the media cared. Watergate had not become much of a campaign issue, as Nixon headed toward a re-election victory trouncing Democratic Senator George McGovern. He also believed that L. Patrick Gray III, the acting FBI director, was impeding the Watergate investigation to curry favor with the White House. (Gray wanted Nixon to upgrade his position at the FBI from acting to permanent.) So Felt took action to keep the story alive. At first, he confirmed information for Woodward and later provided material and tips. This helped Woodward and Bernstein continue their run of Watergate exclusives, which kept the scandal from petering out. Felt even came under suspicion from Nixon for snitching.

Felt was pissed off at the Nixon White House for multiple reasons. He wanted the top slot at the Bureau. He also saw the Nixonites running amok. As John D. O'Connor writes in Vanity Fair, "Felt harbored increasing contempt for this curious crew at the White House, whom he saw as intent on utilizing the Justice Department for their political ends." It probably was difficult for Felt to sort out all his motives. But this is what happens with many whistleblowers. They often are propelled by several reasons. And they are company men (or women) before breaking the rules, customs and norms. Think of Jeffrey Wigand, the real-life tobacco whistleblower marvelously portrayed by Russell Crowe in The Insider.

Nichols challenges Felt's patriotism and blasts him as "just another cynical Washington insider playing the system for all it was worth." That is a narrow and unfair description. Even though Felt had engaged in his own abuse of power, he was not blind to those being committed by the White House. Nor was he a cynic willing to go along with the demands of the powerful. He appears to have cared about maintaining the independence of the FBI (whether he recognized its excesses or not) and about keeping the Bureau from becoming a covert arm of an imperious president.

We could use such whistleblowers today--even if they stay undercover. And we should not apply a political litmus test to those who risk their livelihoods by disclosing government misconduct. There are plenty of people within the national security establishment who support all sorts of policies and actions that Nichols (and I) would find dreadful. But that would not undermine their contribution to the nation if they helped expose this or that Bush wrongdoing. Those who know the secrets are not outsiders. They have reached need-to-know positions because they have accepted the fundamental values and policies of their institutions. To expect purity of politics, policy or principles from a whistleblower or leaker who comes from these quarters is unrealistic--and harmful.

Felt did not reveal his secret identity for decades, according to the Vanity Fair story, because he believed he would be castigated for having dropped a dime on Nixon. After all, G-Men do not flap their gums. But so far he has been accorded mostly accolades. Charles Colson, a Nixon adviser who served seven months in jail for obstruction of justice related to Watergate, did tell the Washington Post that he was "shocked" that a senior FBI official would have undercut the president by "peddling information in the middle of the night." And Patrick Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter, called Felt a "traitor." And from the left, there was Nichols's attack.

Felt deserves the positive reviews and credit. Such a reaction might actually encourage others. My hunch is that not too many would-be whistleblowers at, say, the Pentagon take their cues from The Nation, but such a person would not be more likely to leak important information if he or she believed they would be tarred as antipatriotic and cynical.

I hope Nichols reconsiders his first-take consideration of the Felt revelation. As regular readers know, I rarely use this space to debate with other Nation contributors. But the Felt matter deserved more nuanced coverage on this website. And I'm going to give the last word to former Senator Mike Gravel. In 1971, when the Nixon Justice Department was trying to prevent the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, Gravel officially released the entire document set, in essence shooting a finger at Nixon White House and rendering moot his effort to smother the Pentagon Papers. After the Deep Throat story broke, Gravel issued a statement:

Felt's revelations and tips kept the [Watergate] investigation alive by pulling back the shroud of secrecy hiding the criminal activities of the Nixon White House. Felt should receive the American Medal of Freedom for his courage and patriotism in defense of our democracy. The greatest threat to democracy is secrecy. It is a generic flaw of our representative system of government. Secrecy is endemic to government; it is the device government officialdom uses to hide the truth and to manipulate the media and the public, and is the slippery slope leading to tyranny.... The only antidote to the excesses of secrecy is the occasional patriot leaking the truth to the media or to the Congress. Unfortunately, the Congress is all too complicit in maintaining secrecy in government. Thank you, Mark Felt, for your service to freedom and democracy; let us hope that your revelation is an incentive to present-day whistleblowers. The need for whistleblowers has never been greater.

Indeed.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

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