After more than thirty years of speculation, Deep Throat revealed himself–with a cough and a wheeze, it would seem, as the 91-year-old ex-FBI second-in-command W. Mark Felt pronounced himself “the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”
Perhaps unavoidably, the admission has thrown Felt into the center of controversy. Ex-Nixon aides like Patrick Buchanan are publicly calling him a traitor. Former Nixon crony and nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that Felt’s “motivation may not have been as noble as his family makes it out to be.” Even convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy has found a spot on national television to say that he thought Felt acted “unethically.” The left, meanwhile, has generally taken the lead from Felt’s grandson, who proclaimed the man a real American hero. Felt himself said he hopes to be remembered as such.
But Felt has another political legacy. It also dates to the 1970s. It also involves break-ins and a host of dirty tricks against the left. This time, though, Felt ordered the crimes instead of exposing them. Along with Edward Miller, the FBI’s assistant director of the domestic intelligence division, Felt was convicted in December 1980 for supervising or ordering the warrantless break-ins of “friends and acquaintances” of the Weather Underground in 1972 and 1973. As the Public Research Associates website reports, Felt also admitted approving a “black-bag job” against the Arab Information Center in Dallas in 1972. The prosecutor said Felt was responsible for “violation of the rights of all people of this country, violations that cannot and will not be tolerated as long as we have a Bill of Rights.”
These and other acts were all part of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which operated officially from 1967 to 1971, although it actually continued until at least 1975. Its main targets were the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, though the radical left in general was subject to a range of illegal tactics–including surveillance, arrests on specious charges, spreading false information about activists and even murder (most famously, 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered while he slept in Chicago in December 1969).
It happened more than thirty years ago, and yet it fits well into today’s political culture. In this day and age, when a torture promoter has become attorney general and open unilateralists are nominated as diplomats, it is strangely appropriate to find out that Deep Throat was himself engaging in his own batch of break-ins and political harassment.
Jennifer Dohrn, whose sister Bernardine was a leader of the Weather Underground, was one of Felt’s targets. In a recent radio interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Dohrn talked about extensive harassment, ranging from wiretaps to constant surveillance to the FBI visiting her employer in an effort to get her fired. And that’s just what she knew at the time. When she received through the Freedom of Information Act the 200,000 documents the FBI had on her, Dohrn discovered a much more alarming tactic: The FBI had discussed the possibility of kidnapping her infant son in order to convince her sister to turn herself in. (Dohrn filed a civil suit against Felt and Miller in 1978, which was settled out of court in 1983 for an undisclosed amount, although she said it was “basically lawyers’ fees.”)
In April 1981, in his first act in office (and shortly after the two G-men were convicted), Ronald Reagan pardoned Felt and Miller, showering them with praise as “two men who acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation.” Two years later, a judge ordered their criminal records swept clean, and just like that the government’s widespread, illegal counterinsurgency efforts disappeared from legal consideration. To date, Felt and Miller are the only ones who have been prosecuted for anything emanating from COINTELPRO.
Ultimately, though, Felt is not the issue. Historians and others will judge him as they wish. He was a man occupying a position of great political power (in terms of law enforcement) at a time when clandestine and other militant protest movements commanded a sizable presence domestically. In all likelihood, given the widespread repression of the movement that the government was engaged in, Felt did what any assistant director of the FBI would have done in 1972.
The problem is less about whether Felt is a hero or a traitor, and more about his ongoing legacy. Although the program was formally abandoned in the late 1970s, COINTELPRO’s victims remain uncompensated–and dozens of them remain in prison today, including Mutulu Shakur, who started the National Taskforce for COINTELPRO Litigation and Research, the entity that initiated a lawsuit against the US government for the program’s abuses. Shakur is now doing sixty years in federal prison in Atlanta as a result of his activism in the black liberation movement that the FBI targeted. Shakur joins ex-Black Panthers such as Jalil Muntaqim and Sundiata Acoli, former American Indian Movement member Leonard Peltier and white anti-imperialists David Gilbert and Marilyn Buck, among others, as COINTELPRO victims incarcerated on lengthy sentences.
Before throwing a ticker-tape parade in Felt’s honor, we would do well to first attend to the activists Felt helped incarcerate and pay reparations to those who were placed under surveillance, robbed or otherwise harassed on the orders of “the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”