Whatever their motives, Mark (Deep Throat) Felt; Woodstein (Bob and Carl); Judge John Sirica, who refused to accept the notion that the Watergate break-in began and ended with the men arrested inside the Watergate complex (and the two White House aides who recruited them); Senator Sam Ervin, with the battered copy of the US Constitution in his pocket; Senator Howard Baker, who asked what did the President know and when did he know it; John Dean, who did much to answer that question–all of these, and a constitutional process involving a cast of thousands, deserve history’s thanks for helping to reveal that something was rotten in President Nixon’s Beltway.
Having said that, it behooves us to remember, in the course of today’s debate over whether Felt was a hero or a complicated villain, that he had a pre-Watergate history, emblematic of the intelligence agency in which he served as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s number two: Namely, he helped preside over an agency that systematically engaged in such practices as warrantless wiretaps, breaking and entering, mail intercepts and the photographing of letters, documents, correspondence and minutes of meetings, which targeted not only members of such suspect organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party and the Weather Underground but also their friends and relatives! It was only when these illegal and unconstitutional techniques were brought to bear against the Democratic National Committee that the establishment was bestirred to take the actions that ultimately led to Nixon’s downfall.
So while there is much room for congratulation on the self (or family) outing of Deep Throat and all he represented, and for appropriate ruminating on the benefits and problematics of journalists’ using anonymous sources, there are even more urgent/ample grounds for cogitation on the underlying lessons for the democratic process of this bizarre episode in our history.
Some years ago, in his magisterial study The Age of Surveillance, the late Frank Donner, a frequent contributor to this magazine, documented how in the pre-Watergate years the FBI “twisted history’s arm” and won itself a permanent grant of authority to engage in subversive-activities intelligence, a franchise it regularly abused. Nor was the bureau alone in pursuing this pattern of systemic intrusion on liberty in the name of national safety and the use of “intelligence”–in theory, the gathering of information–as an instrument of control. Those same years saw the CIA exploit countersubversion to discredit the peace movement for political purposes, even as it institutionalized its own illegal domestic surveillance system.
At a moment when Congress is asked to sign a new blank check to the intelligence community in the name of combating the latest threat to national safety (a k a the renewal of the USA Patriot Act), it is imperative to acknowledge these radical departures from the democratic process if we are to avoid their recurrence. Speculation on whether Deep Throat is a good guy or a bad guy is fun and games, but ultimately a distraction from this more critical focus.