The idea of Deep Throat has slipped away ' the last best secret wrested from the grip of the select few who had vowed to keep it.
A pillar of the FBI named W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat, the secret source whose insider guidance was vital to The Washington Post’s groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, the paper has confirmed.
As the bureau’s second- and third-ranking official, Felt had the means and the motive to help uncover the web of internal spies, secret surveillance, dirty tricks and cover-ups that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s unprecedented resignation on August 9, 1974. ( )
Felt, 91 and enfeebled by a stroke, lives in California, his memory dimmed. For decades, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ' the reporters he aided ' and Benjamin C. Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor during the Watergate coverage, maintained that they would not disclose his identity until after his death. “We’ve kept that secret because we keep our word,” Woodward said.
The identity of Deep Throat ' the nickname came from a porn movie in circulation at the time ' had been one of the greatest secrets in journalism history and an object of speculation for more than 30 years until yesterday, when his role was revealed by his family in a Vanity Fair magazine article.
Even Nixon was caught on tape speculating that Felt was “an informer” as early as February 1973, at a time when Deep Throat was supplying confirmation and context for some of The Post’s most explosive Watergate stories. But Felt’s repeated denials, and the stalwart silence of Woodward and Bernstein kept the cloak of mystery drawn up around Deep Throat.
In place of a name and a face, the source acquired a magic and a mystique.
Deep Throat was the perfect, nameless god ' the romantic truth teller half hidden in the shadows of a Washington area parking garage.
This image was rendered indelibly by the dramatic best-selling memoir Woodward and Bernstein published in 1974, All the President’s Men. Two years later, in a blockbuster movie of the same name, actor Hal Holbrook breathed whispery urgency into the suspenseful late-night encounters between Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and his source.
As dramatic as those portrayals were, they hewed closely to the truth, Woodward said.
“Mark Felt at that time was a dashing grey-haired figure," Woodward recalled, and his experience as an anti-Nazi spy hunter early in his career at the FBI had endowed him with a whole bag of counter-intelligence tricks.
Felt, who was passed over by Nixon for the top FBI job, dreamed up the signal by which Woodward would summon him to a meeting (a flowerpot innocuously displayed on the reporter’s balcony) and also hatched the countersign by which Felt could contact Woodward (a clock face inked on Page 20 of Woodward’s daily New York Times).
“He knew he was taking a monumental risk,” said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor of The Post.
Felt also knew, by first-hand experience, that Nixon’s administration was willing to use wiretaps and break-ins to hunt down leakers, so no amount of caution was too great in his mind.
Woodward rode multiple taxis, sometimes in the wrong direction, and often walked long distances to reach the middle-of-the-night meetings.
The list of potential Deep Throats included then-FBI director Patrick Gray, Nixon’s chief of staff Alexander Haig, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former Nixon speech writer Patrick Buchanan and even former President George Bush, the head of the Republican National Committee during the scandal.
Perhaps the most insightful argument was mustered in the Atlantic magazine by journalist James Mann in 1992. “He could well have been Mark Felt,” Mann wrote cautiously in a piece.
Felt fended off the searchlight each time it swung in his direction. “I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!” he wrote in his 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid.
Woodward had prepared for Felt’s eventual death by writing a short book about a relationship he describes as intense and sometimes troubling. His longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, is rushing the volume to press ' but the careful unveiling of the information did not proceed as Woodward or The Post had envisioned.
Yesterday morning, Vanity Fair released an article by a California lawyer named John D. ’Connor, who was enlisted by Felt’s daughter, Joan Felt, to help coax her father into admitting his role in history.
’Connor’s article quoted a number of Felt’s friends and family members saying that he had shared his secret with them, and it went on to say that Felt told the author ' under the shield of attorney-client privilege ' “I’m the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”
’Connor wrote that he was released from his obligation of secrecy by Mark and Joan Felt. He also reported that the Felts were not paid for cooperating with the Vanity Fair article, though they do hope the revelation will “make at least enough money to pay some bills”, as Joan Felt is quoted in the magazine.
Woodward and others at The Post were caught by surprise. Woodward had known that family members were considering going public; in fact, they had talked repeatedly with Woodward about the possibility of jointly writing a book to reveal the news. A recent e-mail from Felt’s daughter continued to hold out the idea that Woodward and Felt would disclose the secret together.
Throughout those contacts, Woodward was dogged by reservations about Felt’s mental condition, he said yesterday, wondering whether the source was competent to undo the long-standing pledge of anonymity that bound them.
Caught flatfooted by Vanity Fair’s announcement, Woodward and Bernstein initially issued a terse statement reaffirming their promise to keep the secret until Deep Throat died. But the Vanity Fair article was enough to bring the current executive editor of The Post, Leonard Downie Jr., back to Washington from a corporate retreat in Maryland.
After he consulted with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, it was “decided that the newspaper had been released from its obligation by Mark Felt’s family and by his lawyer, through the publication of this piece”, Downie said.
“They revealed him as the source. We confirmed it.”