Topic: Government & Politics

Mistaken Accolades for "Deep Throat"
(6/2/2005)

Predictably, the news media is singing the praises of Mark Felt, the former #2 man in the Nixon administration's F.B.I. who just outed himself as "Deep Throat." Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein confirmed that he was indeed the shadowy and cryptic informant at the center of their ground-breaking investigation of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. In his nineties now and not exactly at the top of his game, Felt (or his family) decided that the criticism that for thirty years he had feared would rain down if his role in toppling a president were known no longer justified denying himself the abundant praise that was also sure to follow the unmasking. So the man Washington insiders had always included on their "Who was 'Deep Throat'?" short list permitted Vanity Fair magazine to reveal the answer to one of the city's most intriguing mysteries.

Yes, Felt played a pivotal part in exposing the power abuses of Richard Nixon and his followers. He played that part, however, in a blatantly unethical style that was further blemished by his likely motives for doing so. If Mark Felt is a hero, then the end does justify the means. Of course, that is exactly what Richard Nixon believed, and that belief is what created the Watergate affair in the first place.

Felt, a Federal law enforcement officer, became aware of a wide-spread cover-up of the Watergate break-in, about which he had abundant information. At that point his duty, difficult as it was, became to make a full report to his superiors at the F.B.I., and if they did not act appropriately of what he knew to the Justice Department and to Congress, letting the rest of the government know, to paraphrase Senator Howard Baker's words, what the president knew and when he knew it. Instead, Felt ducked that duty. He chose to meet reporter Woodward in a dark D.C. parking garage, giving out carefully measured clues to point the investigative reporters in the right direction.

As part of the leadership of the F.B.I., Felt's leaks of sensitive information to a reporter were a violation of his professional duties and probably Federal law. He chose clandestine means to reveal the deepening White House skullduggery in an attempt to protect his career from the damage it would undoubtedly have suffered had he become a true whistleblower. That decision was not, by any definition, courageous.

In fact, it was the opposite.

Felt's conduct looks even more dubious when one considers that he had just been passed over for the FBI's top position, through the decision by the very man his leaks targeted, President Nixon. Nixon appointed Felt's rival for the FBI director's position, L. Patrick Gray, and Felt's hints to Woodward sullied Gray as well. The fact that Nixon deserved his fate is not in question. (Gray, we now know, was not corrupt.). Whether Felt was primarily motivated by public spiritedness or jealousy is still a mystery.

Many articles since Felt's alter-ego was made known have commented that he "did what he thought was right." If Felt thought his conduct was so right, why did he feel compelled to do it anonymously? Why did he keep it secret for thirty years? Felt obviously wanted to retain his reputation as a career loyalist at his old agency, and not be branded an untrustworthy employee who leaked sensitive information to the press. He wanted to have it both ways, to undermine two of his superiors, one a professional rival, but without suffering the attacks and recriminations that come with the territory. Heroic?

A better word for Felt would be "conflicted." His insistence that he would only give Woodward clues and confirmations rather than outright information was pointless: from an ethical point of view, it makes no difference whether one directly communicates confidential data, acts it out in charades, throws a brick with the information attached through a window or simply grunts two times for yes and once for no. It is all the same thing. Felt's modus operandi of secret signals and riddles, which Woodward found occasionally exasperating, benefited Felt's queasy conscience and nothing else. His professional duties were no less compromised.

Is it a good thing that Felt did what he did? As his leaks undoubtedly worked to repair the integrity of the U.S. government and bolstered the rule of law, absolutely. It is also a good thing that Nixon installed a secret taping device in the Oval Office, but nobody is calling Nixon a hero for that. When John Dean, Nixon's legal counsel, described details of the White House conspiracy in Senate committee testimony, he knew he would be facing disbarment and prison, yet Dean testified in front of television cameras. Even though Dean revealed his confidential information as part of a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney's office, his was far more of an act of courage than Felt's because he took responsibility for it. He was willing to pay the price, a benchmark of courageous conduct.

Journalists have no choice but to lionize "Deep Throat," for he is the best known and most romantic example of their favorite reporting tool, the anonymous leaker. But their admiration of Felt tells us more about their ethical orientation than it does about him. Government officials, lawyers and others who implicate their employers, bosses or clients while collecting pay checks and pretending to be loyal allies are cowards, no matter how villainous their quarry. There are no ethical leakers, any more than there are ethical vigilantes.

The best that can be said about Mark Felt is that his actions helped expose and root out a dangerous state of mind in the White House. But they were also actions that hinted of self-serving motivations and avoided accountability. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat", but he was no hero.


 

   
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