Deep Throat dies; Update: Why Felt’s no hero

posted at 10:20 am on December 19, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

The source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s ground-breaking investigation into presidential wrongdoing died yesterday at his home in Santa Rosa at the age of 95.  W. Mark Felt, passed over for promotion at the FBI in the wake of J. Edgar Hoover’s death, leaked information about operations in the White House that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon and a generation of fallout from the Watergate scandal:

W. Mark Felt, the former FBI official who ended one of the United States’ most intriguing political mysteries when he identified himself as “Deep Throat” — the nickname for the anonymous source who helped guide The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Watergate scandal — has died. He was 95.

A controversial figure who was later convicted of authorizing illegal activities in pursuit of members of the radical Weather Underground, Felt died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., his grandson Rob Jones said.

Felt was deputy associate director of the FBI in 1972 when he began supplying information to Bob Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein made up The Post’s investigative duo who doggedly pursued the story of the Watergate break-in and a conspiracy that led directly to President Richard M. Nixon, who ultimately resigned. …

His disclosure in a Vanity Fair article by his family’s lawyer, John D. O’Connor, provoked a national debate: Was he a hero who should be lauded for sparing the country the strain of further high crimes and misdemeanors by the Nixon White House? Or was he a traitor who betrayed not only his president but his oath of office by disclosing grand jury information and the contents of FBI files?

For those who wondered why Bill Ayers didn’t serve a day in prison for his domestic terrorism, W. Mark Felt is the answer to your question.

In my estimation, Felt was neither hero nor traitor.  He didn’t disclose the information to Woodward and Bernstein from a noble calling to Truth and Justice.  After Hoover died in May 1972, everyone in his inner circle assumed that each of them would succeed him as Director.  Nixon had no intention of perpetuating Hoover’s corrupt influence, however, and appointed L. Patrick Gray to the position while having Felt handle the actual operation of the Bureau.  Felt considered that a betrayal, and struck back by undermining Nixon.

But that doesn’t make Nixon innocent, either.  Felt knew that Nixon had skeletons in his closet and made sure they got exposed.  In truth, most whistleblowers don’t act entirely out of a sense of self-sacrifice, and Felt was no exception.  And as in the case of many whistleblowers, the information was accurate and the offenses were serious.  Nixon needed to go, and Felt played a major role in sending him packing.

The sad fact is that sweet and innocent little old ladies almost never get close enough to corruption to expose it.  Usually, we find out about abuses of power from people like Tony Rezko.  Felt’s connections to Hoover and his own abuses of power simply put him in a position to get the goods on people higher up the chain.  That makes him neither a complete hero or total villain, but merely someone who made some history through the complicated nature of his own life.

Update: Why don’t I consider Felt a hero for revealing the dark underside of the Nixon White House, a necessary step to stop massive abuses of power?  Here’s why.  Felt had other options than skulking around DC parking garages to leak information to Washington Post reporters.  He was the #2 man in the FBI.  Why not start an investigation of the wrongdoing?  If not that, Felt could have contacted Congress to alert them to Nixon’s activities (Congress was thoroughly dominated by Democrats who would have welcomed the gift), or simpy gone public with the information to force an investigation at the FBI or Congress if he couldn’t get either to act.

Instead, Felt took the cheap route and kept his hands clean among the same people he despised.  People seem to forget that we do have channels for whistleblowers that don’t go through the editorial offices of the Washington Post and New York Times.


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