No one likes a snitch, but Mark Felt, the former FBI agent who late in life revealed himself as the great mystery man known as Deep Throat, performed an act of high patriotism by helping Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the most serious set of political crimes in American history. His identity also became one of the great journalistic obsessions of the 20th century. Felt died this week at the age of 95 in Santa Rosa, California.
The Watergate scandal, (named after the office building which Republican operatives seeking information to damage Democrats burglarized at the direction of Richard Nixon's White House staff), ended in the only resignation of a President in American history. Although it was ultimately the power of the courts and of the Congress that forced Richard Nixon from office in the middle of his second term, it was the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that first stymied the efforts of the President's men to cover up the White House involvement in the crime. (See a photo essay on the saga of Mark Felt a.k.a. Deep Throat.)
Felt served as a confirming source for many of the scoops produced by the young Washington Post reporters, and his role was critical to the Post's willingness to print incendiary stories about the scandal. As the Post printed scoop after scoop about the scandal, the Nixon White House ratcheted up its threats against the newspaper and its television stations. The fact that a high-level official of the FBI was confirming the stories emboldened the paper's owner Katharine Graham to resist those threats. Felt's motives for helping Woodward (whom Felt had met in the Nixon White House when Woodward was a young Navy lieutenant carrying classified documents between the Pentagon and the National Security Council) were not entirely pure. Felt had hoped to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI, and was miffed that Nixon had given the job to a close political ally. But Felt was also offended that the White House, through the new director, was attempting to manipulate the FBI's investigation of the Watergate crimes.
It is also highly probable that Felt's assistance to the press chasing the Watergate scandal was not limited to the assistance he gave Woodward. In the early months after the 1972 Watergate burglary, the Washington Post was nearly alone in trying to unearth the truth about the incident. But as more and more was revealed and after Judge John J. Sirica forced the initial burglars into cooperating with investigators, a feeding frenzy broke out among news organizations. It was likely the most competitive period in the history of the American press. As the story grew, home office editors put more and more pressure on their Washington bureaus to produce meaningful scoops not just about the origins of the break-in but also the details of Nixon's attempt to frustrate the investigations. When it was clear that Nixon aide John Dean was going to give testimony damaging to Nixon before Congress, unseemly competition broke out for the first exclusive interview with Dean (Newsweek won by offering Dean cover display). (See TIME's covers on Watergate.)
From early 1973 until Nixon's departure in the summer of 1974, TIME was prominent among the news organization unearthing important scoops about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Many of TIME's stories, including most notably the first story about the secret wiretaps on reporters and his own staff ordered by Henry Kissinger, were from FBI sources. TIME was also a leader in uncovering the fact that Nixon's vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, was taking payoff money while in office. Agnew sued the Justice Department and TIME among others, charging them with libel. On the day TIME attorneys were to answer a subpoena in that case, Agnew resigned his office rather than face prosecution. Felt, because of his high rank in the bureau and his dismay at the criminality in the White House, was uniquely able to provide TIME with such information. Still, Woodward and Bernstein were clearly the most distinguished of the Watergate reporters, and their early attention to the story was critical to the failure of Nixon's cover-up. Their competitors, including those of us at TIME who worried each week whether the scoops we had in hand would be stolen away by a Woodward and Bernstein story, were intensely jealous of their sources. After their book All the President's Men revealed the existence of their secret source, speculation about the identity of Deep Throat, named playfully after a pornographic film of the era, became a Washington parlor game.
The obsession with the identity of Deep Throat sometimes took journalists, including myself, down strange detours. At one point several years after the Nixon resignation, two of us at TIME undertook to try to find the identity of Deep Throat. Although tracking down a competitor's source is not the highest calling of a journalist, we had always been intrigued by the fact that Woodward, at that point a very young and very inexperienced reporter, had managed to find a source as well placed as Deep Throat. We surmised that Woodward, having only been at the Post for a short time and at that covering minor local stories, had to have made this contact at some point in his life before journalism. We first tracked down the people whom he had met at Yale College and who also worked for Nixon and hounded them about their relationship with Woodward. One of those sources told us to look at Woodward's military service. Examining those records we found that he had been a courier from the Pentagon who regularly took documents to the National Security Council offices in the White House. We also learned from Woodward's first wife that she and Bob were occasionally given seats in the President's box at the Kennedy Center. This pointed us toward Alexander Haig, who before becoming Nixon's last chief of staff was military assistant to Henry Kissinger at the NSC. Haig repeatedly denied being Deep Throat, but we never quite believed him. Realizing we couldn't actually prove the connection without Woodward or Deep Throat himself confirming it, we gave up the hunt.
The Haig thesis finally proved to be a dead end when about three years ago Felt started to go public about his role as Deep Throat. First, Felt's family attempted to sell his story to national magazines. By then, age had taken its toll and it was difficult to ask him the kinds of specific questions that would have confirmed his claim. There was also the problem that his story's exclusivity could have been quickly eclipsed by Woodward's own account of the relationship. Later, Felt's family and his attorney told the story themselves in Vanity Fair magazine. Woodward subsequently published a short book detailing the relationship, providing the most interesting footnotes to a grim historical moment in the country's history.
John Stacks was TIME's Chief of Correspondents from 1987 to 1996; from 1973 to 1975, he coordinated the Watergate reporting of the magazine's Washington Bureau. He is the co-author of Judge John Sirica's memoir of the scandal's legal wrangling.