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A source like Deep Throat is hard to find, but vital



Published: Fri, June 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The breaking of journalism's longest kept secret, the identity of Watergate reporter Bob Woodward's anonymous source, Deep Throat, took a quick and intriguing turn.

Within hours, Nixon loyalists and historical revisionists went after 91-year-old W. Mark Felt like a hungry dog after a piece of meat.

It was bizarre to hear even men who went to jail for their part in the Watergate burglary and political tricks associated with the 1972 election sanctimoniously question the ethics and morality of Felt, who was second in command at the FBI during the Watergate investigation. Conservative commentators who have made it their mission to condemn anything associated with what they call the "mainstream media," resurrected the old claim of Ron Ziegler, the late White House press secretary, that Watergate was nothing more than a third-rate burglary. To that they added outlandish new claims that President Richard Nixon would have been able to save Southeast Asia from falling to Communism if only he had not been distracted by Watergate.

The amen corner

Pat Buchanan, a Nixon speech writer who even after the truth of Watergate was known continued to boast about Nixon's margin of victory in the 1972 election, now denigrates Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein as little more than stenographers for Felt. Buchanan, once the gloating advocate of victory at any cost, is now a moral arbiter who says Felt disgraced himself and dishonored the FBI.

G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Colson, both of whom went to jail for their Watergate roles, also now put themselves on a moral plane above Felt. Liddy, the macho madman given to proving his worth by holding his hand over an open flame, wouldn't know a moral plane if it fell on him.

Colson, of course, found religion in prison and now makes a comfortable living as a preacher and moralist. But back when Deep Throat was helping to break the Watergate story, Colson was doing nothing about which he could be proud.

William Neikirk and Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune went through the White House tapes and found a conversation between Colson and Felt. The subject of discussion was the attempted assassination of Gov. George Wallace. Colson urges Felt to order FBI agents interrogating the assailant, Arthur Bremmer, to pursue the idea that the shooting was somehow linked to Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"Be sure you push that, Mark," Colson says, "just to be certain that they ask those kind of questions, you know, to get that kind of information."

Is it any surprise that Felt had more faith in Woodward, Bernstein and The Washington Post than a White House in which he had to listen to the likes of Charles Colson?

Assume nothing

Today, it is a given that Nixon would have eventually be undone by the sins committed in his name and with his approval before and after the 1972 election. But it wasn't clear in 1972 or 1973, during which the White House consistently and ferociously denied any knowledge or complicity. In October 1973, President Nixon showed how far he'd go to thwart the investigation when he fired the special prosecutor.

The Washington Post, The New York Times and any other member of the press that reported on Watergate was demonized by the White House.

Consider that six days after the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, President Nixon made his first comment on the case in which he denied any White House involvement and said that such activity "has no place whatever in our electoral process, or in our governmental process. & quot;

The Washington Post persisted in its reporting and came under vigorous attacks for doing so. Weeks after the burglary, Clark MacGregor, chairman of the Nixon re-election committee, said, "The Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate -- a charge The Post knows -- and a half dozen investigations have found -- to be false. & quot;

The obvious intention was to intimidate the press, especially The Post, and it might have worked had the reporters not been able to assure their editors that a solid source was confirming the facts behind the stories they were writing.

The White House even managed to con party loyalists who had nothing to do with Watergate to take up the drumbeat. As The Post reported, during the November 1972 campaign, Robert Dole, then chairman of the Republican National Committee and later a senator from Kansas and presidential candidate, attacked what he called "political garbage" printed in The Post about the Watergate.

Keeping the story alive

In that climate, a trusted confidential source such as Deep Throat was a vital part of keeping the story alive. Hero is a word that is too casually used these days, and it is not one we would apply to Felt. But he certainly served the public interest through his occasional parking garage meetings with Woodward. He would confirm some information Woodward had compiled, warn him if he was getting off on a tangent and make helpful observations, suggesting, for instance, that high-risk political adventures could not have been pursued by lower echelon operatives unless they got money and approval from higher-ups.

An entire generation has grown up since Watergate. For others, memories of that era are fading.

But the identification of Deep Throat serves as a timely reminder that confidential sources can play a role in helping to preserve democracy.

People don't want to believe that their leaders will betray their trust and lie to them about it. But it happens. And when it happens, the Pat Buchanans, Charles Colsons, Ron Zieglers and their ilk circle their wagons to defend their boss and to protect their positions of power and privilege. It is then that the people's last, best hope is a Mark Felt.




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