John “Jack” McDermott, who oversaw the Watergate investigation during its most critical days as head of the FBI’s Washington field office, says press leaks in the case compromised the probe, placed witnesses in jeopardy and shook the confidence of others in the bureau’s ability to protect them.
Mr. McDermott, who left the FBI in 1987 after 29 years, said former Deputy Director W. Mark Felt, who has conceded being “Deep Throat,” denied the “hardworking and dedicated” agents who investigated Watergate their “rightful place in history” when he leaked classified investigative reports to The Washington Post.
“Those agents were working 16 hours a day, turning over every rock they could,” said Mr. McDermott, who headed the field office from October 1972 to May 1974. “And despite efforts now to portray Mr. Felt as a hero, every bit of leaked information was already in the hands of the special prosecutors.
“Everything that was leaked eventually would have come out in a normal, methodical way. Nothing was being withheld,” he said. “Instead, Watergate and the difficult prosecution of a sitting president evolved into a story about the character of one man, when it should have been about the sacrifices of the dedicated agents who showed that the system could work.”
But Mr. Felt’s San Francisco attorney, John O’Connor, said his client “did what he did to help support the loyal, hardworking FBI agents who otherwise would have been made political pawns of the White House.” He said the notion the case would have been prosecuted in the natural course of events was “absolutely, totally, 100 percent contradicted by the record.”
“It was announced on Sept. 15, 1972, with the indictments of the original seven [Watergate burglars] that there was no intention to proceed further,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Had Mark Felt not done what he did, the Watergate investigation would have never proceeded past the indictment of the original seven.”
Now 79 and living in Virginia, Mr. McDermott also questioned the timing of the leaks, saying they showed “more than a modicum of vindictiveness” by Mr. Felt for being passed over as FBI director when J. Edgar Hoover died. He said FBI supervisors and agents “were aware” that the appointment of L. Patrick Gray by President Nixon in May 1972 as director came as a blow to Mr. Felt, compounded by the nomination in April 1973 of William Ruckelshaus to head the bureau when Mr. Gray resigned.
“Felt obviously had a plan to undermine Gray, hoping to give the White House no other option than to name a career FBI official to head the bureau,” Mr. McDermott said. “He thought he was a shoo-in, but instead was two times a bridesmaid.”
Mr. Gray, now 88, also told ABC News last week he thought Mr. Felt leaked the Watergate information because of his anger at being passed over. He said there was “a sense of revenge in his heart.”
Mr. O’Connor called accusations that information was leaked out of vindictiveness “reactive, off-the-cuff opinions of meatheads.” He said Mr. Felt “was quite happy to be running the bureau on a day-to-day basis under Gray.”
Mr. McDermott also described as “disgraceful” an offer by Universal Pictures to pay Mr. Felt an undisclosed sum — reported at $1 million — for film and book rights to his life story, but Mr. O’Connor said if those angry over the deal considered the choices Mr. Felt had to make, “I would hope they would have the courage and respect for our system he had and take the same action.”