- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008



In the summer and fall of 1972, the FBI, in turmoil over the death of its longtime director J. Edgar Hoover in May of that year, was literally leaking like a sieve about the burgeoning implications of the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex.

By the time the next year rolled around, the leaks had become a torrent and the beleaguered Nixon administration, having been reinstalled in the White House in a landslide despite the ominous clouds gathering on the horizon, was hard-pressed to understand what was happening to it. The president and his top staff frantically tried to stop the flood of adverse information in a monumental cover-up that ultimately forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

A key figure, but certainly not the only one, among those determined that the president and his men would not get away with it was Assistant FBI Director W. Mark Felt, a hard-nosed Hoover ally who had bought the director’s G-man image lock, stock and .38 Special. Because of a pornographic movie, the imagination of a copy editor, and a shrewd piece of literary promotion, Felt, who died last week at age 95, became the most famous anonymous source in journalism history, the legendary “Deep Throat” who was given huge credit for helping expose the ignominy in the White House, a role he relished in secret until a year ago when it was revealed by his daughter.

Did he deserve that fame? Well, certainly to some degree as the shadowy source of two reporters who were key in the development of a massive story. But to give him so much stature in helping bring to light the nation’s worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War is, to say the least, a bit over the top. It utterly ignores the fact that a dozen other reporters had a dozen other sources, many of them from the FBI, who broke important news and furthered the Watergate investigation. Some of these sources had more firsthand knowledge than Felt about what was being discovered.

For instance, two days after the break-in, the Washington Daily News and other Scripps Howard newspapers throughout the country broke a story saying that this was at least the second time the burglars had entered the Democratic offices. The first time they planted the infamous bugs. The source of this story was the special agent in charge of the Washington field office, Robert Kunkel, who was in charge of the investigation.

Through the years of speculation about the identity of the man who was said to have met Bob Woodward in dark underground garages and turned flower pots around when he had information to impart, many of those who covered the story 24/7 for two years were struck by the similarities of what was being attributed to “Throat” to what they had received from their own FBI sources. It had led to educated guesses that he was a composite of several persons involved in the official inquiry. They privately scoffed at the cloak-and-dagger imagery of his communication methods. The composite theory actually wasn’t all that far off considering that Felt in his position was getting his facts from a number of agents actually involved firsthand in the daily inquiry.

Why was the FBI so obviously determined to bring all this to light outside official channels? A clear reason was the anger many of Hoover’s lieutenants felt about Nixon’s refusal to pick the director’s successor from their ranks. The president appointed a Navy man, L. Patrick Gray, as acting head of an agency he and every other politician in town feared. The idea of continuing the Hoover legacy through the appointment of one of those the dreaded director had tutored was unacceptable. It has remained that way in a succession of directors with one exception, the appointment of former judge Louis Freeh, who had spent a short time as an agent during the Hoover years. His tenure was marked by dissension.

In the end, that fear furthered Nixon’s demise. The bureau quite literally bit back.

Mark Felt, despite later being convicted and then quickly pardoned for conducting the FBI’s illegal break-ins during the Vietnam protest days, will remain forever among the best symbols of unrelenting resistance to official corruption. But he is just one of a number in those turbulent days.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.

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