Deep Throat: An Institutional Analysis

Twenty years after Watergate we still do not know the identity of the secret source who gave Bob Woodward, of The Washington Post, information that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. But the author, a former colleague of Woodward's at the Post, reveals something almost as important about the source, which throws new light on an old scandal
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WITH the anniversary of Watergate approaching, one question about the affair remains as haunting today as it was at the time: Who was Deep Throat, the mysterious source within the federal government who repeatedly met The Washington Post's Bob Woodward in a parking garage in the early morning hours to guide the Post's inquiries into the scandal, to pass on information about the federal investigation, and to thwart the Nixon Administration's efforts to rein in that investigation?

The identity of Deep Throat remains a subject of intense public curiosity. A recent book about Watergate, Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, shot to the top of best-seller lists in large part because of its speculation (the authors admitted they had no proof) that Alexander Haig, who was Henry Kissinger's deputy at the National Security Council at the time of the break-in, was at one point Woodward's prime source. Over the years countless other recognizable names within the Nixon White House have figured in the speculation.

Beyond mere curiosity, the answer to the question is of considerable historical interest. Identifying Deep Throat would clarify our view of the Nixon Administration and would enhance our understanding of the underlying institutional forces at work in Washington during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the common imagination, the executive branch is run by the President, his Cabinet, and his White House advisers. Thus much of the speculation about Deep Throat over the past two decades has focused on known names within Nixon's White House, such as Haig, the press spokesman Ronald Ziegler, and the White House adviser Leonard Garment. Rarely is it asked whether these people had the regular, immediate access to the federal investigation of Watergate which provided the backdrop to the Post's stories. Even more rarely is it asked whether White House aides like Haig, Ziegler, and Garment were the sort of people willing to hold 2:00 A.M. meetings in a parking garage, or whether they were able to arrange the circling of the page number 20 of Bob Woodward's copy of The New York Times, which was delivered to his apartment by 7:00 A.M. -- the signal that Deep Throat wanted a meeting.

During any Administration, institutions and bureaucracies are powerful entities within themselves, sometimes with more clout than the White House personalities who theoretically govern them. And among these powerful bureaucracies are the U.S. intelligence and investigative agencies: the CIA and the FBI. In what follows I will explore some of these matters. I cannot reveal who Deep Throat was, because I do not know. I do know, however, the part of the government in which Deep Throat worked, and I can speculate with some conviction about what Deep Throat's institutional motivations may have been.

Hoover's Secrets

THE year 1972 was the most tumultuous one in the history of the FBI. On May 2, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, died at the age of seventy-seven. Over a period of nearly five decades he had built up the organization from scratch, had ruled it in an autocratic fashion, and had filled its upper ranks with men acceptable to him.

To these men of the Bureau, Presidents were temporary and Hoover's FBI was permanent. Hoover had dealt with and outlasted every President since Calvin Coolidge. He and his associates had fended off the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson, and they believed they would survive Richard Nixon, too. This was a matter of pride, of virtue: although it occasionally provided a bit of clandestine help to occupants of the Oval Office, the FBI saw itself as fearlessly independent -- outside politics and ultimately beyond the control of the White House. Unlike, say, the Justice Department or the State Department, the FBI did not get a new leader with each new President.

This tradition was suddenly thrown into question with Hoover's death. Officials at the Bureau believed that Hoover's successor would be appointed from within their ranks. W. Mark Felt, the FBI's deputy associate director, the No. 3 man in Hoover's hierarchy, wrote in a 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid:

It did not cross my mind that the President would appoint an outsider to replace Hoover. Had I known this, I would not have been hopeful about the future. There were many trained executives in the FBI who could have effectively handled the job of Director. My own record was good and I allowed myself to think I had an excellent chance.

When Hoover died, FBI officials like Felt did not have much time to think. On May 3, while Hoover's body was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray III appeared at FBI headquarters and asked to see Hoover's secret files. FBI officials refused, insisting that there were no such documents, and after a nasty face-off Gray left. A few hours later Gray was appointed by the Nixon Administration to be the FBI's acting director.

Nixon and his aides had many reasons for wanting to appoint an outsider to head the FBI -- some of them honorable, some not. They felt, as had some of their predecessors in the White House, that the FBI was too tradition-bound, and badly needed to adopt more-modern law-enforcement techniques. They also wanted the FBI to be subject to much greater political direction from the White House and the Justice Department than had been possible under Hoover.

The FBI had resisted several law-enforcement and domestic intelligence-gathering initiatives by the Nixon White House, notably the famous "Huston plan" -- the effort, led by the White House aide Tom Charles Huston, to expand intelligence-gathering through a network of informants along with a campaign of wiretapping, bugging, mail opening, and burglaries. Moreover, White House officials feared that if the FBI retained the independence it had had under Hoover, it would never go along with the Nixon Administration's continuing efforts to use the federal bureaucracy to reward friends and punish enemies.

In short, Hoover's death presented the Nixon Administration with a long-sought opportunity to gain political control of the FBI. Traumatized by Hoover's death, and anxious to preserve the Bureau's traditions, the FBI's leadership resented and resisted the Administration's efforts. By coincidence, the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17, less than seven weeks after Hoover's death and Gray's appointment. The FBI took charge of the federal investigation at the same time that the Administration was trying to limit its scope.

Therein lies the origin of Deep Throat.

Enter Woodward

WHEN Bob Woodward arrived in the Post newsroom, less than a year before Watergate, he quickly established himself as one of the top investigative reporters on the local staff. Other reporters might spend weeks, months, or even years on a single project (as, indeed, Woodward himself does now). Woodward distinguished himself by delivering stories fast, sometimes coming up with new information on the controversy of the week. I was a Post reporter at the time of his arrival, and because I was covering Washington's federal courthouse, Woodward and I often worked closely together. We were friends, reporting alongside each other on the Post's metro staff.

During the late winter and early spring of 1972, the story that occupied much of his time was a running local scandal involving corruption within the District of Columbia police department. Some members of the D.C. vice squad had been found to have been involved in gambling and prostitution, and there were allegations that others had ties to narcotics figures. Woodward monitored the developing investigation -- reporting, for example, in a front-page story on February 3, "Two grand juries here are conducting separate investigations into police corruption and major drug dealers, it has been learned. Sources say the probes may lead to the most sweeping criminal indictments in the city in recent years."

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