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

By James Mann

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."

This was a natural subject for a new investigative reporter on the Post's local staff. Yet in writing about the D.C. police, Woodward happened to step onto one of the main political battlegrounds in the ongoing struggle between the Nixon Administration and the FBI. At that time the District of Columbia Police Department was favored by Nixon and particularly by his Attorney General, John Mitchell. Top FBI officials suspected, rightly, that Nixon and Mitchell would have liked to name the D.C. police chief, Jerry V. Wilson, to be the next FBI director. Wilson's police force was everything the FBI was not: it espoused a belief in the need for more-progressive law-enforcement techniques, and it got along well with the Administration. The D.C. police hired minority members, women, and even a handful of "Ivy League cops" -- young college graduates who were eager to learn about law enforcement at the street level. These personnel practices were intensely mistrusted by the FBI.

In one particular crisis, the sweeping anti-war demonstrations that had threatened to close down Washington on May 3, 1971, the White House and the Justice Department had worked closely with Wilson's police in arranging the arrest of some 12,000 people.

In short, the FBI viewed the D.C. police force as an ally of the Nixon Administration and thus an implied rebuke to the Bureau and its independent tradition. The symbolic value of the investigation into police corruption was openly discussed and debated at the time. Here is how Woodward himself put it in an article on January 13, 1972:

Because Washington is the nation's capital and since President Nixon has said he wants to make Washington a model city of law enforcement, the allegation of police corruption has political overtones.

Some investigators say political pressure has been brought to find widespread corruption. They conjecture it is perhaps to discredit the President. On the other hand, some other investigators say pressure has been exerted to not uncover too much and protect the Administration.

Only days after this story appeared, the White House moved to lend political support to the police department. "President Nixon yesterday opposed any outside investigation of alleged corruption in the metropolitan police department," the Post reported on its front page. It quoted Egil (Bud) Krogh, the White House adviser responsible for the District of Columbia (and one of the Nixon "plumbers"), as saying that Nixon believed the D.C. police themselves should be allowed to uncover and correct any corruption that might exist.

The FBI had been in charge of the investigation of the D.C. police, and Woodward would have dealt with FBI officials in the course of his reporting. Then, in mid-May of 1972, with the investigations winding down, the Post's metropolitan staff, and Woodward in particular, shifted their attention to a new story: the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace. By this time Woodward was clearly making considerable and frequent use of a source at the FBI.

As the former Post city editor Barry Sussman has disclosed in his Watergate book, The Great Cover-Up, within hours of the Wallace shooting, when the identity of the assailant was still not publicly known, Woodward volunteered that he had a "friend" who might be able to help. And indeed, on that day and over the following two weeks, working as part of a team of Post reporters, Woodward was able to come up with details about the life and travels of Arthur Bremer, the man who stalked and finally shot Wallace, virtually as soon as FBI investigators uncovered them.

High federal officials who have reviewed investigative reports on the Wallace shooting said yesterday that there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Bremer was a hired killer.

At least 200 FBI agents still were following leads across the country and have found no indication of a conspiracy in the Wallace shooting, federal sources here in Washington said.... officially the FBI declined to comment on the search.

[Bob Woodward, May 18. Italics mine.]

A reliable federal source close to the investigation termed "incredible" the picture of Bremer's travels being assembled by federal investigators.

Bremer has been positively placed in the following places....

[Hedley Burrell and Bob Woodward, May 25.]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has finished its investigation into the life and travels of suspect Arthur Herman Bremer and has found no evidence of any conspiracy or accomplices in the May 15 shooting of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, federal sources said yesterday.

[Philip McCombs and Bob Woodward, June 3.]

Two weeks after the last of the above stories on the Wallace shooting, five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Immediately, on Monday, June 19, Woodward turned to his source at the FBI for help: "Federal sources close to the investigation said the address books contain the name and home telephone number of Howard E. Hunt [sic], with the notations 'W. House' and 'W.H.'" (Bob Woodward and E. J. Bachinski, June 20.)

By Woodward's own description, in All the President's Men, this source was Deep Throat. "It was he who had advised Woodward on June 19 that Howard Hunt was definitely involved in Watergate," Woodward wrote.

At the time of the Watergate break-in, of course, "Deep Throat" was not yet the name of a Watergate source but merely the name of a recently released pornographic movie. Rather, during the summer and early fall of 1972, Woodward spoke to me repeatedly of "my source at the FBI," or, alternatively, of "my friend at the FBI" -- each time making it plain that this was a special, and unusually well-placed, source.

Writing much later, in All the President's Men, Woodward noted that "Deep Throat had access to information from the White House, Justice, the FBI, and CRP [Committee for the Re-election of the President]. What he knew represented an aggregate of hard information flowing in and out of many stations." FBI officials, in their investigations of Watergate, were collecting information about the CRP and the White House. At the same time, they were working with prosecutors at the Justice Department and were trying to deal with, and fend off, efforts by Nixon and his aides to restrict the Watergate investigation.

My conviction that Woodward's FBI source was the man later called Deep Throat was buttressed by the following incident. On September 15 the first Watergate indictments were handed down, against the original burglary team. At the time I had just left the Post and was emptying out my Washington apartment before spending a year in Italy. The day after the indictments were handed down, I called Woodward to say good-bye. I raised the subject of the indictments and asked what was new. "I just talked to my friend at the FBI," Woodward answered. "I think we're on to a whole new level on this thing."

In All the President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein wrote,

The day after the indictments were handed down Woodward broke the rule about telephone contact. Deep Throat sounded nervous, but listened as the draft of a story was read to him.... 'Too soft,' Deep Throat said. 'You can go much stronger.'

On September 18 the Post published the first story broadening the investigation beyond the Watergate break-in. "SECRET FUND TIED TO INTELLIGENCE USE," the front-page story said.

Two of President Nixon's top campaign officials each withdrew more than $50,000 from a secret fund that financed intelligence gathering activities against the Democrats, according to sources close to the Warergate investigation.

The two officials, both former White House aides, are Jeb Stuart Magruder, deputy director of the Commitee for the Re-election of the President, and Herbert L. Porter, scheduling director of the committee....

Institutional Motives

WITH the benefit of hindsight, it becomes abundantly clear why someone at the FBI would have an interest in leaking information about Watergate to The Washington Post. In the very first week after the Watergate arrests, FBI investigators found that the White House was putting obstacles in the way of its investigation of the case. White House counsel John Dean insisted on sitting in on the FBI's interviews. The Bureau's efforts to interview witnesses and to obtain various records were being stalled or blocked. L. Patrick Gray, who was working closely with Dean, ordered FBI agents to call off a proposed interview with Miguel Ogarrio, a lawyer whose checks totalling $89,000 had been deposited in the bank account of one of the arrested men; Gray said the interview might jeopardize existing CIA operations in Mexico.

Nixon's White House tapes later demonstrated that, in one of the key acts of the Watergate cover-up, Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, had ordered the CIA deputy director, Vernon Walters, to ask the FBI not to pursue its inquiries in Mexico. Of course, FBI officials other than Gray did not know this at the time. All they knew in late June of 1972, little more than a month after Hoover's death and Gray's appointment, was that the White House was impeding their investigation. And these White House efforts seemed to validate their worst fear: that the Nixon White House intended to use the FBI for political purposes.

FBI officials were furious. According to Mark Felt, on July 5 three top FBI officials asked for a meeting with Gray to protest White House obstruction of the Watergate investigation. The three were Felt, Charles W. Bates, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's General Investigative Division, and Robert Kunkel, the special agent in charge of the Washington field office, which was conducting the investigation. As Felt recounted in his memoir,

"Look," I told Gray, "the reputation of the FBI is at stake.... We can't delay the Ogarrio interview any longer! I hate to make this sound like an ultimatum, but unless we get a request in writing from [CIA] Director Helms to forego the Ogarrio interview, we're going ahead anyway....

"That's not all," I went on. "We must do something about the complete lack of cooperation from John Dean and the Committee to Reelect the President. It's obvious they're holding back -- delaying and leading us astray in every way they can....

Invoking Hoover's name, Felt made clear that he and his colleagues believed that the FBI's traditions and its future were at stake:

In fact, no one could have stopped the driving force of the investigation without an explosion in the Bureau -- not even J. Edgar Hoover. For me, as well as for all the Agents who were involved, it had become a question of our integrity. We were under attack for dragging our feet and as professional law enforcement officers we were determined to go on.

For a senior FBI official like Deep Throat, talking to Woodward and the Post about Watergate was a way to fend off White House interference with the investigation. The contacts with the press guaranteed that information developed by the FBI's Watergate investigative team would not be suppressed or altered by Nixon Administration officials. And, more broadly, the leaks furthered the cause of an independent FBI unfettered by political control.

Candidates From the FBI

AS I said at the outset, I didn't know who Deep Throat was. I know from conversation with Bob Woodward at the time only that he was from the FBI.

He could well have been Mark Felt, who admitted that he harbored ambitions to be the FBI director -- not only at the time of Hoover's death but also in the spring of 1973, when Gray's nomination as permanent director failed to win confirmation and Nixon named William Ruckelshaus acting director. Felt was known in Washington as a person willing to talk to the press. He has denied that he was Deep Throat. "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!" he wrote in his 1979 book. Felt retired from the FBI in 1973, not long after Ruckelshaus's appointment.

Perhaps he was Charles Bates, whose job as assistant director of the General Investigative Division would have given him direct supervisory authority over the police-corruption investigation, over the investigation into Arthur Bremer's shooting of George Wallace, and over the investigation into the Watergate break-in. In the midst of the Watergate investigation Bates asked to be reassigned as special agent in charge of the FBI's field office in San Francisco, where he later headed the Bureau's investigation into the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Perhaps Deep Throat was Robert Kunkel or one of the other FBI agents in the Washington field office who were working on Watergate. That seems less likely, however. Gray ousted Kunkel from his job and assigned him to be head of the St. Louis office in the middle of Watergate; FBI agents attributed the demotion to Kunkel's aggressive direction of the Watergate investigation. And the Washington field office didn't have direct responsibility for the investigation of the Wallace shooting, about which Woodward's FBI source had proved so helpful.

Conceivably, Deep Throat was some other senior FBI official who was keeping track of the Watergate investigation and the Administration's efforts to thwart it -- or acting as a messenger from top officials like Felt and Bates to Woodward.

By Woodward's account, in All the President's Men, Deep Throat passed on most of his crucial information from June of 1972 to early 1973. However, Woodward says in the book that he met with Deep Throat at least once in November of 1973, when his source provided him with some information on the gaps that investigators had found on Nixon's White House tapes. By that time Felt had officially retired from the FBI, and Bates and Kunkel were out of Washington. Still, all of them would have kept in close touch with the FBI's Watergate investigators, and would have been in a position to pass on information to Woodward. It is also possible that the FBI official who was Woodward's original source handed over the mantle of Deep Throat to a successor.

There has been considerable speculation that Deep Throat never existed, that he must have been either a complete fiction or a composite of several people. My memory of those early months of Watergate is otherwise: that there was a specific individual, from the FBI, and Woodward had special access to him.

What seems important, with two decades of hindsight, is that in our national preoccupation with personality and celebrity in the nation's capital, we have concentrated too much on Deep Throat as an individual and not enough on the underlying bureaucratic forces. To be sure, Deep Throat may have had personal motives for his parking-garage meetings with Woodward. Several top FBI officials, including Felt, hoped to take over Hoover's job. Moreover, Woodward demonstrated great skill in cultivating and preserving Deep Throat as a source and a friend. But the institutional motivations at work would seem to have been at least as important as the personal interests or idiosyncrasies of an individual source and a newspaper reporter.

After Hoover's death, the FBI faced what its officials felt was a threat to its tradition of independence from political control. Top FBI officials were worried about the impact of Gray's appointment. And in less than seven weeks, White House interference with the Watergate investigation proved to them that their fears were justified. They responded -- as FBI officials had often done during the Hoover era -- by going to the press.

An Ironic Coda

IN the battle over the independence of the FBI there were no unblemished heroes, no white hats. The Watergate investigation demonstrated that the Nixon White House had dishonorable motives for wanting to gain political control over the FBI. Yet the FBI's motives for seeking to retain its independence were not entirely pure either. Under Hoover the Bureau had become an autocratic institution, mistrustful of change and modernization, secretly engaging in a number of activities for which it had no legal authorization.

Watergate inspired a series of congressional investigations of abuses by the FBI. These investigations focused on such activities as the bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the counterintelligence program to disrupt political groups on the left and the right; and a pattern of illegal break-ins and burglaries.

Irony is the lifeblood of history. And so, throughout the late 1970s L. Patrick Gray, who had been assigned by Richard Nixon to take political control of the FBI, and Mark Felt, who had fought to resist that control, found themselves joined together in a prolonged legal battle to fend off prosecution by the Justice Department for approving illegal break-ins at the homes of members of the Weathermen underground organization and their families and friends. The government eventually dropped charges against Gray. But in 1980 Felt and another of Hoover's top aides were convicted of conspiracy to violate civil rights. Soon after taking office President Ronald Reagan granted the two men a pardon, claiming that they had "acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation."

Thus, in this epic institutional battle between the Nixon Administration and the post-Hoover FBI, neither side won. Deep Throat's secret meetings with Woodward helped, in the long run, to preserve the FBI's investigation of Watergate and thus ultimately to force Nixon to resign. But whereas Nixon came out a loser, so did the FBI, which found itself unable to preserve the independence and the freedom from scrutiny which it had long enjoyed under Hoover.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1992/05/deep-throat-an-institutional-analysis/304084/