Deception in the Name of Truth

Now that we know who Deep Throat is we can presume to know why he spoke to Bob Woodward in the first place. To Nixon loyalist Pat Buchanan, Mark Felt was a “corrupt cop,” an “FBI hack who was ratting out [Nixon] for passing him over as director.” Other people see Felt as a hero with mixed motives.

We never really needed to know who ratted out Nixon, who had it coming. In today’s twisted version of that mystery, two innocent journalists may soon go to prison for protecting the snake who outed Valerie Plame to Bob Novak. If you’re like me in thinking the stubborn silence of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper a little perverse, Deep Throat throws some light on where they’re coming from. Imagine Nixon telling his attorney general to subpoena Woodward and Bernstein to find out their sources. The only reason we’re doing this, Richard Kleindienst would have assured the skeptics, is that this administration will leave no stone unturned getting to the bottom of the burglary.

Woodward and Bernstein’s use of anonymous sources was just one of the techniques that made their Watergate coverage in the Washington Post a case study of the tension in journalism between ends and means. In her 1978 book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok found plenty to trouble her. She offered this excerpt from All the President’s Men:

“Though it wasn’t true, Woodward told Deep Throat that he and Bernstein had a story for the following week saying that Haldeman was the fifth person in control of disbursements from the secret fund.

“‘You’ll have to do it on your own,’ Deep Throat said. . . . Since he had not cautioned them on Haldeman, he was effectively confirming the story.”

Bok conceded that “the situation was one of mounting crisis for the nation and of potential danger for investigating journalists who came too close to revealing the facts about Watergate.” Still, Woodward and Bernstein had lied. “In pursuing their investigation, the two journalists came to tell more than one lie; a whole fabric of deception arose. Persons being interviewed were falsely told that others had already given certain bits of information or had said something about them. One of the reporters tried to impersonate Donald Segretti on the telephone. The other lied to Deep Throat in order to extract corroboration of a fact which this witness would have feared to reveal in other ways. And the newspaper was used to print information for which there was not always adequate evidence.

“It is not clear that, beyond the secrecy which had to surround the investigation, deception was actually needed. . . . But what is more troubling in the book than the lies themselves is the absence of any acknowledgment of moral dilemma. No one seems to have stopped to think that there was a problem in using deceptive means. No one weighed the reasons for and against doing so. There was no reported effort to search for honest alternatives, or to distinguish among different forms and degrees of deception, or to consider whether some circumstances warranted it more than others.”

Jack Fuller, former editor of the Tribune, drew heavily from Bok in his 1996 book News Values, which denounced deceit and agonized over anonymous sources. “Restrictions by news organizations upon their use always raise the issue of whether the Watergate scandal would have gone unrevealed under such rules,” he wrote. “Almost any self-restraint on the part of journalists might make it impossible in a particular instance to get or publish valuable information.” For him, it came down to how valuable. “It is possible to recognize that certain kinds of stories require less restrictive rules than others. This leads to a difficult balancing test. . . .”

Bok would have enjoyed All the President’s Men a little more if Woodward and Bernstein had sounded an occasional note of moral anguish. A lot of journalists–though maybe not Fuller–would have enjoyed it a little less.

During his years at the Tribune, William Gaines was an investigative reporter of the old school. Like Bok, he found All the President’s Men morally suspect, but not for her reasons. His reaction to last week’s revelation about Mark Felt was a mixture of embarrassment and satisfaction.

The embarrassment is easy to understand. Gaines won two Pulitzers at the Tribune before he began teaching investigative journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1999 he and his students launched a full-bore inquiry into the identity of Deep Throat. They slowly narrowed a long list of suspects to seven, and when the students were asked on Dateline in June 2002 which of the seven seemed likeliest, they said Pat Buchanan.

But when they seriously narrowed the seven to one, and announced the identity of that one at an April 2003 news conference in Washington D.C., they said Deep Throat had been a White House attorney named Fred Fielding.

Still posted on the Web site of Gaines’s journalism school is the headline “Special Report: Deep Throat Uncovered.” But now it links to a statement by Gaines that begins, “We were wrong.”

“It’s been wall-to-wall phone calls,” Gaines told me the other day. “I would think because we were wrong, people wouldn’t be interested in what we have to say.”

He didn’t sound particularly upset. “We started out with a premise,” he said. “You’ve got to have something you’re working off of that’s true and reliable, and our premise was that everything Woodward and Bernstein reported was true to the best of their knowledge. We said, ‘OK, this is what they say. We’ll take this information and find out from that information who Deep Throat is.'”

Gaines thinks he and his students reasoned logically from the evidence. But some of that evidence was false. Woodward and Bernstein had deceived them. “There were many instances,” Gaines says, “where we were misled to think Deep Throat was not in the FBI.”

One instance was a quote attributed to Deep Throat in the book but to a White House official in the Washington Post article where it first appeared. Gaines also gave me a more subtle example of how the book sent his team down the wrong path.

“Deep Throat was angry, too, but not at Woodward,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men. “‘Okay,’ he said softly. ‘This is very serious. You can safely say that fifty people worked for the White House and CRP to play games and spy and sabotage and gather intelligence. Some of it is beyond belief, kicking at the opposition in every imaginable way. You already know some of it.’ . . .

“‘It’s all in the files,’ Deep Throat said. ‘Justice and the Bureau know about it, even though it wasn’t followed up.'”

The October 10, 1972, Post story that reported there’d been “at least 50 undercover Nixon operatives” attributed this information to “FBI reports.” That suggests Felt. But the University of Illinois library happens to have nine reels of microfilm containing some 14,000 pages of FBI files on Watergate, and these files demonstrated to Gaines’s students that whatever the Post revealed the FBI immediately checked out. Before October 10 was over an agent had turned in a memo that said the Post story was “absolutely false”: there was no FBI report on undercover operatives. If it wasn’t in the files, and the FBI didn’t know about it, Deep Throat had been wrong. He’d made a mistake a source in the FBI wouldn’t have been likely to make. Gaines said, “We once again saw that, or felt that, the FBI was not the hiding place of Deep Throat.”

What’s more, Gaines told me, stories about Felt he’d just been reading said Felt wasn’t a smoker. “It was absolutely specific in All the President’s Men that Deep Throat smoked,” he said. Fielding smoked.

“While the facts in our online report have not been found to be in error,” Gaines writes online, “the big mistake that negates the study is that we came to the wrong conclusion. We were 100 percent sure that Fielding was Deep Throat.”

Gaines approves of Woodward and Bernstein’s deceptions. “I’d said at one time that I thought they were rather careless in giving out a whole lot of information about Deep Throat,” he told me. “When you have a confidential source you don’t say anything about him. But as it turned out, they didn’t do that. They fooled us. They were not giving up clues after all. The clues we saw deceived us.”

Some people have speculated that there was no Deep Throat, that he was a literary device, a composite. Gaines doesn’t go that far, because Woodward has flatly denied it. But he has a hunch the book gave Deep Throat more credit than Felt deserves. “There’s a lot of information Deep Throat conveyed that was insider stuff at the White House. It had nothing to do with the FBI. One time Deep Throat said [John] Ehrlichman told Howard Hunt to get out of town, after the burglary. In testimony by John Dean, Dean said Ehrlichman told him to tell Hunt to get out of town. So Dean told [G. Gordon] Liddy to tell Hunt to get out of town. An hour later he met with Charles Colson, and Colson said it was a dumb idea–they’d be aiding a fugitive. So Dean testified that he called up Liddy and told him to tell Hunt not to get out of town, to stand by. But Hunt says, ‘I’m packed up. I’m leaving anyway.'”

The characters in this madcap panic attack–Ehrlichman, Hunt, Dean, Liddy, and Colson–all wound up doing time for Watergate crimes. Colson turned to God, and Gaines’s students found in Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center archives a deposition he’d given during the investigation. In it Colson recalled that when he was telling Dean what to do Fielding happened to be in the same room. Felt played no visible role in the farce. “It’s possible someone told Felt,” said Gaines, “but I don’t know who that would be. It’s funny too that when Deep Throat conveys the information he leaves Dean out of the scenario. That’s something Deep Throat does throughout the book–he eliminates Dean. And that suggested Fred Fielding in Dean’s office. Dean was getting FBI reports, and getting them from [acting director L. Patrick] Gray and not from Felt.”

As far as Gaines is concerned, a lot of questions remain unanswered, and when school resumes in the fall he’s going to get his students going on them. “Deep Throat has become this mythological, grossly exaggerated source, where there were several sources,” he said. “Those people are not known either, and it’s interesting to figure out who they may be.”

The time-honored way in which reporters avoid the awkwardness of an anonymous source is by not acknowledging any source at all. Some reporters write this way to seem omniscient. When he was at the Tribune Gaines did it to be kind. “When someone came to me with information,” he recalled, “I would assure them we’d check it out and get it from other sources and never indicate we had them as a source.” For instance, the medical director of a Chicago hospital Gaines exposed never knew it was a janitor who’d called the paper.

Deep Throat was no janitor, but neither was he the source who launched the Post’s Watergate investigation. He served Woodward and Bernstein as a fount of reliable inside information, as a guiding hand, and as a cheerleader, and when they wrote their Post stories Woodward and Bernstein never hinted that any such person existed. Were they writing All the President’s Men today I suppose they’d wring their hands a little over their situational ethics but primarily because they’d know they were expected to.

News Bite

A new issue of Sport Literate is a welcome if rare sight. Volume 4, issue 4, just out, is the first since the summer of 2003. “Truth be told,” William Meiners admits in his editor’s column, “I thought about wrapping it up with this issue.” But he’s changed his mind.

Despite the volume number, it’s been almost a decade since Sport Literate, with its “honest reflections on life’s leisurely diversions,” was launched by Meiners and a friend, then graduate students at Columbia College. Occasional mention in the annual Best American Essays series has encouraged Meiners, who works in communications at Purdue University, to keep going, and grants and donations have made it possible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.