The Washington Post has just confirmed the identity of “Deep Throat” revealed in this Vanity Fair article as W. Mark Felt, former number two at the F.B.I. The article treats Felt as an American hero and, prior to reading it, I might have been inclined to the same view. Now, however, I see Felt as a self-important bureaucrat whose real and imagined slights at the hands of Nixon’s people, coupled with being denied Hoover’s job, impelled him to bring down the Nixon administration.
You can’t really understand the Watergate affair without knowing something about Nixon’s political history. He made his name going after Alger Hiss, a Soviet spy (see Dan Kennedy’s Salon article) who was for years viewed as a political martyr by the American Left. Objectively speaking, Nixon was right, yet he was vilified by the left wing intelligentsia and media. Nixon’s hatred and distrust of the press was well earned and carried over into his Presidency. Nixon saw the press as completely irresponsible – perfectly willing to compromise national security, particularly if doing so damaged him and his administration. Was Nixon paranoid, in the sense that he imagined non-existent plots against him? Possibly. But, then as now, the establishment press was reflexively leftist, and bias produced results hardly distinguishable from an active conspiracy.
National security was an omnipresent concern, both because of the Cold War and Vietnam. Nixon and his people saw communist infiltration of the anti-war movement (there actually was) as problematic and leaks to the press by government bureaucrats during war time as treasonous. It’s doubtful that the exigencies of the Containment Policy justified U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But, whether or not Vietnam was a geopolitical mistake, the fact is that the media turned into the propaganda arm of the other side. One of the most egregious examples of this was the media handling of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Militarily, it was a major defeat for the Vietcong, yet the press turned it into a defeat for the U.S. For Nixon and his people, the Cold War and Vietnam were no different than WW II and press leaks about foreign policy/strategy were analogous to a press leak that told the Germans when and where the invasion of Europe was taking place.
At this point, let me emphasize that none of the national security concerns of the late 60’s justified the unconstitutional abuse of power by the Executive Branch under Nixon. But, let me also emphasize that the Executive Branch is mostly comprised of unelected bureaucrats. These bureaucrats can and do pursue their own agenda, which is every bit as much of a threat to civil liberties. As long as the agendas of the elected administration and the permanent bureaucrats are aligned, leaks are rare: the massive expansion of wiretaps under Clinton didn’t produce whistle blowers or press criticism. When the agendas differ, then the bureaucrats use leaks to discredit administration policies or even to influence electoral politics (consider for example, the Wilson-Plame affair or Richard Clarke).
With the foregoing in mind, remember that J. Edgar Hoover and his F.B.I. routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens. According to the Vanity Fair piece, Mark Felt was one of Hoover’s most devoted acolytes. Felt had no reservations about conducting illegal break-ins to obtain evidence against criminal suspects (acts for which he was eventually indicted and convicted). Yet, when Felt met administration people at the White House, he “expressed resistance to the idea” of wiretapping suspected leakers without a court order. Had Felt become a born-again civil libertarian? Or was Felt playing a game of Hoover Says: Felt would conduct warrantless wiretaps as long as the request was prefixed by “Hoover says.” Felt’s own account of the meeting included the odd detail that Assistant Attorney General Robert Mardian was dressed in work clothes and dirty tennis shoes (Mardian had apparently been called away from a tennis game). Did Felt believe that he was being insulted by a bunch of political hacks?
After Hoover died, Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray to head the F.B.I. The article never explicitly says that Felt resented being passed over in favor of a Republican apparatchik – in fact the article emphasizes that Gray “protected” Felt. However, we are given a picture of Felt as being “fiercely loyal” to those under him, “resistant to any force that tried to compromise the bureau”, and seeing himself as the “conscience of the F.B.I.” Felt’s first (and apparently only) duty was the good of the F.B.I. That he might view “the good of the F.B.I.” as being congruent with his ascendancy to the top spot should be wholly unsurprising: “I am the conscience of the F.B.I. – to thwart me is to thwart the F.B.I.” It is revealing that there is no indication anywhere that Felt considered that his first duty should be to the Constitution of the United States and not the F.B.I.
Let’s play alternate history. When the Nixon people meet with Felt, they flatter him, showing him the same deference that had been Hoover’s through a succession of administrations. They subtly dangle the possibility that Felt might head the organization after Hoover. Illegal seizures and wiretaps were not a problem for Felt and his F.B.I. as long as they didn’t compromise the Bureau. If the F.B.I. had been willing to play ball with the administration there would have been no perceived need for the Plumbers. There would have been no botched break-in at the Watergate and no scandal. Felt would have headed the Bureau through the 80’s – perhaps into the 90’s before finally retiring.
The moral of the whole Watergate affair comes down to this: Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.