Follow us on

|

`Deep Throat' speaks

Print edition : Jul 01, 2005 T+T-

The final chapter of the three-decade old Watergate saga unfolds as the highly placed whistle-blower reveals his own identity.

ANAND PARTHASARATHY in Bangalore

"I HAVE to do this my way," says "Deep Throat", played by Hal Halbrook, in the 1976 film All The President's Men, as he meets The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) time and again, in a dark underground garage, to guide him thorough the venal labyrinth of the Nixon administration. "You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money." It was a cat-and-mouse game that the shadowy, chain-smoking whistle-blower was playing with the rookie journalist - but it helped keep him and his more seasoned partner Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) on the right track, until they unveiled the full ramifications of what was initially dismissed by the United States government as a "third rate burglary".

It was a bit more than that. Watergate was a criminal conspiracy whose trail led all the way up to the White House - and finally, after two years of dogged investigation, to the resignation of its then occupant, Richard Nixon.

The most famous confidential source in journalism's history remained faceless for 33 years because the only four persons who knew his identity - the source himself, the two reporters of TheWashington Post and Benjamin Bradlee, the executive editor of the newspaper at the time, kept it that way. For the journalists and their editor, it was a clear-cut issue. They had promised the contact not to reveal his name - in his lifetime - and they were bound to honour the pact: "If you give your word, you're not going to do it, you can't do it... . We were the only people morally bound not to break this story, so how could we do it?" says Bradlee, today a Vice-President of the Washington Post Co.

The Washington PostVanity Fair

The revelation has ignited afresh a debate about the ethics of `whistle blowing' - revealing to the media confidential information that officials in high position are duty bound to protect. "Mark Felt is one of America's greatest secret heroes," concludes O'Connor. "... He has lived for more than 30 years in a prison of his own making, built upon his... unwavering loyalty to country and cause".

The `cause' was the increasing criminality of activities in 1972 of CREEP - the Committee for the Re-election of the President - to return the Republican Nixon for a second term. When five men were arrested at 2.30 in the morning of June 17 while trying to bug the Democratic Party national headquarters in Washington's Watergate office block, The Washington Post scented something unusual: one of the burglars turned out to be a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others had their pockets stuffed with $100 bills. When an address book found on the person of another burglar carried initials that seemed to link him to someone high up at the White House, The Washington Post assigned two reporters - Woodward and Bernstein - and then supported their efforts for almost two years, as they unravelled layer on layer of subterfuge, dirty tricks and millions of dollars in black money, seemingly doled out by the nation's top law enforcers themselves in an effort to scuttle the Opposition's presidential aspirations.

Much of it - as their joint 1974 book All The President's Men and the four -Oscar winning Redford-Hoffman film of the same name, which followed two years later, reveal was based on old fashioned `shoe leather' and diligent digging by telephone. But a chance acquaintance of Redford from his navy days, who had become a top official in government, provided - albeit at great personal risk - the vital corroboration of much that the duo, who came to be known jointly as "Woodstein", and the bold management of their paper needed to stick with their stories in the face of much official vilification. Today both book and film are back in circulation. Simon and Schuster who published the $12.50 paperback are said to be hastily reprinting again after 11 years. And the CD version of the 1976 film is one of the top movie buys on the Internet sale sites this month.

"Deep Throat", an alias coined by Howard Simons, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor (Metro News), in recognition that their source was `deep background' (and a nod at a controversial pornographic film of the same) tantalised Woodward with cryptic directions and set in place a cloak-and-dagger system for their contacts: a red flag in a flower pot on Woodward's balcony when he wanted an urgent meeting; a clock face drawn on page 20 of his morning newspaper to indicate when they could meet. It made for riveting cinema and added to the legend of Watergate.

Nixon was forced to resign on August 8, 1974, 14 months after the Watergate break-in, by diligent constitutional process that became inevitable after the media revelations of wrongdoing in high places. It involved the U.S. Justice Department and its dogged special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski Jr., unawed by the rank and power of those they were asked to investigate; an alert Senate investigative committee chaired by Sam Ervin; a dedicated District Court Judge, John J. Sirica; and finally a Supreme Court that held that no man was above the law - not even the President of the U.S. The media - principally The Washington Post - pointed to the crimes. A non-political investigative and judicial system did its job. The Washington Post in a recent editorial, however, reminded: "This landmark victory for the rule of law depended on the secret patriotism of a source named Deep Throat - that is, Mark Felt. It's nice to be able to honour him, by his real name while he still lives."

Public opinion in the U.S. too is overwhelmingly veering round to the view that Deep Throat/Felt was more hero than heel. A few of the Watergate conspirators have held that he was a `squealer' who leaked official secrets only after he was passed over for promotion as FBI Director. But as one paper (the Huntsville Gazette of Alabama) asked unanswerably: If the President and the Attorney-General are in cahoots to cover a crime, what do you do?

There is also some suspicion that Felt's decision to `come clean' at this point might have been driven by some mercenary calculations within his family. His daughter has been candid enough to say that they need some money to look after an ailing father and to pay off some debts. A million dollars or so in book fees or advances would not come amiss. The Felt family might also legitimately feel that the other parties to the shared secret, especially the `Woodstein' duo, have not done too badly over the years: they wrote two books and sold lucrative movie rights to one. In 2003, they sold all their Watergate notes and papers (except those revealing the identity of Deep Throat) to Texas University for $5 million - as the core of a Woodward-Bernstein Watergate Archive at its Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin. At 91, and intermittently senile, Felt does not have much time to reap what will seem to his family as his deserved share of Deep Throat booty.