04.09.12

Bernstein, Woodward Swat Down ‘Leak’ Questioning Deep Throat’s Motive

Did W. Mark Felt leak on Watergate out of patriotism—or personal ambition? A new book by Max Holland claims only the latter. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein tell Lloyd Grove why the author is dead wrong.

The legend of Deep Throat—which was a central drama of All the President’s Men, both the bestselling book and the Oscar-winning movie—has achieved sacred-text status in journalism circles; it is the inspiring saga of plucky reporters and their confidential source who risked all to save the republic. Robert Redford, who played Bob Woodward in the 1976 film, is planning to direct a documentary that will cover the affair, lest anyone forget The Washington Post’s crowning moment of glory.

The mystery of Deep Throat, however, has been less enduring. It was ostensibly solved seven years ago, when former FBI official W. Mark Felt revealed it was he who leaked to Woodward in that underground parking garage and helped him and Carl Bernstein unravel the Watergate scandal.

But, nearly 40 years after the fateful June 17 break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex, Felt’s motive for aiding the Washington Post duo remains debatable, if not shady.

Woodward and Bernstein, not surprisingly, have argued that Felt, the FBI’s second-in-command at the time of the break-in and an acolyte of the late J. Edgar Hoover, acted out of patriotism—“with remarkable personal courage” when “the nation had become endangered by [Richard Nixon’s] lawless presidency,” as Bernstein eulogized the G-man a month after his death at age 95 in December 2008. “Mark’s great decision in all of this was his refusal to be silenced,” Woodward declared at the same memorial service. “Action is character.”

Now comes a new book, Leak, in which independent journalist Max Holland—drawing on his fresh interviews with Watergate prosecutors and FBI investigators as well as government files, private diaries, the Nixon White House tapes, and other records—claims that Felt was motivated principally by his desire to become Hoover’s rightful heir and calculated his leaks to torpedo Nixon’s handpicked FBI director, L. Patrick Gray III, along with other rivals for the top job.

Far from being a selfless patriot, Felt, in Holland’s portrayal, was a preening, duplicitous Washington player who tried to use Woodward and Bernstein, as well as other journalists to whom he passed (sometimes false) information, to further his egocentric personal ambition. Nixon’s downfall, Holland contends, was the last thing on Felt’s mind; indeed, given its potential negative impact on his chances to rise, it was probably the last thing he wanted.

In reaction to Leak, various Watergate participants and aficionados are lining up on one side or the other on the question of Deep Throat’s motives. Felt’s lawyer, John D. O’Connor, who wrote the July 2005 Vanity Fair piece that outed his client, then suffering from dementia, as America’s best-known secret whistleblower, clings to the Felt-as-hero theory. “The book is well-researched and well-written,” he says, “and dead wrong.”

But John W. Dean III—who repeatedly tangled with Felt while supervising the Watergate coverup as Nixon’s White House counsel, and later became the star witness against the president and his top aides (having pleaded guilty himself to obstruction of justice)—applauds Holland’s book. “Max has got it right—he nailed it,” says Dean, one of the experts Holland asked to read Leak in manuscript form. “Felt was a piece of work.”

If only Nixon had not bypassed Felt in favor of Gray at the FBI, Dean argues, Deep Throat would not have leaked, and Nixon’s presidency would have survived.

Woodward and Bernstein are predictably offended by Holland’s book—especially its claim that their Pulitzer Prize–winning Watergate reporting, albeit praiseworthy and impressive, essentially followed what government investigators were already uncovering about the unfolding scandal. Until last week, they publicly held their fire. But after the two were asked to respond to the assertions in Leak during a Watergate-themed panel April 3 at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, all bets are off. Now they are blasting the book and vehemently defending not only Deep Throat’s legacy, but their own.

“I think we live in an age of too much revisionism that oversimplifies and twists complicated events, and this is a classic example,” says Bernstein, who likens Holland to a “bad scientist” who credits only data that fit his theory and ignores data that contradict it. “This book is part of a debunking industry—a huge enterprise in the cultural landscape, not just about Watergate, but all kinds of revisionist notions that mischaracterize the complexities of real events and history.”

Woodward, who granted Holland an interview for Leak and has been poring over its 59 pages of footnotes, dismisses many of its conclusions as “conjecture or speculation” unsupported by hard facts. Woodward points out that The Secret Man, his own 2005 chronicle of his relationship with Felt, repeatedly acknowledged that Deep Throat’s motives were mixed and not altogether altruistic.

“There’s not anything that Max Holland writes [regarding Felt’s motives] that I don’t talk about in The Secret Man,” Woodward says. “In fact, I raise all those questions about what his motives were”—including Felt’s thwarted ambition to be FBI director. “They are laid out pretty clearly.” Woodward adds that Felt—whom he first met by chance outside the White House Situation Room in 1969, when Woodward was a 27-year-old Navy lieutenant transporting classified documents—“was troubled. I knew him. I just think this idea that there’s one motive behind somebody’s action doesn’t match up with reality.”

Woodward and Bernstein are most alarmed by Holland’s claims about the scope of their Watergate reporting. “The most interesting thing he says is that we were just following what the prosecutors had found, and that is factually wrong,” Woodward says, noting that at the 1973 trial of the first seven Watergate defendants, federal prosecutors identified former G-man Gordon Liddy as “the mastermind” of the operation. On the contrary, Woodward says, their Washington Post reporting uncovered a massive, long-running political espionage and sabotage campaign that went far beyond the mere wiretapping of the Democrats and was run directly out of the Nixon White House. “This guy Max Holland doesn’t understand Watergate,” he says.

Holland retorts: “I wasn’t writing about Watergate,” but instead focusing on a single key actor amid a complex moment in history. “Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting deserves every kudo it has ever gotten. But let’s appreciate it for what it was and not pretend it was something it wasn’t … I talked to everybody at the FBI, the prosecutors, the journalists—I talked to everybody who’s still alive. Don’t they have a side of the story? Watergate isn’t the exclusive history of Bob Woodward. He doesn’t own it. There are other points of view.”

Holland argues that lead prosecutor Earl J. Silbert’s contemporaneous diary makes clear that the trial of Liddy, former CIA agents Howard Hunt and James McCord, and “the Cubans” was always envisioned as a prelude to the prosecution of higher-ups. One of the defendants was bound to crack and spill the beans—and McCord did just that, writing his famous letter to federal judge John J. Sirica that blew the coverup wide open.

Felt, says Woodward, “was troubled. I knew him. I just think this idea that there’s one motive behind somebody’s action doesn’t match up with reality.”

In the end, Holland’s theory of Deep Throat’s motive is hardly novel, though it is the most definitive presentation to date. Felt, whose career ended abruptly in 1973 when acting FBI director William Ruckelshaus, Gray’s successor, quietly forced his retirement over a suspected leak to The New York Times, acknowledged that he’d wanted the top job but dismissed the notion that he was angry about not getting it. Of course, he also lied consistently about being Deep Throat whenever his name inevitably came up in the seemingly endless parlor game. As Felt claimed to the Los Angeles Times in November 1974, after Washingtonian magazine published an article speculating that he was the celebrated source: “I did not leak any information to Woodward or Bernstein. I’m not Deep Throat.”

Woodward, for one, says he pitied Felt because he couldn’t show his real self to the world at large and had to submerge his true identity in a carefully constructed façade.

“The bottom line,” Woodward says, “is that there is no such thing as a perfect source.”