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Why Deep Throat was an unimportant source and other reflections on Watergate

COMMENTARY | July 29, 2005

“The reason Deep Throat remained anonymous, so that even Washington Post editors didn’t know who he was, is that his contribution was unimportant.” This essay first appeared on www.journalism.org.

By Barry Sussman



Some people have asked for my take on Deep Throat, or Mark Felt, as a source for the Washington Post in its coverage of the Watergate scandal. I was District of Columbia editor when the break-in occurred on June 17th, 1972, and soon afterward was made special Watergate editor, relieved of other duties. I helped create Woodward and Bernstein as a team, and was in charge of the day-to-day coverage, working most intensely on it for the next 15 months.


Deep Throat was nice to have around, but that’s about it. His role as a key Watergate source for the Post is a myth, created by a movie and sustained by hype for almost 30 years.


It wouldn’t be correct to say we never got any help from him. In October 1972, Deep Throat gave us confirmation on an important story dealing with dirty tricks. But that’s it, as far as I can remember, and my memory is aided by a book I wrote in 1974, “The Great Cover-up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate.” An investigator in Miami who helped us one time was a lot more important than Deep Throat.


The Post’s aggressive coverage started the moment of the break-in. The first day, a Saturday, I had ten reporters working on the story. Woodward, at the arraignment for the arrested men, heard one of them, James McCord, identify himself as formerly employed by the CIA. On Sunday, Carroll Kilpatrick, our White House correspondent, saw McCord’s name in the paper and called his desk to say McCord more currently was employed by the Nixon re-election campaign, where he was in charge of security.


Also that Sunday, Larry Fox, our night city editor, told me that D.C. cops might let a Post reporter look over some of the burglars’ possessions. They did, and E.J. Bachinski, a police reporter, found two address books with the name Howard Hunt in them, and the notation “WH” in one and “W. House” in the other. He also found a check for $6.36 from Hunt to a local country club. So it was that the Post, hardly 48 hours after the arrests – and through the work of its White House correspondent and a night police reporter – was able to tie the break-in to both the Nixon re-election campaign and the White House. No help from Deep Throat there or in the weeks that followed, when he obviously could have been of great assistance.


What was perhaps the Post’s biggest Watergate story of all, in terms of consequences, is a good example of how Felt could have helped but didn’t. On Aug. 1, 1972, we reported that contributions to Nixon had flowed directly from his re-election committee into a Miami bank account of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker. Prosecutors in Washington and the FBI – and thus, presumably, Deep Throat – had known about these transfers since the end of June. The Post found out about them, however, not from him but rather through a Dade County state’s attorney investigator, Martin Dardis. Bernstein had gone to Miami because the New York Times had been running stories about the money trail from there. On July 31, Bernstein called Woodward and me repeatedly to say that Dardis had agreed to meet with him but was putting him off.


Then, around 8 PM or a little later came a breakthrough. Dardis let Bernstein see Barker’s telephone and bank records. Included was a check from a Kenneth H. Dahlberg, for $25,000. Dahlberg was a Nixon fund-raiser. Woodward got Dahlberg on the phone. He confirmed that he was a fund-raiser and that the check was his, but wouldn’t go into any details and hung up.


I began writing background material for the story – something I did frequently as Watergate editor – and Woodward got through to Clark MacGregor, the Nixon re-election campaign director, for comment. The phone rang and I picked it up. It was Dahlberg, seeking to confirm that Woodward worked at the Post. I kept him on the line until Woodward could take the call.


Dahlberg then told Woodward that, “In the process of fund-raising, I had accumulated some cash, so I recall making a cash deposit while I was in Florida and getting a cashier’s check made out to myself. I didn’t want to carry all that money to Washington.” He said he gave the check to one of the chiefs of the Nixon re-election finance committee in early April. He said he had no idea how the money had gotten into Barker’s account, and that the FBI had asked him about it three weeks earlier.


The Dahlberg check story set in motion snowballing, extremely important Watergate inquiries, one leading to another to another. After reading the Post Aug. 1, 1972, two Democratic Senators, Proxmire of Wisconsin and Cannon of Nevada, asked the General Accounting Office (now the General Accountability Office) to do an audit of Nixon campaign finances. Their request was superfluous, as Philip S. Hughes, director of the new Office of Federal Elections, a division of GAO, also read the story and decided on his own to conduct an investigation. Hughes’s inquiry became the first to cite illegalities in Nixon campaign financing.


A second inquiry spurred by the Dahlberg check article was the Patman investigation. Rep. Wright Patman, then 79, a Texas Democrat, was chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, and he had taken a keen interest in Watergate from the outset. At the request of another committee member, Henry Reuss of Milwaukee, Patman assigned committee staff to determine whether there had been any banking violations in the transfer of the Dahlberg check and other money from their points of origin to Barker’s bank account.


Both inquiries were menacing for Nixon. He used the Justice Department to bury Hughes’s findings, and friendly members of Congress, including Democrats, to thwart Patman. But even as Patman was foiled, there were reports that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had begun a quiet investigation on his own as chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Administrative Practices and Procedure. The Kennedy investigation reportedly lasted three months; afterward the Democratic leadership decided to create the Senate Watergate Committee. Of course, it was through the hearings of this committee – the Ervin Committee – that Watergate came into the consciousness of the nation.


The case is pretty strong that the Dahlberg check story was the single biggest contribution the Washington Post made in the course of the scandal. It led to creation of the Ervin Committee, thus to the knowledge of the existence of the Nixon tapes, the payment of hush money and Nixon’s subsequent demise. While it can’t be proven, had there been no Dahlberg check story it is likely that there would have been no Ervin Committee, little pressure on those who knew of the cover-up to come forward, and no drive for impeachment.


The FBI, where Deep Throat Mark Felt was the No. 2 official, knew about the Dahlberg check weeks before Dardis did. But the Post got the story with no help from Deep Throat/Felt. We began reporting it late on July 31st – sometime after 8 PM – and got it on the front page, in full detail, on Aug. 1. Not bad.


The Post’s managing editor, the late Howard Simons, stayed at work late that night because of another story, so it was fitting that he was there to make space for the Dahlberg check story. From the beginning, Simons was the main force behind the Post’s Watergate coverage. About two weeks after the break-in, he asked me to take charge of the story, and to tell him what I wanted in the way of staff. I chose Woodward and Bernstein, basically continuing what the metropolitan editor, Harry Rosenfeld, and I had settled on informally. Howard told me I could call on other reporters at any time, and, on occasion, I did. The story that had kept Simons late the night of July 31 was one of the major 1972 election stories, played with a headline that ran across the top of the page in very large type: “Eagleton Bows Out of ’72 Race; McGovern Weighs Replacement.”


Today few people know that Howard Simons, who later became curator of the Nieman Foundation, had anything to do with the Post’s Watergate coverage. To most, the hero, aside from the reporters, is Ben Bradlee. Bold, authoritative, urging the reporters on, fearless – that’s Bradlee in the movie of the Woodward-Bernstein book. The fact is, he was these things. He was an excellent leader. But Bradlee came to the story fairly late. It was Simons from the beginning who saw to it that the Post owned the Watergate story. Among his key decisions was one to have the metropolitan staff, which did not normally cover national politics, do the reporting.  By the time Bradlee got involved, the Post was way out on a limb, by itself.


Perhaps over the years there have been moments when Bradlee or others involved gave Howard Simons his due credit. Maybe one of them did so this last go-around, when Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat. If so, I missed it. The story broke May 31st, and I was out of the country, in Asia, from the end of May until the middle of June. I went over a good bit of the coverage when I got back but didn’t see any references to Simons. Bradlee deserves a lot of admiration for his strength and panache. But there was more than enough credit to go around, and it would have been nice to see a large share of it go to Howard Simons.


The story in which Deep Throat was helpful was the one in which we announced the existence of political spy and dirty trickster Donald Segretti. On Sept. 28th, 1972, Bernstein had gotten a call from a government lawyer who said the Watergate break-in might be one of a series of dirty tricks by the Nixon re-election team against the Democrats, and told us how we might uncover others. His tip led to our finding and reporting on Segretti. Bernstein worked on the story for about ten days and had it nailed. But, truth be told, we were a little afraid of it. What if we were over-reaching?


On Sunday, October 8th, Woodward met with Deep Throat, at my request, to ask about Segretti. He told Woodward that the FBI had concluded, much earlier on, that the Watergate break-in was one incident in a wide campaign of Nixon re-election political spying and sabotage, and that Segretti was one of a large number of dirty-trick agents. Bingo. The story led the paper on Oct. 10th, along with a report on another dirty trick.


It’s such assistance that Deep Throat has gotten so much credit for. The myth is that he helped us like this frequently. But it happened only once in the period of the Post’s main Watergate coverage. Even then, it was after we had gotten all the goods on our own.


One thing lacking in the Post’s coverage for a long time was exposure of the cover-up that was going on even as we did our reporting. The first published report of a cover-up, to the best of my memory, came from Seymour Hersh in the New York Times in an interview with one of the burglars, Frank Sturgis, who said he was being paid hush money. You’d think Deep Throat, if he was a helpful source, would have suggested to Bob Woodward that he look into the cover-up.


Routinely, I and the editors above me knew the names of confidential sources. Such sources may be anonymous to readers but they rarely are anonymous to the editors involved. The reason Deep Throat remained anonymous, so that even Post editors didn’t know who he was, is that his contribution was unimportant. Don’t believe for a minute that Bradlee wouldn’t have asked his name had the Post’s reputation been riding on what he was telling us.

A great oddity about Watergate, then and now, is that few people had or have any real idea of what the scandal encompassed. From the moment Nixon took office in 1969, he and several of his chief aides took an us-against-them attitude, with us being the White House and its political allies, and them being everyone else, especially people who might not support Nixon on the Vietnam war. The ‘them’ included the famous enemies list of antiwar leaders, journalists, civil rights activists, labor leaders, academics, entertainers, scientists, a few politicians, and some others.

John Ehrlichman was counsel to Nixon on domestic policy. One of his first actions on going to the White House in 1969 was to hire a private investigator and put him to work, on Nixon’s orders, looking to find dirt on one of the young men who had helped reveal the 1968 My Lai atrocities in Vietnam. Some domestic policy.

Nixon, angry about leaks, ordered illegal phone taps of government officials and newspaper reporters and columnists. He set up a full-fledged White House spying operation, the plumbers; he approved plans for the FBI and CIA to conduct illegal burglaries, read mail and bug the phones of antiwar dissidents. Some of those involved in Watergate had, years before the break-in, begun spying on Sen. Edward Kennedy. In 1971 burglars for the White House broke into the offices of a West Coast psychiatrist, looking for material to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

As the investigation grew, Watergate also came to include Nixon Administration or re-election committee bribery, massive campaign finance fraud and political extortion, perjury and suborning perjury, lying to the FBI, contempt of court and contempt of Congress, destruction of evidence, embezzlement, distributing false campaign literature, slander, libel, malicious use of the courts, IRS audits done for political reasons and the secret bombing of Cambodia (only a handful of members of Congress were aware of it) during the Vietnam war.

Looked at in this light, the Watergate break-in was just a routine raid by White House thugs who thought they were above the law and who couldn’t distinguish tough politics from crime. The FBI, including Mark Felt, also was deep into illegal activities, infiltrating antiwar groups and at times prodding them to actions, including bombings, that they might not have committed on their own. In 1980, Felt was convicted for his role.

About as bad as anything else was the cover-up. It’s not known whether Nixon was aware of the break-in in advance, but it is clear that he personally directed the cover-up with its hush money payments, fake White House investigations, protestations of innocence, inveigling of the CIA and FBI into compliance (at least for a while), and assistance from members of both political parties on Capitol Hill to block inquiries.

One of the worst features – hardly ever addressed – was that as the story began peeling, layer by layer like an onion, hardly any American leaders rose to tell the people how atrocious such behavior was. Instead, as the Senate Watergate hearings came to a close in the fall of 1973, leaders of both political parties began saying the country had had enough of Watergate, and that it was time to move on. When the Ervin Committee produced its final report, censure of Nixon was just about absent. Ervin, asked why that was, said in his homey way, “There’s two ways to draw a picture of a horse. One is to draw a picture of a horse. The other is to draw a picture of a horse and write under it, ‘Horse.’” Ervin should have added the caption.

At the time, you could count on one hand the list of political leaders who censured Nixon because of Watergate. In the end, it was the power of public opinion, the courts, and Nixon’s own belligerent actions, including his obviously fraudulent tax returns, that forced Congress to move toward impeachment. It was a terrible failure of leadership.

Watergate for many years has been hailed as a victory for the American system, and for the press. It wasn’t. It was a very narrow miss. Woodward and Bernstein did fine work in helping lay out the scandal as it took place. But they have been riding the myth and hype of Deep Throat Mark Felt for a very long time.

Click here for excerpts from the 1992 edition of Sussman’s book, “The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate.” (A 2012 editor's note: A new edition of Sussman's Watergate book is now available.)

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