Motives do matter and actions often have unintended consequences. That is the lesson of Max Holland’s book about Mark Felt. Felt was the man whose leaks helped end the Presidency of Richard Nixon and skyrocket the young and obscure Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to fame. For more than three decades Mark Felt’s identity remained hidden a mystery man to the public, a man popularized by the dark moniker “Deep Throat.” His role as the leaker was suspected by some, including President Nixon and some of his staff but known only for sure by Woodward, Bernstein and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee.
In this truly scholarly book Max Holland pieces together the dark underside of the Watergate tapestry that Woodward and Bernstein helped to break in 1972 and would go on to write about in All the President’s Men and The Final Days. It is a book that is important because it is the first account to seriously explore the motivation of Mark Felt when he began to leak and the background story of the monumental post J. Edgar Hoover FBI power struggle. That story which in normal times would have been a major story was missed in an era where the country was in turmoil and there were so many other “big” stories to cover.
Taking advantage of more recent revelations, disclosures and evidence Holland paints a picture that not only broadens one’s understanding of Watergate but helps the reader understand how important it is to understand the motivations of those that were involved, Nixon and his staff, Felt and other FBI officials and the media.
The picture painted by Holland of Felt makes his role in the story more understandable. Felt was not the altruistic leaker of myth who sought to destroy the Nixon Presidency, something that was the picture painted by Woodward and Bernstein. His motivations were much more down to earth. He wanted to use his knowledge to ensure that he became Hoover’s successor as the Director of the FBI. He used it to destroy L. Patrick Gray who served as the interim Director and his chief rival in the Bureau William C. “Bill” Sullivan in the eyes of the White House, Congress, the Bureau and the media. Felt’s leaks helped blow the lid off of the White House cover up of the Watergate break-in and which led to the resignation of President Nixon and the conviction of a number of his closest advisors. Felt’s duplicity which included deceiving the Administration, Congress, his superiors and the media with falsehoods even as he revealed key truths is amazing to behold.
The picture that Holland paints of the White House is not pretty. The moral depravity and ruthlessness of Nixon and his advisors is shown without dehumanizing them. In fact they become more human in Holland’s account. Likewise Holland’s portrayal of other key figures in Felt’s story at the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, William Ruckelshaus and William Sullivan is compelling. The naive and compliant Gray, Felt’s bitter rival Sullivan and the “sweeper” (to use the term given to Harvey Keitel’s character Winston “the Wolf” Wolfe in Pulp Fiction) Ruckelshaus who helps to “sweep” Felt out of the FBI.
But the most interesting part of the book for me is Holland’s portrayal of Woodward and Bernstein. They are young and idealistic and Woodward believes whatever Felt tells him, including deliberate misinformation. What jumped out at me was their willingness to take at face value what Felt told them and not to explore his motivations which could have led to even more revelations that could have shaken the FBI to its core. Likewise was Woodward’s willingness to press the limits with information provided by Felt going beyond what Felt demanded for secrecy but which Felt, even though upset by the reporter continued to provide information cumulating in his long and rambling confession to Woodward following his retirement under pressure on May 16th 1973.
They, particularly Woodward did not ask themselves the three key questions that anyone should ask when someone comes to them with this kind of information: Why this? Why this information. Why Me? Why am I being chosen to receive the information. Why Now? Why is the source telling me this information now. Those three questions could have blown the case open even more had they explored them. Of course they were caught up in the chase for “scoops” with rivals at the New York Times, The Washington Sun and Time Magazine and chose to believe what Felt told them, something that occasionally left them hanging when the information was wrong.
Conversely Felt’s distain and lack of respect for the media and the belief that he could use Woodward, Bernstein and others in the media to further his goals with impunity proved false. He became careless and caused the Nixon Administration to suspect him and work to force him out of the FBI without drawing more attention to themselves.
Holland also covers the “cover-up” of “Deep Throat’s identity which was maintained by Felt, Woodward and Bernstein until Felt was in the beginning stages of dementia and his family was ready to reveal his role. The dual myths of Deep Throat’s motives and the role of the press as the “men in the white hats” against the evil bad guys in the White House are exposed by Holland who points out how much of the investigation broken by Woodward and Bernstein was being accomplished by FBI agents and appointed to investigate the break-in and staff members at the Committee to Re-Elect the President who were appalled by the illegality of what they saw being done by their superiors.
The book is excellently sourced and researched. It is a compelling narrative that sheds light on a dark period of our nation’s history which also serves as a reminder to those who investigate “leaks” from well placed sources that there is always another layer of motivation and intent that cannot be discounted and must be factored into the investigation.
This is relevant today as the media, Congress and the the Justice Department investigate leaks from inside the Obama White House regarding national security information. Why This? Why Me? Why Now? Those are the questions. Thanks to Max Holland we now know much of what transpired behind the scenes as Woodward and Bernstein investigated and published their accounts of the Watergate break-in and cover up with the information provided by Mark Felt.
The book Leak: How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat is published by the University of Kansas Press and is available at http://www.amazon.com/Leak-Mark-Felt-Became-Throat/dp/0700618295/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339544616&sr=8-1&keywords=leak