Ronald Kessler was ahead of a lot of us. Not only did he call who Deep Throat was, he therefore also knew who Mark Felt was. Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, named Felt in his 2002 book, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. In it he revealed the details of a 1999 lunch Bob Woodward had with Felt, as relayed by Felt’s daughter. Kessler talked to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez earlier this morning about Felt, Watergate, and the media.
National Review Online: You knew it was Felt. Had you put any money down? Did you get to cash in yesterday? Wish you had?
Ronald Kessler: The item made “Page Six.” What more could I ask for?
NRO: Seriously, had you any doubt it was Felt?
Kessler: No question in my mind. The combination of Mark Felt’s access–he was number two at the FBI–and what I learned when I interviewed Mark Felt for my book The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI in 2001 from his daughter Joan made it clear he was Deep Throat. There was no other reason Woodward would have shown up unexpectedly to take Mark out to lunch in 1999 and have made such a secret about it. As his daughter told me when I interviewed Felt, Woodward had his limo park ten blocks away. That was the tip-off that Woodward had a secret relationship with Felt after all.
Also the communication techniques Felt told Woodward to use–moving a newspaper or a flower pot to signal that he wanted to meet–are classic methods used by the KGB and CIA to communicate with spies. Mark Felt was in counterintelligence during most of his career at the FBI, so he would have known those techniques.
I sat next to Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post during Watergate. Every night, Woodward would come over to Carl’s desk as Carl wrote the stories and they would discuss their sources, so I knew the claim that Deep Throat was a composite was baloney. They obviously had sources and the information turned out to be correct, so what would be the point of making up a composite figure?
NRO: Why did he do it? Was it personal?
Kessler: It was a scary time in American history. Nixon was engaged in covering up his own involvement in Watergate and actively trying to suppress the FBI investigation of Watergate. I think Mark Felt wanted to guarantee that the FBI investigation would not be suppressed by helping Woodward get the story out. Felt also was offended that Nixon had put L. Patrick Gray over him as acting FBI director. Gray became involved in Watergate improprieties himself, so Felt had a valid reason from an institutional standpoint to want Gray out. If Nixon was kicked out of office, I’m sure Felt thought that a new president might appoint him FBI director, but I think his motives mainly were altruistic and I consider him a hero.
NRO: What does it say about the state of the FBI that a high-ranker was leaking to the Washington Post like this?
Kessler: You can be sure the FBI would not be leaking to the Washington Post today.
NRO: Was “Who Is Deep Throat” always a parlor game among Washington Post staffers? Was there a conventional wisdom about who it was?
Kessler: In the beginning, no one knew how important the story was. I twice turned down requests from my editors to replace Carl Bernstein on the story a week or two after the break in. The editors were mad at Carl because he was sloppy with his expense account. He had rented a car and left it in a garage for a month, forgetting he had rented it.
NRO: How big of a deal was Deep Throat in taking down Nixon?
Kessler: Woodward and Bernstein’s stories were critical in bringing down Nixon, but they would have had most of them without Deep Throat. The most important thing Felt did was to give them reassurance that they were on the right track when the whole federal government was after them. Woodward and Bernstein had many sources and stayed up until midnight knocking on doors. They were after the truth and wrote their stories honestly and carefully, unlike what you see in so much of journalism today!