Politics & Policy

The Fbi Talker

Donald Ritchie on Deep Throat.

Of course Deep Throat was an FBI man, former Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie wrote in his recent book, Reporting From Washington: The History Of The Washington Press Corps. He spoke to NRO this morning about the Deep Throat revelation everyone is talking about this week.

National Review Online: Are you surprised Deep Throat is Mark Felt?

Donald A. Ritchie: No, he’s been a leading candidate since 1972, although he has denied it consistently until now.

NRO: You were pretty certain it was an FBI man, right?

Ritchie: Yes, considering that the purpose of the cover-up was to get the FBI off of the Watergate investigation, the leaks to the Washington Post helped keep the investigation going. None of the names from outside the bureau had as good a motive for taking such a risk.

NRO: Did Felt manage to protect the FBI while leaking?

Ritchie: Generally he did, although President Nixon and Acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray were both convinced that the leaking was coming from within the bureau and tried to stem it.

NRO: How do you expect history will record his motives?

Ritchie: In my book, Reporting from Washington, I noted that J. Edgar Hoover had died a month before the Watergate break-in, and that top officials at the FBI suspected that President Nixon aimed to politicize the bureau (a fear that now seems amply justified by Nixon’s remarks on the White House tapes). The FBI had 1,500 agents investigating various aspects of Watergate and related illegal activities. Had the White House succeeded in suppressing the investigation, morale within the bureau would have suffered and the independence of the bureau would have been jeopardized.

NRO: Will anyone ever remember that the Los Angeles Times actually broke the Watergate story?

Ritchie: I mentioned in the book that Deep Throat failed to provide Woodward with any information critical of the FBI, including mentioning the participation of Alfred Baldwin, who had been involved in previous “black bag” operations by the FBI. It was Jack Nelson, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who broke the Baldwin story. Seymour Hersh also contributed some key investigative reporting in the New York Times, but that was not until January 1973. For most of the period between the break-in June until the end of 1972, the Washington Post was almost alone in pursing the story–thanks in large part to Mark Felt.

NRO: Speaking of the media–the New York Times missed this story, didn’t it?

Ritchie: Initially, the Washington bureau of the New York Times looked on Watergate as a local police story and avoided covering it. Reporter Tad Szulc (who had earlier uncovered plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion) followed the Cuban connection and essentially bought into the White House’s cover story. The Times did not get back on track until Hersh’s stories began to document how White House hush money had gone to the Watergate burglars.

NRO: How much of Felt’s leaking was likely personal–a dislike of J. Edgar Hoover’s successor (Nixon made him acting director), Pat Gray?

Ritchie: Felt and most other top FBI officials were contemptuous of Gray as a purely political appointee who bent to the will of the White House. They were right. Gray later admitted that early in the investigation John Dean turned over to him politically damaging material from E. Howard Hunt’s safe, and Gray burned the evidence.

Although Felt wanted the job, his motivations amounted to more than personal ambition. He wanted a professional in the position. As Felt wrote in his memoirs: “The record amply demonstrates that President Nixon made Pat Gray the Acting Director of the FBI because he wanted a politician who would convert the Bureau into an adjunct of the White House machine. What Mr. Nixon did not foresee was that the Bureau’s professional staff would fight this tooth and nail!”

NRO: Post the Newsweek-Koran, would the Washington Post get away with relying on Deep Throat as much as it did today?

Ritchie: Newspapers like the Post will often rely on an anonymous source if they know that source works inside an organization likely to have reliable information. The Post and other newspapers similarly used information provided on background by the special prosecutor’s office during President Clinton’s impeachment, and undoubtedly will rely on other inside sources “off the record” in the future.

NRO: How disappointed is the media Deep Throat isn’t someone sexier like Diane Sawyer?

Ritchie: Much of the fun in guessing was to link famous names to the story, but almost all of them lacked motive. It was much likelier to be an unglamorous bureaucrat.

NRO: Whatever will D.C. talk about once the Felt story fades a bit? Guessing who Deep Throat was used to be the August guessing game (or whenever D.C.ers were bored).

Ritchie: Washington will return to speculating about the next presidential election.

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