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GERALD BEPKO: Deep Throat: a hero or a villain?

June 13, 2005

Forty years ago this month, I reported for duty as a special agent of the FBI. In the course of new agents' training, we met a distinguishedlooking middle-age agent named W. Mark Felt, who headed the Training Division.

In his meetings with new agents, Felt exuded the "fidelity, bravery and integrity" that are the motto of the FBI. He looked like the actors who were at that time filming some scenes nearby for the first episodes of a popular 1960s TV series called "The FBI."

In 1972, while I was a Ford Foundation Fellow at the Yale Law School, J. Edgar Hoover died. I remember talking to Yale faculty member and former Kennedy Justice Department official Burke Marshall about President Nixon's options for Hoover's successor. Nixon's choice for interim director, L. Patrick Gray, was not among those we discussed. Gray's appointment seemed based on political considerations that conflicted with the idealism ingrained in agents.

I thought this choice might cause difficulty for leaders of the FBI, like Mark Felt, who were accustomed to independence from political interference. These concerns surfaced in Senate confirmation hearings in 1973 where Gray, who had been acting FBI director for several months, was criticized for engaging in campaign activities for Nixon and Watergate-related improprieties. At Grajy's request, Nixon withdrew his name.

In 1978, Gray and Felt were indicted by the Carter Justice Department for authorizing illegal entries of residences of suspected Weather Underground terrorists, based on their alleged connections with foreign powers and "national security." These charges probed the murky relationships between presidents, attorneys general, the FBI, and what was authorized by whom.

The charges against Gray were later dropped, but Felt was convicted and fined $5,000. While an appeal was pending, in 1981 President Ronald Reagan pardoned Felt, citing Carter's earlier pardon of Vietnam-era draft evaders and saying he could be no less generous for a person who had "acted on high principle to bring an end to terrorism that was threatening our nation."

Felt now has been identified as "Deep Throat," of Watergate fame, triggering more commentary about his treatment in history. As Deep Throat, should he be compared with FBI Agent Colleen Rowley, whose disclosure after 9/11 of a confidential memo on Muslim enrollments in flight schools got her on the cover of Time magazine, or Linda Tripp, who was scorned by many as a snitch regarding President Clinton? By going outside the system (talking to The Washington Post or authorizing illegal entries), was he a traitor to rules that accord due process of law to all involved? Or was he a hero whose conscientious actions helped reveal the truth about a corrupt administration and protected national security?

Pending publication of the final "Woodstein" book, Felt seems more hero than villain in his role as Deep Throat. Felt and Woodward became acquaintances while Woodward was still in the Navy, before his Washington Post employment. Some of Deep Throat's communications apparently built on this association and began as guidance by a mentor on lines of press inquiry, not the transfer of specific information or confidential documents. Felt had reason to believe that, at a critical time, his boss, Patrick Gray, was colluding with a corrupt White House. Finally, Felt told the truth and helped reveal crimes in very high places.

Whether villain or hero, it seems clear that Felt has been involved in some of our nation's most complex and controversial justice issues that continue to generate news today: issues like counterterrorism, national security and the Patriot Act, and issues concerning the media's use of confidential sources, proposed shields, and two New York Times reporters currently facing contempt charges.



Bepko is IUPUI chancellor emeritus and Indiana University Trustees' Professor at IUPUI. He can be reached by e-mail at gbepko@ibj.com.
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