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June 6, 2005

A Teenage Early-70ís Obsession

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

I came of age in a turbulent time of congressional hearings, cover-ups, and callous abuses of power. I was very interested in the Watergate affair, the Nixon presidency, and the national mood during and after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.

One thing that struck me during the build-up to the resignation was the work of two young D.C. beat reporters for The Washington Post. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seemed to have an unlimited supply of headline-grabbing tidbits, allowing them to release stories weekly on the Postís celebrated front page.

Just as interesting was the fact that most other major dailies refused to pick up this story, fearful that the sourcing behind the drip, drip of damaging conclusions might lead to a credibility problem down the road.

Post Managing Editor Ben Bradlee, a tough-talking and intense newspaperman, knew what none of us even imagined. Not only was the source known as Deep Throat credible, he was one of possibly two or three human beings in a position of access to facts that would allow him to guide Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein in their probe.

We all now know that W. Mark Felt, then deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was that source. Mr. Felt is described in news reports as a dashing, debonair, well-dressed, and resourceful detective and manager.

I like the dashing, debonair, and well-dressed part, but Iím not sure what that had to do with leading the FBI. More importantly, he seems to have had both the respect and trust of his subordinate agents, the one measure of a G-Man that might actually matter.

Remember, these guys are a part of one of our nationís most respected and selective clubs. Dark suits, fedoras, tommy guns, and a reputation for closed mouths. These guys had access to personal secrets and damaging information on every American.

The only one who ever used that knowledge to his benefit may have been former Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, it seems, may have exercised some control over his political enemiesí use of information collected about them by the FBI. Even in Mr. Hooverís case, it wasnít about money; it was about power and influence.

So what about Mark Felt? Do we look back on his legacy as one of heroism or self indulgence? If youíre thinking Iím going to join the chorus on either side, youíre wrong.

Certainly, Mr. Felt leaves an indelible mark on Americaís history and future. Some say that Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein would still have published those stories without Agent Feltís influence. I donít buy it.

Mr. Bradlee was too savvy to allow a pair of junior writers to produce controversial stories without an unimpeachable (oops, bad pun) source with unquestioned access and integrity.

It had to be a person like Mr. Felt; no one else would have that magical combination of credibility, access, and resources. Had it been a lower- level FBI agent, Editor Bradlee might have held out for additional sources or means of verification.

Some will make the argument that Mr. Felt is a hero for using his access and knowledge to direct the pairís inquiry. Without Mr. Felt, President Nixonís cover-up of the whole mess might not have come to light, or at least not for many years after the crimes occurred.

All of this is true. The admonition to ďfollow the moneyĒ led the Post boys to pursue links between financing of the Watergate burglary to the Committee to Reelect the President (known back then as CREEP). It was breaks in the CREEP investigation that pointed to former Attorney General John Mitchell, a seminal aspect of the Post series.

Others argue that Mr. Felt is a traitor, both to the legacy of the FBI and to the responsibility of a high-level, security-cleared official. Imagine a world where those with access to sensitive, damaging, and classified information could routinely decide to violate the confidence of their office by communicating with their friends in the media.

I carry some significant secrets from my days in the nuclear Navy submarine service to this day. I signed an agreement and took an oath to protect those secrets. I swore that I would obtain formal permission before divulging any of that information.

I meant what I said when I made that promise. Mr. Felt made the same promise, and no matter how noble his motivation, he canít excuse his violation of it.

If Mark Felt truly believed his role was to bring to light information pertinent to an ongoing federal or congressional investigation, he should have done what others in similar situations have done.

He should have taken his information and evidence to a grand jury, the mechanism for confidential consideration of criminal conduct. Mr. Felt, well schooled in the process of criminal prosecution, knew exactly what had to be done and how to do it.

I canít help but wonder why he avoided following both the law and his years of law enforcement training. Why would someone like him avoid doing what was both right and legal?

One widely published news report suggests that Mr. Felt was angry that President Nixon had chosen L. Patrick Gray as director of the FBI, skipping over Mr. Felt to choose an agency outsider. I sure hope that Mr. Felt wasnít motivated by something as petty as his personal employment situation. Only he knows the real reasons for using the media as his vehicle to leak confidential information.

Iím more comfortable believing that Mr. Felt was feeling trapped between what he knew and the power of the people he would be betraying. I can only guess, but he must have had many sleepless nights struggling with his own conscience.

I wonder what weíd do in the same situation.

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