Watergate source will be recalled as a hero

Editorial column

Unless you were particularly devoted to the quest to identify Deep Throat, the Washington Post’s Watergate source, the name of W. Mark Felt Sr. probably was unfamiliar until it became headline news on Tuesday afternoon.

Felt, a frail 91-year-old California resident who was the FBI’s No. 2 man in the early 1970s, has been identified as the insider who provided Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with the roadmap to uncover the Watergate conspiracy that eventually brought down the Nixon White House.

Felt identified himself as American history’s most famous news source in the July issue of Vanity Fair. On Tuesday, Felt’s family said they believed the story is true.

The Washington Post confirmed Felt as its source late Tuesday afternoon, apparently feeling that Felt’s own admission frees it from a vow to keep Deep Throat’s identity a secret until his death.

When the details of Felt’s involvement are fully revealed, his saga promises to be one of journalism’s most fascinating stories. It may even revive the case for the responsible use of unidentified sources in investigative reporting — an argument hard hit by failures such as Newsweek’s flimsy report on alleged abuses of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting wasn’t perfect — and Deep Throat’s information wasn’t infallible — but Post managing editor Ben Bradlee successfully guided his young reporters around the landmines that can accompany anonymity. They used Deep Throat’s information as a compass, not a destination.

Largely because they had a source they trusted, Woodward and Bernstein kept pushing against hard-line opposition from the Nixon administration and persistent doubts from the American public.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the reminder that none other than Richard Nixon had pegged Felt as Deep Throat all along. Nixon was always suspicious of the FBI’s role in the Watergate investigation. In the years following Watergate, the best analysis pointed to the Bureau as the likely source of information, usually focusing on Felt or former Director L. Patrick Gray.

Felt didn’t slip by the media undetected, either. Jim Mann’s 1992 article in The Atlantic made a strong case that Felt was the one. Chatterbox columnist Timothy Noah of Slate online magazine kept the contention on the front burner.

And the Hartford Courant tracked down Felt in 1999 after Bernstein’s son reportedly told another kid at day camp that Felt was Deep Throat. Felt denied the connection, but the mystery was starting to unravel.

As the Watergate story itself established, you just can’t make this stuff up.

We hope that Felt’s link to Deep Throat holds up for what it appears to be: The story of a man fiercely protective of the FBI’s independence who felt what he did was necessary — if not honorable, at least in his own loyalist eyes. Much will be made of Felt’s earlier denials that he was Deep Throat, but those denials seem understandable considering Felt’s own mixed feelings about his role in history.

We tend to agree with his family, who said in a statement that Mark Felt is “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a terrible injustice.”