How Woodward met Deep Throat

The naming this week of Mark Felt as the senior FBI source in the Watergate affair has ended a 30-year mystery. Now the journalist to whom Felt supplied information has described his very first encounter with the man who was to become his anonymous contact. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

Marilyn Davis has been parking in the underground car park at 1300 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn for the past three years but she had no idea of the building's role as a footnote to journalistic history. Yesterday morning, informed by The Independent that the low-ceilinged parking lot was apparently where the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met his famous source Deep Throat to obtain information that would bring down a US president, Ms Davis did not appear especially overwhelmed.

Marilyn Davis has been parking in the underground car park at 1300 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn for the past three years but she had no idea of the building's role as a footnote to journalistic history. Yesterday morning, informed by The Independent that the low-ceilinged parking lot was apparently where the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met his famous source Deep Throat to obtain information that would bring down a US president, Ms Davis did not appear especially overwhelmed.

"I had no idea," she smiled, as she stepped out of her car. "But it's certainly a conversation piece. I'll mention it to the others in the office."

Those mysterious, late-night meetings in the car park between Woodward and his secret source, now revealed to be a former deputy FBI director, Mark Felt, have become part of the journalistic folklore associated with the Watergate scandal and the eventual downfall of Richard Nixon. Anyone who has either read the book, All The President's Men, co-authored by Woodward and his investigative reporting partner Carl Bernstein, or else seen the 1976 film version starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, remembers how the young reporter would set out to meet his source (played by Hal Holbrook), always taking extreme precautions to ensure he was not being followed.

"Take the alley. Don't use your own car," Woodward was told by his source. "Take a taxi. Walk the last several blocks. If you are being followed, don't go down to the garage."

But yesterday, with Washington still gripped by the conclusion to one of the most compelling and enduring political and journalistic mysteries of all, it emerged that Woodward would not have developed the relationship with his famous source but for a chance encounter several years earlier.

Writing in the Post, where today he is an associate editor as well as a highly successful author, Woodward recalled that he first met the now 91-year-old Mr Felt outside the Situation Room of the White House. The year was 1970 and Woodward was a lieutenant in the US Navy. In the final year of five years of service, Woodward, assigned to Admiral Thomas Moorer, head of naval operations, was often dispatched to the White House as a courier bearing a package. It was his job to wait for the correct person to come out and sign for the package. Sometimes he could be required to wait more than an hour. The night he met Mr Felt was one such evening.

"After I had been waiting a while, a tall man with perfectly combed grey hair came in and sat down near me," wrote Woodward. "His suit was dark, his shirt white and his necktie subdued. He was probably 25 to 30 years older than I and was carrying what looked to me like a filecase or a briefcase. He was very distinguished-looking and had a studied air of confidence, the posture and calm of someone used to giving orders and having them instantly obeyed."

That evening the young Woodward, anxious about his future and unsure whether to try to apply to law school, made a deliberate and some might say calculating decision that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life.

"Felt and I were like two passengers sitting next to each other on a long airline flight with nowhere to go and nothing really to do but resign ourselves to the dead time," he said. "He showed no interest in striking up a conversation but I was intent on it. I finally extracted from him the information that he was an assistant director of the FBI in charge of the inspection division, an important role under director J Edgar Hoover."

He continued: "Here was someone at the centre of the secret world I was only glimpsing from my naval assignment, so I peppered him with questions about his job and his world. As I think back on this accidental but crucial encounter - one of the most important in my life - I see that my patter verged on the adolescent. Since he wasn't saying much about himself, I turned it into a career-counselling session."

Before their encounter was over, Woodward made sure he would not come away empty- handed. "I asked Felt for his phone number and he gave me the direct line to his office. I believe I encountered him only one more time at the White House, but I had set the hook. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future ... At some point I called him, first at the FBI and then at his home in Virginia. I was a little desperate and I'm sure I poured my heart out."

During the following months, Woodward, who took a job on a weekly newspaper before joining the Post's Metro section, deliberately cultivated Mr Felt. He rang him often and on one occasion drove out to his home in Fairfax, Virginia, to meet him and his wife, Audrey. "We were becoming friends of a sort. He was the mentor, keeping me from toilet- paper investigations and I kept asking him for advice," Woodward wrote yesterday.

On several stories, including the investigation into the gunman who shot and wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in May 1972, Woodward was able to contact Mr Felt who provided him with crucial information. The only stipulation was that the information should be used without attribution and no one should know that he had a source within the FBI. Woodward obeyed and his discretion paid off.

The phone call that would change everything came at 9am on 17 June 1972. The Post's news desk informed Woodward that five men in suits carrying electronic eavesdropping equipment, their pockets stuffed with $100 bills, had been arrested trying to break in to the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building close to the Potomac river. The authorities said that it appeared to be an elaborate plot to bug the office and one of the men was a former CIA employee.

"The next day Carl Bernstein and I wrote our first article together, identifying one of the burglars, James McCord, as the salaried security co-ordinator for Nixon's re-election committee," wrote Woodward. "This was the moment when a source or friend in the investigative agencies of government is invaluable. I called Felt at the FBI. It would be our first talk about Watergate. He reminded me how he disliked phone calls at the office but said the Watergate burglary case was going to 'heat up' for reasons he could not explain. He then hung up abruptly."

In the coming weeks Woodward would speak with Mr Felt many times, but the FBI official grew wary of talking on the phone. Instead he drew up an elaborate plan. If Woodward urgently wanted to meet him, he should signal using a plant pot, in which was stuck a red flag, on his balcony. In such a case the two would meet at 2am at the underground car park in Rosslyn, a Washington suburb across the river from Georgetown.

If, on the other hand, Mr Felt wanted to meet Woodward, he would circle page 20 of the reporter's copy of The New York Times and draw the hands of a clock showing what time they should meet at the same garage. "Felt said if there was something important he could get to my New York Times - how, I never knew," he wrote.

Over the years, some have questioned these details. A British author, Adrian Havill, for instance, revealed in Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that in 1972 copies of The New York Times were delivered to Woodward's apartment building in a stack and residents helped themselves, rather than having individual copies put in their mail boxes.

He also raised doubts as to whether someone on the ground could have seen a flowerpot on the balcony of Woodward's sixth-floor flat. When The Independent visited Woodward's old flat, apartment number 617 at 1718 P Street in Dupont Circle, tests carried out with the assistance of the initially bemused resident proved to be inconclusive because parts of the building have been remodelled.

But writing yesterday, Woodward may have cleared up the mystery. "How he could have made a daily surveillance of my balcony is still a mystery to me. At the time, before the era of intense security, the back of the building was not enclosed, so anyone could have driven in to the back alley to observe my balcony and the back of the apartment complex faced a courtyard or back area that was shared with a number of other apartment or office buildings in the area. My balcony could have been seen from dozens of apartments or offices as best I can tell."

He added: "A number of embassies were located in the area. The Iraqi embassy was down the street and I though it possible that the FBI had surveillance or listening posts nearby. Could Felt have had the counter-intelligence agents regularly report on the status of my flag and flowerpot? That seems highly unlikely, if not impossible."

In the 1974 book All The President's Men, Deep Throat first appears at the beginning of chapter four, where the reader is simply informed: "Woodward had a source in the executive branch [of government] who had access to information at the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) as well as the White House. His identity was unknown to anyone else. He could be contacted only on very important occasions."

The book goes on to describe the elaborate arrangements Woodward had to undertake to meet with Deep Throat, whose moniker appears to have been inspired by both the notorious pornographic film of the same name and the concept of "deep background" information. As ordered, he would walk and take two different taxis and then walk again to an unidentified car park. If taxis were hard to find, it could be a two-hour walk.

If, as Woodward revealed yesterday, his meeting with Mr Felt took place in a car park in Rosslyn close to the Key bridge, it would indeed have taken him up to two hours to walk from Dupont Circle. It's a detail that will delight Deep Throat aficionados, but there remain some doubts, however, as to the precise location. The Independent was told that a Post researcher was in contact with the civic authorities in Rosslyn yesterday asking for details about the car park beneath 1300 Wilson Boulevard, the location of an office block known as Commonwealth Tower.

That car park is run by Colonial Parking and offers an "early bird" special of $7 a day for those who arrive before 8.30am.

Despite yesterday's lengthy account, it seems Woodward is not telling everything he knows just yet. In the aftermath of the revelation of Deep Throat's identity by Vanity Fair magazine on Tuesday, it emerged that Woodward had been working on a book about his own relationship with Mr Felt. Officials at Simon and Schuster, the publishing house, said Woodward and Bernstein are now rushing to collaborate on that volume and have it ready for publication within as little as a month.

It also emerged that the family of Mr Felt had been in talks with Woodward about making a joint announcement regarding his identity. Woodward turned this down, purportedly out of concern as to whether the frail Mr Felt, in fading physical and mental health, had the "competence" to understand what he was doing. Woodward, Bernstein and the former Post editor, Ben Bradlee, the only other person to know Deep Throat's identity, had sworn they would only tell after the source was dead. However, many believe - and some at the Post appear to agree - the newspaper that "owned" the Watergate story and which won a Pulitzer prize for its reporting, was essentially scooped by Vanity Fair. It was certainly caught flat-footed. When the story broke on Tuesday morning, Woodward, Bernstein and the Post's current editor Len Downie, were all out of town and had to rush to the office before finally, at 5.29pm, confirming on the newspaper's website what most had already assumed to be true.

The revelation of Deep Throat's identity and the focus once again on the ground-breaking reporting of Woodward and Bernstein has also led to questions about Woodward's career ever since. While today he is a vastly successful author with unparalleled access to "official Washington", some have questioned whether this access has come at the price of acting as little more than a stenographer for government officials.

His 2004 book Plan of Attack, which told the story of the planning of the invasion of Iraq, was the result of more than 75 interviews with key participants including more than three-and-a-half hours of interviews with President Bush. It was criticised by some for its unquestioning take. In an interview upon the publication of his 2002 book Bush at War, which told of the US and British war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 11 September, Woodward defended his reporting, saying it was no different to the story for which he will always be remembered. "Watergate, if you will, was access journalism. Getting and pursuing sources who had information that explained what was going on. Sometimes it is very unofficial and secretive. Sometimes it's open ... Sometimes it's a mixture of both." He added: "I work all the time [to avoid] being trapped by a preconception of what the story is. I prefer to let the data and the facts tell the story."

What seems beyond dispute at the end of a week in which the past has been dragged into the present and in which a story that started more than three decades ago has come close to conclusion, is that for Bob Woodward there can have been no more fortuitous encounter than the one he had 35 years ago in a waiting area in a lower level of the West Wing. It was a meeting that at first appeared innocuous but would have huge ramifications.

In Woodward's own words, it took place like this: "After several minutes, I introduced myself. 'Lieutenant Bob Woodward,' I said, carefully appending a deferential 'Sir'.

"'Mark Felt,' he said."

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