Patrick Cockburn: The reality behind Deep Throat

The Mark Felts of this world want to use the media as a weapon against their enemies
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The Independent Online

Mark Felt, the senior official at the FBI who was the highly placed informant or Deep Throat who famously leaked information during the Watergate scandal, died this week. His nickname, drawn from a pornographic movie of the day, has since become a generic term for well-informed anonymous source.

It was Mr Felt, with access to all FBI files, who met Bob Woodward of The Washington Post in an underground parking garage in Rosslyn, Virginia. He famously steered him and Carl Bernstein towards exposing the Watergate burglary of the Democratic Party's national offices in Washington as only one part of a general campaign of sabotage and political spying directed by the White House. Mr Felt's role was long suspected but confirmed by him only in 2005.

His motives for directing Woodward and Bernstein towards the links between the White House and the Watergate burglars were two fold. After 30 years at the FBI, Mr Felt had expected to succeed J Edgar Hoover as its director when he died in 1972 and was enraged to be passed over for the job by President Nixon's nominee Patrick Gray III.

There was more at work here than the frustrated ambition of one man. Mr Felt's secret revelations to Mr Woodward were part of a general counterattack by US government law enforcement agencies against President Nixon who had been trying to place his own men in charge of them. The FBI man was not alone. A striking aspect of Watergate was the sheer quantity of leaks damaging to Nixon coming from all parts of the government, from the CIA to the Internal Revenue Service.

The Watergate investigation is often held up as the apogee of journalistic investigation, but the public memory of what happened gives a highly misleading and exaggerated impression of what journalists can achieve. The blow-by-blow account of Woodward and Bernstein in investigating the break-in are at the heart of their book All the President's Men and the film of the same name.

An impression is given that there are always lots of leakers out there desperate to leak and the assiduous journalist will always come up with an informant. In fact, Watergate was one of a kind as a scandal in the number of highly placed informants from the security agencies covertly willing to tell the media about the White House's illegal operations because they were defending their own turf.

The self-interested motives of the Deep Throats seldom comes across in accounts of the scandal in part because of the journalistic convention to pretend that anonymous sources make revelations from a sense of outraged morality or for no reason at all.

Journalists may think of themselves as spies, unrelenting investigators discovering and publishing dark secrets about the malpractices of government. This is the image commonly portrayed in movies about the media. But in practice every journalist soon discovers that people have an irritating inhibition about admitting to acts that might land them in court or in jail.

If they are forced to make admissions, as were so many of those involved in Watergate, it was because they are threatened with legal penalties by prosecutors and judges. A close look at the scoops attributed to Woodward and Bernstein shows that most of their accurate information was second hand and was extracted under threat of legal penalty by the Watergate prosecutors.

Most crimes are easy to discover and describe in general terms. I once covered the Lloyd's insurance market for the Financial Times in 1989-90 when it was perpetually mired in litigation and scandal. It did not take long to work out how those running some of the syndicates were parting investors from their money. But it was almost impossible to prove in detail what was happening because those making money out of it were intelligent enough to cover their tracks.

I had the same feeling a decade later when I was in Moscow as correspondent of The Independent and wanted to write about the Russian mafia. I knew a photographer whose uncle was a mafia boss in a city on the Volga north of Moscow. We met the uncle who politely asked why he should talk to us since this might lead to him being sent to prison. I said I could think of no reason in the world. He added that even to be seen talking to a journalist might lead to him being killed by his fellow mafiosi. I said that this was undoubtedly true. Nothing could be proven. We then drank a spectacular amount of vodka, and the uncle explained over the course of a long evening how his main racket worked. This turned out to be a simple but highly lucrative scheme for getting cut-price gasoline from the local oil refinery by a mixture of bribes and intimidation and selling it at a large profit. Unfortunately, the information was unpublishable because the local criminals had had the sense to hide their activities behind a maze of dummy companies and foreign bank accounts.

There is nothing wrong with Woodward and Bernstein benefiting from leaks that were generated by bureaucratic warfare in Washington in 1972. Anybody reporting on government will be dependent on sources within government. The Mark Felts of this world do not act simply out of a sense of righteousness but because they want to use the media as a weapon against their enemies.

At the height of the scandal over the Watergate break-in, Mr Felt found nothing strange in ordering nine equally illegal burglaries of the homes of friends and relatives of members of a left-wing splinter group. Crucial he may have been to the downfall of Nixon, Deep Throat was scarcely a single-minded opponent of the obstruction of justice.

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