'Deep Throat,' the Nixon White House and the FBI

Alex Chadwick talks with veteran FBI reporter Ronald Kessler about tensions between the White House and the FBI at the time of the Watergate break-in. Kessler says those tensions may have led former top-level FBI agent Mark Felt to become "Deep Throat," the source who helped Washington Post reporters uncover details of the break-in at the Watergate complex and subsequent cover-up by the Nixon administration.

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(Soundbite of 1973 broadcast)

Mr. JOHN DEAN (Former Nixon White House Counsel): I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

That's former Nixon White House counsel John Dean testifying 32 years ago at the Watergate hearings. Yesterday's news that the FBI's number-two man, Mark Felt, was the source known as Deep Throat has reopened a discussion of those turbulent times when a bungled burglary at a Washington apartment complex led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

(Soundbite of August 8, 1974, broadcast)

President RICHARD NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first.

CHADWICK: President Richard Nixon, who, we now know, resigned at least in part because of the actions of a prominent FBI official.

Joining us now is Ronald Kessler. He reported on the FBI for The Washington Post. He's the author of a book, "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI," which came out several years ago.

Take us back to the time of the Watergate burglary and its aftermath. The creator of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had just died. This was a guy who ran the agency for nearly 50 years. Mark Felt is not chosen to replace him. Instead, a Nixon man from the attorney general's office, the Department of Justice, L. Patrick Gray, gets the job. What is the dynamic then between the FBI and the White House?

Mr. RONALD KESSLER (Author, "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI"): You know, I think that Mark Felt had legitimate reasons to be concerned about Gray. Gray actually became involved in the Watergate improprieties. But beyond that, I think that Felt, you know, altruistically wanted to make sure that the FBI investigation of Watergate was not suppressed by Nixon, because Nixon was engaged in doing that and trying to cover it up. And this was a way to get it out, make sure that it was in the public domain and that it could not be suppressed.

CHADWICK: I think it's a question: What are the motives of Mark Felt? Who is he? The Washington Post, in its editorial today, calls him a secret patriot. But others say the FBI really had a reason to try to get Nixon, to try to get rid of Nixon.

Mr. KESSLER: No, the FBI was, you know, trying to do a professional job, bring a criminal indictment against Nixon. And it was a very scary time in our history because here was this criminal in the White House who apparently would stop at nothing. I mean, there was a break-in, there were these dirty tricks, there were illegal entries, there were illegal wiretaps. Nixon made up some story about supposed CIA secrets that should not be revealed and, therefore, the FBI shouldn't investigate Watergate. He could've very well just torn up the Constitution; I would not have put it past him. And that's what they were facing. And these two little reporters were up against all that. And I think that Mark Felt did the right thing to intervene, to help. He didn't actually, you know, give them everything, he just helped them. And I thank God that Mark Felt and Woodward and Bernstein were there at that time because who knows what would've happened otherwise.

CHADWICK: It is something that would be difficult to explain to someone who didn't live through it, that sense of fear really that you had waking up every day and going to read The Washington Post to figure out what the latest charges were, and just how high up this was going to go in the White House.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah.

CHADWICK: But let me ask you this: What exactly was Mark Felt's role? He was number two at the FBI. You wonder was he really reading these investigative reports in the paper?

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, he was actually in charge of the Watergate investigation. So he was totally up to date more than anybody on everything. He was the top professional in the FBI. L. Patrick Gray didn't really know what he was doing, and it was so important that he was in charge.

CHADWICK: So he was reading all this...

Mr. KESSLER: He was.

CHADWICK: ...and he could kind of guide Woodward and Bernstein in their reporting.

Mr. KESSLER: Oh, yeah, big time.

CHADWICK: What was it that made the reporting difference for The Washington Post? Was it this one person that--the access that Woodward had to Mark Felt who, The Washington Post reports today, they had met on another story just a month or so before? But certainly Woodward didn't know Felt very well--but was that it, that association?

Mr. KESSLER: No. No. You know, they were two very hard-driving, hard-charging reporters who would stay up until midnight knocking on doors. They had--they developed lots of sources. They would go, you know, interview secretaries, they would get telephone lists. They did real investigative reporting. And probably most of the stories could've appeared even without Deep Throat. But Deep Throat would give them clues and, maybe even more important, he would given them reassurance that they were on the right track because, you know, it was so scary. And just to know from the inside that they were onto something, they weren't crazy, was so important.

CHADWICK: Ron Kessler, reporter and author of "The Bureau: The Secret History of The FBI."

Ron, thanks for being with us.

Mr. KESSLER: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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