Post Editor Bradlee Discusses 'Deep Throat' Revelation

Michele Norris talks to Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. As editor during Watergate, Bradlee was responsible for overseeing the paper's coverage of the scandal and deciding whether to trust his reporter's sources, including "Deep Throat."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now that the identity of the confidential source behind The Washington Post Watergate coverage has been revealed, we thought a quick recap of the scandal itself might be useful, especially for those younger than, say, 30.

It began with an attempted burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972 when President Richard Nixon was running for re-election. Two young, hard-charging reporters from The Washington Post began investigating the burglary. And with the help of the source known as Deep Throat, those reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered a series of cover-ups, secret funds and covert actions that led to the highest levels of government. In the end, President Nixon resigned in disgrace, along with several top aides.

As the former editor in chief of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee was one of only three people at the paper who knew the identity of Deep Throat. He's now the vice president at large of The Washington Post, and he joins us now from the newsroom.

Ben, it's good to talk to you.

Mr. BEN BRADLEE (Vice President at Large, The Washington Post): Thank you for asking me.

NORRIS: What's the feeling over there in the newsroom with another publication breaking this closely held secret? Did you get...

Mr. BRADLEE: Well...

NORRIS: ...scooped on your own story?

Mr. BRADLEE: ...except that if we were true to our word, which was that we would not reveal the name of Deep Throat, we were almost stopped from identifying him. But when another organization did identify him, we felt that the--and actually that our source had talked to Vanity Fair magazine, we felt free to go out on our own, and we did.

NORRIS: Did you have any advance warning, any notification that Vanity Fair was running the story?

Mr. BRADLEE: Not a word. Not a word. I read it, and I saw--you know, I read it first. I'm a fairly fast reader, and I read it first to know that it was complete. And they had everything, except, you know, they didn't have what it was like to be in the middle of the firestorm and to--so that we just started to plan our day. And it takes a long time. I don't know how many stories we had this morning, but we had five or six anyway, and it takes some time to coordinate it all.

NORRIS: Now for you, someone who's held this secret for so long, had a burden been lifted?

Mr. BRADLEE: I don't get easily burdened. I felt that once I made up my mind I wasn't going to tell anybody, that was it, and I didn't bother much about it.

NORRIS: Now take...

Mr. BRADLEE: I really didn't.

NORRIS: ...us back into that firestorm and help us understand your role here and what you knew about the source who came to be known as Deep Throat. You didn't know his name. What did you know?

Mr. BRADLEE: I knew that he was a senior official in the Justice Department, which is a large organization, includes a whole lot of things and also includes the FBI. I knew that he was high-ranking, but I didn't know how high-ranking. And as a matter of fact, it wasn't very important what job he held, so long as he did one thing, and that was tell the truth. And before long it was obvious that this man knew what he was talking about because from day one he never gave us a bad steer, and the information he gave us was always right. That's unheard of in this town, to have somebody tell nothing but the truth.

NORRIS: So that gave you enough confidence to use...

Mr. BRADLEE: It id.

NORRIS: ...an anonymous source and a single source?

Mr. BRADLEE: He was a single source, but what he told us to check out did check out. When he told us to walk down--open one door, we went into that door and found a rich trove of other information. But it was--where he was most helpful was in directing us to--steering us off tracks that we had started down and keeping us on the track that led us to the discoveries that were so important.

NORRIS: So was he basically a confirming source, or was he a primary source? And if he was a primary source...

Mr. BRADLEE: Both.

NORRIS: ...can you give us an example of early on in the story how he took...

Mr. BRADLEE: Well...

NORRIS: ...Woodward and Bernstein and led them from a story that began with a petty burglary in a hotel and led eventually to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Mr. BRADLEE: The one I remember most was the question of where--these burglars were arrested with a lot of money in their pockets. I've forgotten how much, but it was thousands of dollars in new, crisp $100 bills. And it was an odd amount to find in a pocket of a burglar. And Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to concentrate on the money; never mind anything else, concentrate on the money. And that led us into a discovery, for instance, that the $100 bills actually came from a Florida bank, and they were the fruits of a check for $25,000 which had been contributed to the committee to re-elect President Nixon, the so-called CREEP, committee to re-elect. And that was vital information. That was the first information that took it out of the burglary category into the political category.

NORRIS: And is that what gave you the confidence, as editor in chief, that this...

Mr. BRADLEE: Well, that--yeah, it gave me a lot, just to have that story right. But--and other stories, you know, whose details I don't even--can't even remember now, but I just know that what we used to--we didn't call him Deep Throat at first. We called him Woodward's friend. We would say, `Ask your friend something about this,' and that information was invariably right. And that's very encouraging for an editor, I'll tell you that.

NORRIS: It must have been pretty scary, though, Ben, because I worked at The Washington Post. In fact, I worked for you at The Washington Post.

Mr. BRADLEE: I know you did.

NORRIS: And...

Mr. BRADLEE: I know you did.

NORRIS: I'm glad you remember.

Mr. BRADLEE: We miss you.

NORRIS: And I remember from my days that reporters generally needed multiple sources. You needed to come back with more than one name to back up your story.

Mr. BRADLEE: Well, that is the goal, certainly. And many stories, we kept out of the paper because they only had one source. But you think about it for a minute. If the president of the United States tells you something, you don't really need a second source. You don't hear President Bush say, `This is so,' and then go check it with somebody. You don't have to do that.

NORRIS: There's a question of attribution, though, in that case.

Mr. BRADLEE: Yeah, you do. Unattributed single-source information has, since Watergate days, been banned, as you know, from The Post. You're not allowed to do it.

NORRIS: Talk to me a little bit...

Mr. BRADLEE: And now would we ever break it? Don't hold me to that. I think if somebody had earned my trust and confidence and told me something, you know, the kind of person that you would charge up the hill for, I would probably believe him and go with him.

NORRIS: Were you concerned about Mark Felt's agenda?

Mr. BRADLEE: I'm always concerned about people's agenda, and that's one of the things that I think you have to try to find out. As far as we knew, he had an unblemished reputation as far as Woodward knew in the FBI. You know, he actually eventually was indicted for tapping wires illegally, and fully pardoned by President Reagan. But the wires he tapped were wires of the bad guys, people who were trying to overthrow the United States. I'm always worried about people's agenda, and they always have an agenda, but good reporters learn to find out what that agenda is, or sense it right away.

NORRIS: Did Mark Felt--was he a continuous source throughout that entire period, or did the well run dry at certain periods?

Mr. BRADLEE: It seemed to me that the well ran dry in the summer, the late summer, of 1972, not dry, but it trickled, slowed to a trickle. And then Deep Throat helped us find some money stories that, you know, blew the flames hot again. But that's true in our business. I mean, you know, there are days when you can't make a nickel. There are days when everything turns out to be true, and that's one of the joys of the business.

NORRIS: So throughout the primary reporting of this story, you didn't know who Deep Throat was. At what point did you decide that you needed to know his identity?

Mr. BRADLEE: After the president left, it seemed to me for maybe a couple of months after, it seemed to me, I detected the beginnings of a campaign to discredit Woodward and Bernstein's source. And it was then that I felt that I better know the name of this source so that I could better protect Woodward and Bernstein and The Post, and never mind Deep Throat himself. So I went--I told them to come with me, and we walked down to MacPherson Square, which was about a block away from The Post, and sat down on a bench, and told him that I felt that I had to know, and he told me the name. And we were back in the office in five minutes.

NORRIS: It happened that quickly?

Mr. BRADLEE: It happened that quickly, and that exclusively. We didn't talk about anything else.

NORRIS: You know, Ben, Washington, in many ways, is like a big country town, and you travel in a small circle here. It really is a small city. And after you knew who Felt was, did you ever cross his path? Did you ever run into him at the Safeway or at a dinner party?

Mr. BRADLEE: I never did. And if I--I don't think we traveled in the same circles, and that would have startled me, but it wouldn't have thrown me, I don't think, or him.

NORRIS: I'm wondering, Ben, if you, in some small and mischievous way, might miss the notion that people will cozy up to you at dinner parties or at the park, trying to goose you for information, all these years people trying to get you to reveal the identity of Deep Throat.

Mr. BRADLEE: You know, I'd run into it every so often, but in the last--that's 30 years, 30 years. That's a long time. I mean, before all of this mishegoss here, I suppose once every six months, you'd hear somebody. If I went out and made--I make about five or six speeches a year, and occasionally, in the question period, somebody used to ask me, `Who's Deep Throat?' I think that'll probably stop. I hope.

NORRIS: And this term, `Deep Throat,' I guess we can put this behind us now.

Mr. BRADLEE: Well, I can't, but you sure can.

NORRIS: Ben Bradlee, it's always good to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. BRADLEE: Same. My pleasure.

NORRIS: Ben Bradlee is the vice president at large for The Washington Post.

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