Politics

Second-Guessing the Identity of Deep Throat

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The Watergate source Deep Throat has been unmasked after three decades, and a lot of educated guesses about his identity have been proven wrong. In one high-profile guess, a University of Illinois journalism project concluded President Nixon's deputy counsel Fred Fielding was the source that leaked information about the burglary and cover-up that eventually forced Nixon to resign. Now those former students are dealing with the revelation that the real Deep Throat was FBI official W. Mark Felt.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

On Tuesday, Vanity Fair magazine revealed the long-secret identity of Deep Throat, the anonymous source for The Washington Post who helped the paper break the Watergate story that drove President Nixon out of office. Now everyone knows that Deep Throat is former FBI official W. Mark Felt. Various Washington insiders say they knew all along. Others tried very hard to figure out the 30-year mystery and failed. Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

William Gaines is no babe in the woods when it comes to sussing out a story. For 37 years he was a reporter, twice winning the Pulitzer Prize for being part of a Chicago Tribune investigative team. After retiring, Gaines began teaching journalism at the University of Illinois, and he realized he had a great team of investigators in the making, dozens of students each semester ready to put in research hours and legwork. So he set them on investigating the most famous investigation in newspaper history, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's coverage of Watergate, specifically the question: Who is Deep Throat? Through three years, thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, the Gaines team worked on cracking the case.

Mr. WILLIAM GAINES (University of Illinois): We had narrowed our list down to seven people, and then at that time we--after that we proceeded with our investigation until we got it down to just one person who we're absolutely sure was Deep Throat. He was not.

PESCA: He was Fred Fielding, associate counsel for President Nixon from 1970 to '72. Fielding fit the little hints laid down by Woodward and Bernstein. He drank scotch, smoked cigarettes, had access to all the information Deep Throat had, and Fielding was in the White House. The Gaines team focused on the White House because they uncovered a discrepancy between The Washington Post accounts and the book "All the President's Men." A quote attributed to Deep Throat in the book was attributed to White House sources in the original reporting. This convinced Gaines that Deep Throat came from the White House. It turned out to be the assumption that sunk him.

Mr. GAINES: We stuck with the original premise all the way, and that's why it was such a shock at the end to find out that it was not right.

PESCA: It's important to note that the Gaines team was primarily a journalistic exercise. This means that he made rules along the way that a newspaper might not have. `For our purposes,' Gaines told his class, `we will take the printed word of Woodward and Bernstein to be gospel.'

A former member of the team, Tom Rybarczyk, hears details like Mark Felt hasn't smoked since the early '40s and feels a little bit aggrieved.

Mr. TOM RYBARCZYK (Chicago Tribune): Now to know that, you know, Deep Throat wasn't a smoker, to know all these things that we were misled. I mean, I don't know if you could say outright lies, but it's--maybe it's a little too strong, but they perhaps misled. I mean, I don't know.

PESCA: What Rybarczyk, now a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, thinks of as deceptions may have other explanations. Even a G-man may need to pick up his old cigarette habit to deal with the stress of parking-garage meetings at 2 AM. But Rybarczyk still thinks that so much evidence points to Fielding that he must have been a source who Woodward used in his Watergate coverage. Even through the Felt revelation shook Rybarczyk a bit, he still used it as part of his ongoing journalism education.

Mr. RYBARCZYK: As a journalist, it teaches me that, you know, you shouldn't, you know, just narrowly assume something because three people assume it and there's--I mean, you should go further than that.

PESCA: The teacher learned some lessons, too. Gaines is considering a new project for his next class, maybe a case study or maybe a full-blown investigation, but certainly the sort of story that every journalist will someday write. He'll be looking back on his own Deep Throat project and be asking what went wrong. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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