Woodward Recounts Relationship with Watergate Source

In a front-page story, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward recounts the details of how he met Mark Felt. We look at how the relationship between these two men developed, and how it helped Woodward and Carl Bernstein to unravel the Watergate story.

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In today's Washington Post, Bob Woodward recounts his relationship with Mark Felt. In the early 1970s, Felt was the number-two man at the FBI, and he became the shadowy figure known as Deep Throat. As that unnamed source, Felt helped to guide Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein as they uncovered stories that implicated White House officials in breaking the law. The Watergate scandal ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Woodward writes today of first bumping into Felt in the waiting area at the West Wing before he ever became a reporter. He also talked of that encounter in remarks on The Post's Web site.

Mr. BOB WOODWARD (The Washington Post): And it was in 1970 and in the White House. People who followed Watergate note that there are many accidents in Watergate, and this was one of them, and very significant to me.

FOLKENFLIK: At the time, Woodward was just five years out of Yale and was still in the US Navy. He was an aide to the chief of naval operations, delivering documents to the White House Situation Room. Next to him sat Felt, a longtime FBI man in his 50s who held his own armful of papers. They were in for a long night. And Woodward, by his account, rambled on about his own career concerns, saying he didn't want to go to law school. Felt grudgingly yielded to Woodward's earnest patter. After getting a job as a reporter for a weekly Maryland paper, Woodward called Felt to say perhaps he could ask for help on future stories. Felt didn't reply.

Scott Armstrong was a childhood friend of Woodward from Illinois, who later became an investigator for the Senate Committee looking into Watergate in 1973. Armstrong says Woodward is remarkable in his ability to create bonds with people who later become sources.

Former Senator SCOTT ARMSTRONG (Illinois): He kind of cuts his jib in just the right direction to pick up somebody of note who kind of takes him under their wing to mentor him.

FOLKENFLIK: After Woodward joined The Washington Post in 1971, Felt tipped him off to details about Spiro Agnew's corruption and the shooting of George Wallace. When Watergate broke out, Felt was positioned perfectly to help his young friend make his name. But Felt was deeply anxious about it, as the reporter explained on NBC's "Today" show.

Mr. WOODWARD: During that period, he was really a very uptight man. He was a spy hunter for the FBI in his early career.

FOLKENFLIK: And Felt turned to espionage tactics to set up clandestine late-night meetings with Woodward. Felt ordered him to take several taxis to reach an underground parking lot in Virginia. Woodward could never call the source's office. He could only signal his interest by moving a red flag on his balcony. Woodward says he never knew how Felt monitored the balcony. Then Post executive editor Ben Bradlee told NPR this week that Deep Throat's confirmations gave The Post confidence in its reporting from other sources.

Mr. BEN BRADLEE (Vice President at Large, The Washington Post): We didn't call him Deep Throat at first. We called him Woodward's friend. And we would say, `Ask your friend something about this,' and that information was invariably right.

FOLKENFLIK: Felt became the FBI's number two under Nixon, and less than a week after the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate, Nixon was counting on Felt to help him quell any serious inquiry. White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman told Nixon that the acting director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, should be warned against investigating the burglary too deeply. The conversation was captured on Nixon's secret taping system. The first voice is Nixon. The second, Haldeman, who invokes Felt's name.

(Soundbite of recording)

President RICHARD NIXON: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. H.R. HALDEMAN (White House Chief of Staff): Patrick wants to. He doesn't know how to, and he doesn't have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have ...(unintelligible) that you'll call Mark Felt in...

Pres. NIXON: Yeah.

Mr. HALDEMAN: ...and the two of them--and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because he's...

Pres. NIXON: Yeah.

Mr. HALDEMAN: ...ambitious.

Pres. NIXON: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: That secret recording late became known as the smoking gun. Scott Armstrong says the unnamed source's authority helped The Post keep the Watergate scandal alive, even as it became clear Nixon would sweep to victory in the 1972 presidential elections.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: But the fact that it ran in the paper was because of Deep Throat. Had those stories not run, there would have been no interest after the election. The election would have buried it.

FOLKENFLIK: Felt's motives have been criticized in recent days. He aspired to succeed the legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and was later convicted of violating the civil liberties of suspected dissidents. But Woodward says his recently unmasked source acted with courage.

Mr. WOODWARD: I think he is somebody who was very brave and took great personal risk to his career and saw the wholesale lawbreaking in the Nixon White House. So how do you break through the cover-up? And he chose this route.

FOLKENFLIK: Whether with guile or without it, the future reporter chose his secret mentor well. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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