MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
An answer today to the most gripping mystery in American journalism: Mark Felt was Deep Throat, the anonymous source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break open the Watergate scandal. Felt was acting associate director of the FBI during the Nixon administration. Vanity Fair magazine broke the story today, and Mr. Felt's family confirmed it. And late in the day, so did The Washington Post, which had previously promised to protect Deep Throat's identity until his death. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
The Post's executive editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, said tonight that Felt's senior position at the FBI meant, quote, "I knew the paper was on the right track." In an article on The Post's Web site, Woodward also acknowledged the central role Felt had played. He aided the disclosure of crimes orchestrated by President Nixon's inner circle, from the break-in at Democratic headquarters to electoral fraud to a conspiracy to cover up crimes.
California lawyer John D. O'Connor befriended Felt, now 91, and write an article for the July issue of Vanity Fair. Felt had previously denied that he had been Woodward's source. But O'Connor wrote that on several occasions, Felt told him, quote, "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat." This afternoon, Felt's grandson, Nick Jones, read a statement on behalf of the family confirming O'Connor's report.
Mr. NICK JONES (Grandson of Mark Felt): The family believes my grandfather, Mark Felt Sr., is a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. My grandfather is pleased that he is being honored for his role as Deep Throat with his friend, Bob Woodward.
FOLKENFLIK: Nixon speechwriter David Gergen knew Woodward from their student days at Yale University. Woodward would ask Gergen to seek formal comment from administration officials for each new bombshell.
Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Former Nixon Speechwriter): He would give me some of the outlines of it, and I would respond with horror because it seemed like a house of horrors at the time.
FOLKENFLIK: It was a paranoid time. The White House fought for its survival by lashing out at the newspaper. The existence of an unnamed and unacknowledged government official who helped Woodward and Bernstein did not publicly surface until their book "All the President's Men." Here's how a famous exchange in a deserted underground parking lot was re-created for the movie of the same name. The first voice is Robert Redford as Woodward; the second Hal Holbrook as the source nicknamed Deep Throat.
(Soundbite of "All the President's Men")
Mr. ROBERT REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) Supposedly he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.
Mr. HAL HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Follow the money.
Mr. REDFORD: What do you mean? Where?
Mr. HOLBROOK: Oh, I can't tell you that.
Mr. REDFORD: But you could tell me that.
Mr. HOLBROOK: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just follow the money.
FOLKENFLIK: The two local reporters did just that. The New York Times and others major news organizations got in the game, but never quite caught up. Nixon stepped down in August 1974 to avoid being impeached by the US House of Representatives.
Deep Throat's identity had spawned one of the most intense parlor games ever to occur in Washington. Was it Nixon press aide Diane Sawyer, now of ABC News? White House chief of staff Al Haig? CBS News' "60 Minutes" did a painstaking inquiry and came up with L. Patrick Gray, then the acting FBI director. David Gergen was also among those suspected.
Mr. GERGEN: Well, it was uncomfortable to be identified as the guy, you know, who on one hand was--because it was such rank hypocrisy involved, seeming to be a loyalist and then going out and meeting in the garage at night and dumping all this stuff out there.
FOLKENFLIK: Jim Mann had helped write early articles about Watergate in 1972 as a reporter for The Washington Post. In 1992, Mann wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that Felt was the most likely candidate to have been Deep Throat.
Mr. JIM MANN (Former Reporter, The Washington Post): But I felt strongly that there this is some duty to American history that has to be balanced against protection of sources.
FOLKENFLIK: Mann says that the focus on personalities missed the larger issue, the tension between the FBI and the White House. Many FBI professionals believed their independence was under attack by political hands trying to cover up the Nixon administration's crimes, and Mann says citizens should understand Felt may have leaked damaging information not as a matter of morality, but loyalty to his beloved FBI.
Mr. MANN: Sometimes when people act--yeah, they have their personal motivations, but their institutions are--count, too. And because they don't have a face until--33 years later we put a face on something, people don't look at the institutions.
FOLKENFLIK: Today, however, a retired G-man who kept the Washington press corps guessing for more than three decades emerged from his home in California to wave at reporters. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.