Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

'DEEP THROAT' REVEALED

Disgust and Admiration at FBI

Former and current agents are split on the legacy of W. Mark Felt. But critics say the bureau has a history of leaking information.

June 02, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Some past and present FBI agents said Wednesday that they felt uncomfortable with the revelation that one of their own was the legendary "Deep Throat," who had helped the Washington Post uncover details of the Watergate break-in. One called it appalling.

But others said that W. Mark Felt, then the FBI's No. 2 man, did what he had to do to get the story out. That's a sentiment that has permeated the bureau throughout its history and continues to this day -- sometimes for ignoble purposes.

Felt's mentor, J. Edgar Hoover, perfected the art of the leak. The former FBI director bugged the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s hotel rooms and created a taped composite of his sexual activities. Hoover offered the recordings to reporters in a bid to discredit the civil rights leader.

More recently, the bureau has been accused of leaking information about investigations into the 2001 anthrax attacks in Washington and the bungled prosecution of a former nuclear weapons scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

Felt, 91, broke a 30-year silence Tuesday, revealing himself as the famous source in an article in Vanity Fair magazine. His family said that they wanted him to come forward so that he could be recognized as a patriot who had helped expose the dirty tricks of the Nixon White House.

Felt oversaw the initial investigation into the Watergate break-in, and was in a position to understand the breadth of illegal activity that the White House was engaged in and how it rose to the top of the administration. He systematically began helping Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Felt had worried for three decades that many would see his activities as dishonorable, he told family members.

Some agents said Wednesday that they considered Felt a turncoat, and that he should have followed more traditional channels in outing the abuses. They said he could have worked with career prosecutors at the Justice Department before turning to the Washington Post.

"Everyone I have heard from is offended by it," said a current agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are other ways to deal with it. There are tons of ways to get things up to our headquarters or the Department of Justice if we have concerns.... It is offensive to people slogging away and doing their jobs and trying to make things better. He did not try to make us more effective when he should have been out there in the lead on this. Why not work to make this better, rather than throw a bone to the press?"

Other agents questioned Felt's motives. They said he was embittered that President Nixon had chosen an administration insider, L. Patrick Gray III, to be acting FBI director -- thinking Nixon should have opted for a bureau veteran such as himself.

"I am not saying what Nixon did was right, but I think Mark Felt would have sold out anyone for his own promotion," said Gary Penrith, a retired FBI official living in Chicago.

For years, Penrith said, many former agents have been convinced that Felt served as the Post's anonymous source in order to shake up the bureau and enhance his shot at a promotion.

"I mean, he sold out his own guys, his own agents, for his own benefit," Penrith said.

Even if Felt was not motivated by self-promotion, said a West Coast FBI agent who also spoke on condition of anonymity, his actions were appalling because they were reckless.

"This isn't about keeping something within the bureau," the agent said. "I mean, this was a criminal investigation. And if he wanted to do something, he could have just gone public and put a spotlight on all the roaches that were in the White House. That would have been a lot better way to get to the truth than meeting some [reporter] in a parking lot."

But plenty of former and current agents backed Felt's action on the grounds that he was in an untenable situation. With Nixon and his attorney general, John N. Mitchell, implicated in the scandal -- and the acting FBI director under suspicion -- the official channels were corrupted, they argued. Had he raised his concerns publicly, they said, Felt risked being smeared and marginalized by Nixon defenders.

"They would have savaged him just like they savaged everyone else that crossed them," said I.C. Smith, a retired FBI official who went to work for the bureau at the height of Watergate.

Bob Gast, a former bureau official who worked at FBI headquarters at the time, said: "It was a tough time for everybody. You really couldn't tell who your friends were and who your enemies were. There were so many people who ended up being involved in that darn thing that you were at a loss to figure out exactly who to report the results of investigations to. People were dropping like flies."

Gast, who is president of the Society of Former Special Agents, said members of the FBI alumni group were "pretty much evenly divided" over whether Felt had acted honorably.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|