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Felt to Woodward: Secrecy at All Cost

The Washington Post journalist recounts how a onetime spy hunter used his espionage training to help uncover the Watergate scandal.

June 02, 2005|Bob Woodward | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — On Saturday, June 17, 1972, the FBI night supervisor called then-Deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt at home. Five men in business suits, pockets stuffed with $100 bills and carrying eavesdropping and photographic equipment, had been arrested inside the Democrats' national headquarters at the Watergate office building earlier at about 2:30 a.m.

By 8:30 a.m., Felt was in his office at the FBI, seeking more details. About the same time, the Washington Post's city editor woke me at home and asked me to come in to cover an unusual burglary.

The first paragraph of the front-page story that ran the next day in the Post read: "Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here."

The next day, Carl Bernstein and I wrote our first article together, identifying one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., as the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon's reelection committee. On Monday, I went to work on E. Howard Hunt, whose telephone number had been found in the address books of two of the burglars with the small notations "W. House" and "W.H." by his name.

This was the moment when a source or friend in the investigative agencies of government is invaluable. I called Felt at the FBI, reaching him through his secretary. It would be our first talk about Watergate. (Editor's note: Woodward had met Felt two years earlier when he was a young naval officer, and had kept in touch with the FBI official as he began his career as a journalist in Washington.)

He reminded me how he disliked phone calls at the office, but said that the Watergate burglary case was going to "heat up" for reasons he could not explain. He then hung up abruptly.

I was tentatively assigned to write the next day's Watergate bugging story, but I was not sure I had anything. Carl had the day off. I picked up the phone and dialed 456-1414 -- the White House -- and asked for Howard Hunt. There was no answer, but the operator helpfully said he might be in the office of Charles W. Colson, Nixon's special counsel. Colson's secretary said Hunt was not there that moment but might be at a public relations firm where he worked as a writer. I called and reached Hunt and asked why his name was in the address book of two of the Watergate burglars.

"Good God!" Hunt shouted before slamming down the phone. I called the president of the public relations firm, Robert F. Bennett, who is now a Republican U.S. senator from Utah. "I guess it's no secret that Howard was with the CIA," Bennett said blandly.

It had been a secret to me, and a CIA spokesman confirmed that Hunt had been with the agency from 1949 to 1970. I called Felt again at the FBI. Colson, White House, CIA, I said. What did I have? Anyone could have someone's name in an address book. I wanted to be careful about guilt by association.

Felt sounded nervous. He said off the record -- meaning I could not use the information -- that Hunt was a prime suspect in the burglary at the Watergate for many reasons beyond the address books. So reporting the connections forcefully would not be unfair.

Following the Money

In July, Carl went to Miami, home of four of the burglars, on the money trail and ingeniously tracked down a local prosecutor and his chief investigator who had copies of $89,000 in Mexican checks and a $25,000 check that had gone into the account of Bernard L. Barker, one of the burglars. We were able to establish that the $25,000 check had been campaign money that had been given to Maurice H. Stans, Nixon's chief fundraiser, on a Florida golf course. The Aug. 1 story on this was the first to tie Nixon campaign money directly to Watergate.

I tried to call Felt, but he wouldn't take the call. I tried his home in Virginia and had no better luck. So one night I showed up at his home. It was a plain vanilla, perfectly kept, everything-in-its-place suburban house. His manner made me nervous. He said no more phone calls, no more visits to his home, nothing in the open.

I did not know then that in Felt's earliest days in the FBI, during World War II, he had been assigned to work on the general desk of the Espionage Section. He learned a great deal about German spying in the job, and after the war, Felt spent time keeping suspected Soviet agents under surveillance.

So at his home in Virginia that summer, Felt said that if we were to talk it would have to be face to face where no one could observe us.

I said anything would be fine with me.

We would need a preplanned notification system -- a change in the environment that no one else would notice or attach any meaning to. I didn't know what he was talking about.

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