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Felt's actions are what matter most

June 03, 2005|TIM RUTTEN

And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him ...

That was the way 1 Samuel described those Israelites who went into the hills to skulk with David and await the fall of Saul. It's also a pretty apt description of the people investigative reporters call "sources."

Vindictive ex-wives or husbands, aggrieved business partners, disgruntled bureaucrats, jealous colleagues, people passed over for promotion, the embittered, the malicious and self-aggrandizing gossips are all excellent sources of information. Sure, it comes with baggage and needs to be handled with skepticism -- which is the journalistic equivalent of asbestos gloves. It may sound a little seedy, but contented, discreet, loyal, unconflicted people hardly ever inform on others, violate confidences or betray.

Welcome to the real world.

If it seems slightly unfamiliar, that's because, since Tuesday, we've all been immersed in an increasingly otherworldly discussion over the revelation that "Deep Throat" -- the ur-source -- is W. Mark Felt, a 91-year-old former deputy associate director of the FBI. Felt may be little known to all but the Watergate obsessed, but his nom de guerre has become a generic category. His identity was one of the longest and most closely held secrets in the history of American journalism, so the occasion is drenched in drama -- and, as is so often the case these days, nonsense.

Take, for example, the strange debate over whether Felt is a hero who saved the republic from a Nixonian putsch or a villain who betrayed his oath as a federal law enforcement official. This discussion takes place on a planet where there only are good guys and bad guys, where all motives are unmixed, wholly pure or malign.

Why Felt acted as he did we never will know for sure, particularly since his age and failing mental state make it impossible for him to sit for rigorous interviews. We do know that six years ago, Slate's Timothy Noah asked "whether, if he were Deep Throat, that would be so terrible?" Felt replied, "It would be terrible. This would completely undermine the reputation that you might have as a loyal, logical employee of the FBI. It just wouldn't fit at all."

"But wasn't Deep Throat a hero?"

"That's not my view at all," Felt said. "It would be contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee of the FBI to leak information."

Thirty years ago, Felt was a man passed over for promotion, apparently unhappy that Richard Nixon had selected an outsider, L. Patrick Gray, to succeed J. Edgar Hoover. Felt also was concerned that the administration was attempting to "politicize" the bureau and resentful that the FBI's own inquiry into the Watergate break-in was being obstructed by the White House and its political operatives.

Still, it's hard to imagine how anyone who had risen through the FBI in the Hoover era could have balked at politicization. Reactionary politics, spying, intimidation of elected officials and playing fast and loose with the Constitution were the bureau's stock in trade throughout those years. Felt was a bureau insider, somebody in a position to know everything except, perhaps, the name of Hoover's favorite millinery shop.

After Nixon's resignation, Felt himself was convicted of authorizing illegal searches and wiretaps as part of the FBI's pursuit of Weather Underground fugitives. He was fined, then pardoned by President Reagan. In other words, there's nothing in the old G-man's history to suggest that he would have recoiled at demands to sacrifice constitutional niceties to the demands of "national security."

And yet he did, and he did it when it counted. That he almost surely did it for a mixture of reasons, self-interested and principled, matters not at all. For all we know, his personal opinion of his conduct and his explanation to himself for why he did what he did probably has changed many times over the years.

Real lives are like that.

One of the things that has lent the last few days' discussion a surreal dimension has been the denunciation of Felt by various Watergate felons, who have been allowed to reinvent themselves as commentators.

The burglar G. Gordon Liddy claimed Felt had "dishonored himself." We'll leave it to more capacious minds to contemplate what "honor" might consist of in Liddy's moral universe.

Pat Buchanan, bully and bigot -- though not a felon -- described Felt as "a snake."

But the utter-absence-of-irony award has to go to former Nixon chief counsel turned evangelical preacher, Charles Colson, who gravely noted that Felt "had the trust of America's leaders, and to think that he betrayed that trust is hard to fathom."

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