WASHINGTON — L. Patrick Gray III, acting director of the FBI in the early months of the Watergate investigation, said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he had resisted repeated orders to fire FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt, who the White House believed was leaking information about the case.
Felt, now 91, acknowledged this month that he was "Deep Throat," the secretive source who provided guidance to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post's main reporters on the aftermath of the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters.
"I was told, five occasions, to fire Felt," Gray told ABC's "This Week." "I knew where the order was coming from. It was coming from the White House."
He also said the White House had ordered him to give Felt a polygraph test, but he refused. "I felt that was degrading to the second-highest official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and I would not stoop to that," he said.
Gray, 88, who had not spoken publicly about Watergate in more than 30 years, told ABC that he "could not have been more shocked and more disappointed in a man whom I had trusted." Felt, he said, "had told me time and again he was not Deep Throat."
"It was like I was hit with a tremendous sledgehammer," Gray said.
The scandal started with what the White House called a "third-rate burglary" on June 17, 1972, at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex, along the Potomac River in Washington. It ended with the resignation of President Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, and the jailing of Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman and other officials.
Because he had been appointed acting director barely a month before the break-in, Gray put Felt in charge of the FBI's investigation of the Watergate burglary. As a result, when the bureau was asked to find out the source of leaks to the Post, Felt was in a position to divert suspicion.
"I couldn't stop [the leaks] because my No. 2 man was the guy that was doing it," Gray told ABC. He said Felt was able to fool him "by being the perfect example of the FBI agent that he was. He did his job well, he did it thoroughly, and I trusted him all along."
He said he believed that Felt, a career agent who had risen through the ranks, decided to assist the Post after not being promoted to the top job after the death of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in May 1972.
Instead, a day after Hoover's death, Nixon chose Gray, a Connecticut lawyer who had served in several mid-level positions in his administration and was considered loyal to the White House.
"I think that there was a sense of revenge in his heart," said Gray, who resigned under fire in April 1973 after it was revealed that he had given raw documents from the FBI's Watergate investigation to White House Counsel John W. Dean III, and that Dean and Ehrlichman had asked him to destroy papers from the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who organized the Watergate break-in.
Gray said he burned the papers, which he described as having nothing to do with Watergate, in the fireplace of his Connecticut home.
During his confirmation hearings in early 1973, Gray acknowledged giving the FBI documents to Dean, who was involved in the White House coverup of the break-in.
"Everything went up in the air when everybody found out that Gray was sending FBI files, reports on the investigation to John Dean at the White House, and it was at that point that John Dean exploded over there" and began cooperating with prosecutors, Gray told ABC.
Gray's testimony caused the White House to reconsider its support of his nomination as FBI director, leading to Ehrlichman's infamous comment about leaving Gray "twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."