Who is Deep Throat? Does It Matter?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2004

Who is Deep Throat? Does It Matter?   

By Mark Feldstein
Mark Feldstein (prof.feldstein@gmail.com), a veteran investigative reporter, is the Richard Eaton Chair in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland.      


By now, the legend of Deep Throat has become so famous, at least in journalistic circles, that it may well overshadow the nickname's origins. But before Watergate, Deep Throat was known not as a mysterious news source who provided sensitive leaks on "deep background," but as a pornographic movie starring Linda Lovelace.

The journalistic Deep Throat, of course, was Watergate's legendary whistleblower – portrayed by actor Hal Holbrook in "All the President's Men" – who skulked around parking garages in the middle of the night helping Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward investigate the Nixon White House.

Thirty years after Nixon's resignation, Throat's identity is still a closely guarded secret, supposedly known only to Woodward and colleagues Carl Bernstein and former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, as well as Throat himself. It is safe to say himself – that Throat is a man – not only because Woodward has confirmed that fact but also because virtually all of the participants in Watergate were male. Beyond that, however, little can be said definitively since Woodward has promised not to reveal his source until Throat dies – at which point, laughs Woodward's journalistic competitor, former Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Ostrow, it will be "awful hard" for Throat to deny it, "unless you're a believer in the afterlife."

Woodward has always maintained that his source is real, not a literary invention or a composite character but someone who still insists on not being named. Because Throat was Woodward's source, even Bradlee and Bernstein have had to rely on what Woodward has told them.

So Watergate buffs continue to be In Search of Deep Throat. In fact, that was the title of a 2000 book by former Nixon aide Leonard Garment, who denied that he was Throat and speculated that it was a White House colleague named John Sears – who also denied it.

Garment is not alone, either in disputing that he was Throat or in writing a book trying to figure out who was. So far, several books and dozens of articles have tried to identify the mysterious source. Over the past 30 years, attempting to ID Deep Throat has become a kind of Washington parlor game – perhaps, as Bernstein jokes, because "it's the only secret that has been kept this long in the history of the Republic." Among the leading suspects:

Gen. Alexander Haig Nixon's former chief of staff not only chain-smoked cigarettes and downed whiskey the way Woodward described, but also had the access and riverboat gambler personality to engage in such high-stakes political gamesmanship. In addition, claimed authors Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in their book, "Silent Coup," Haig also had the motive – fear that Nixon and his aide Henry Kissinger were soft on Communism – and a longstanding relationship with Woodward dating back to the reporter's time in the military. But both Haig and Woodward have publicly denied that, and Haig appears to have been in Southeast Asia at the time of a key Woodward meeting with Throat.

David Gergen Gergen was a longtime and politically adaptable White House adviser who worked not only for Nixon but also Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Gergen's media savvy, however, was not matched by any known involvement in Watergate that would have put him in a position to know sensitive details about the case. And his apparently heartfelt threat to sue Esquire magazine for suggesting he was Throat went beyond the customary boilerplate denials of other suspects.

Patrick Buchanan The feisty former presidential candidate and one-time Nixon speechwriter seems almost to have encouraged speculation that he was Throat, perhaps the strongest hint of all that he wasn't. Besides, the take-no- prisoners Buchanan was a diehard Nixon loyalist lacking both the motive and subtle personality necessary to commit such a sophisticated deception.

L. Patrick Gray The month before the Watergate break-in, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover died. Nixon appointed outsider Gray to the job, but the presidential loyalist soon became ensnared in Watergate crimes and was left by the White House to "twist slowly in the wind" – giving him both access and a motive for retaliatory leaking. Woodward reportedly lived just four blocks from Gray, making it convenient for him to check the balcony of the reporter's apartment, where Woodward placed secret signals for his source.

W. Mark Felt A longtime top FBI official, he also had access to secret information that Throat passed on to Woodward. Felt also had a motive: Nixon passed him over for the FBI's top job. By one account, reporter Carl Bernstein's young son once spilled the beans that Felt was indeed Throat, but both Bernstein and Felt denied it.

In 1999, Bill Gaines, a one-time investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, set out to solve the mystery. (See Free Press, March 2002 and June 2002.) Over the course of four years, he and 60 of his students slogged through more than 16,000 pages of microfilmed declassified FBI reports on Watergate, cross-checking the information on a computer spreadsheet against newspaper stories that Woodward and Bernstein wrote about the scandal. Gaines also located early, discarded drafts of the reporters' book manuscript, comparing references to see how descriptions had been changed in subsequent versions to mask Throat's identity.

Gaines and his team of researchers searched for clues that would eliminate possible suspects – such as abstinence from alcohol or tobacco, or out-of-town travel on dates that Woodward wrote that he had met with Throat.

The group relied on one key premise: that the Post reporter has steadfastly told the truth about Throat in his book and in interviews. "Woodward is an honorable journalist," Gaines explains, "and his book is an autobiographical work of nonfiction. What he says in the book is reflected in the back issues we checked of his articles in the Washington Post." Gaines believes that while Woodward "might be vague or misleading" about Throat's identity, he would "not be untruthful."

Gaines did find that some of Deep Throat's "direct quotes changed many times" from the first draft of Woodstein's manuscript to the final book version. But Gaines says that this "doctoring of Deep Throat's quotes" does not "seem to be significant" because it does not alter the fundamental meaning of what was said. Gaines believes that these changes were made either to "dress up" the quotes to make them snappier or to help conceal Throat's identity. Besides, says Gaines, since Woodward didn't take notes during his meetings with the sensitive source, the reporter would have to "go back and reconstruct" them anyway.

Based on their research, Gaines and his students concluded that Deep Throat is real. "We're convinced it's not a composite," Gaines says, "because [we found that] there was one person who did know all of this" information that Woodward received.

That person, Gaines and his students concluded, was Fred Fielding, the Nixon White House deputy counsel who not only had access to many FBI files on Watergate but also debriefed some Watergate witnesses himself. Unlike most other senior-level Throat suspects, who already had their own favorite and equally senior journalistic contacts, Fielding was about the same age as Woodward and perhaps more likely to have come into contact with the young reporter. And Fielding was conspicuously absent from any mention in Woodstein's Post stories, even those that discussed the White House office where Fielding worked. As Gaines notes on his Web site (deepthroatuncovered.com): "Leaving a key source's name out of a story is a journalistic commonplace; it not only protects sources but prevents rival reporters from learning the identity of a valuable informant."

Fielding would also appear to have a motive to conceal his identity as Deep Throat. After Watergate, he held positions of influence in Republican administrations – as President Reagan's chief counsel, as part of the Bush-Cheney transition team, and now as a member of the presidential commission investigating terrorist attacks on the United States. Going public as the man who betrayed the Nixon White House would not be a way to engender confidence among his many sensitive legal clients.

Fielding did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past he, too, has denied being Deep Throat. Still, as Woodward himself once pointed out, without commenting on Fielding in particular, "Deep Throat is a source who lied to his family, to his friends, and his colleagues, denying that he had helped us."

Ironically, says former Nixon counsel John W. Dean, who has written his own e-book about the subject, "close to 60 percent of the information" that Deep Throat provided Woodward "is just dead wrong" or "absurd." This calculation was based on Dean's reading of "All the President's Men." Throat "obviously is great theater," Dean says, but "I don't think Deep Throat mattered at all" in the final analysis, "except to [Post Executive Editor Ben] Bradlee that Woodward had a reliable source giving him guidance."

Watergate's leading historian agrees. In an acerbic essay in the online magazine Slate, "Watergate Misremembered," Stanley Kutler denounced "the shallow debate" and "endless, pointless game" about trying to identify the mysterious Deep Throat: "What mystery?" he asked rhetorically. "That someone leaked to Woodstein? How shocking! The Watergate leaks began almost immediately after the break-in." The FBI, federal prosecutors and congressional investigators "did what disgruntled bureaucrats do: they leaked," Kutler wrote, sometimes "like a sieve" as "an established mechanism" to smoke out further investigative leads.

But some revisionist writers maintain that Throat is the hidden key to Watergate. Author Jim Hougan, in a controversial book called "Secret Agenda," theorized that Throat used Woodward and Bernstein "as mere tools in a power struggle" to promote a "counterfeit history" of Watergate, one that concealed a deeper conspiracy – a supposed CIA call-girl ring run out of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. Authors Colodny and Gettlin expanded on this notion, arguing that Throat was part of a clandestine "silent coup" fomented by right-wing Pentagon officials to thwart Nixonian dιtente with the Soviet Union and Red China.

Such conspiracy theories are dismissed by almost all historians and scandal participants. Former Watergate prosecutor Seymour Glanzer calls "horseshit" the notion that Deep Throat provides some sort of "Rosetta Stone" that would reveal a deeper meaning to Watergate. And Rutgers historian David Greenberg compares Watergate revisionists to Holocaust deniers, saying their effect is to exonerate Nixon's own criminal behavior. "The guessing over Deep Throat's identity annoys me because it seems to put some validity in conspiracy theories about Watergate," Greenberg says. "People imagine that knowing who Deep Throat was would show that some particular [government] agency had a bureaucratic imperative to bring Nixon down... [But] what's important is that information made its way to the public arena. Who did it is secondary."


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