An ace reporter with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable riddles claims he's close to revealing journalism's greatest secret--the identity of Watergate's "Deep Throat."
William Gaines, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting in 38 years at the Chicago Tribune, plans to release a free "Finder's Guide to Deep Throat" in June. The report will coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will conclude more than two years of research by dozens of journalism students at the University of Illinois, where Gaines holds the Knight Chair for Investigative/Enterprise Journalism.
"We will name names, tell what we know, kind of like the Warren Report," Gaines says. "It's going to come as a shock. [Deep Throat] is a middle-level White House official. It's not anybody a lot of people know."
Identifying Deep Throat has been an American cultural pastime since 1974 when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote "All the President's Men," the inside story of the collapse of the Nixon White House. Played by Hal Holbrook in the movie version of the book, Deep Throat was the consummate government insider. Hints of the Nixon administration's darkest secrets rolled off Deep Throat's scotch-and-cigarette-tainted tongue during late-night meetings with Woodward.
The Deep Throat legend continues to burn because Woodward refuses to snuff it out. Woodward has promised to keep Deep Throat's identity secret as long as the source is alive. With each year, more Nixon-era players pass away as new whodunit books, theories and wild-eyed hunches proliferate. Nixon's Chief of Staff Alexander Haig and W. Mark Felt, then FBI deputy associate director, lead the cast of dozens of former Washington characters who could've served as Deep Throat. All of them have vehemently and consistently denied the moniker while Woodward remains mum.
This time, Woodward's secret is challenged by a soft-spoken, 68-year-old man who wears thick glasses, a comb-over and a knowing grin that grows wider with the first mention of Watergate.
"You've got the greatest investigative reporter in America being investigated by the other greatest investigative reporter in America," says author Walt Harrington, a former Washington Post Magazine writer and, like Gaines, a journalism professor at Illinois. Harrington suggested the project to Gaines after hearing former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee hint in a television interview that researchers could identify Deep Throat by databasing all possible clues about all possible suspects.
That's exactly what Gaines and his students have done.
The researchers combed 16,000 pages of government documents on Watergate and the 1972 shooting of George Wallace, another story Woodward covered with the help of deep government sources. The team studied FBI reports, congressional testimony, Nixon memos and tape transcripts, and either biographies or working papers of all significant Watergate players. They scrutinized every Post story written by Woodward before and during Watergate, and all stories he wrote for Maryland's Montgomery County Sentinel before joining the Post in September 1971. Finally, the researchers cross-referenced old Washington city directories with White House staff lists to identify Deep Throat suspects who lived near Woodward's 1972 apartment in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle area.
The working result is a 1,100-line spreadsheet identifying "who did what to whom and when," Gaines says.
His prime suspects are lawyers now in their 60s who worked in the Nixon White House. The hottest leads are several men who worked under John Ehrlichman, Nixon's assistant for domestic affairs.
Gaines and his students have boiled down their research to a dozen key stories they believe Deep Throat may have leaked to Woodward from January 1972 through May 1973. Those stories include well-known blockbusters about campaign funds, destruction of documents and dirty tricks supervised by key Nixon aides. The leaks also include long-forgotten revelations of corruption in the D.C. police department and an obscure speeding ticket controversy involving a low-level White House official.
Using their database, the Illinois researchers stacked up prime suspects for each leaked story. They created a grid listing the FBI, attorney general and D.C. police, with separate columns for White House aides John Dean, Charles Colson, Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
"Ehrlichman's office comes up every time" while none of the other sources appear to have known all the key details Deep Throat leaked to Woodward, Gaines says. He adds, however, that Ehrlichman himself is not a key suspect. Ehrlichman served jail time for Watergate-related charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy. He died in 1999.
Gaines declines to further identify his key suspects--until June.
"We don't want to make a misstep," he says. "There have been too many accusations in the past. We don't want to just take a shot in the dark."
Gaines is now refining his conclusions with the help of Watergate insider John Dean, who has chased Deep Throat's identity for two decades. Dean was Nixon's White House counsel and a crucial witness in the congressional hearings on Watergate. He fingered Alexander Haig as Deep Throat in his 1982 book, "Lost Honor." But Dean later backed off that assertion when both Haig and Woodward denied it.
Dean is now a writer and banker living in California. He started working with Gaines shortly after the Illinois students sent letters to several Watergate figures. Shortly thereafter, Dean received a fresh tip about a possible Deep Throat suspect. Dean told AJR no journalist could uncover Deep Throat "without an insider like yours truly."
"I believe a source like Throat has a right, maybe even a constitutional right, to anonymity," Dean says. "Had Woodward not dangled him before the world in 'All the President's Men,' I would never undertake this drill. I fully anticipate that Throat--when named--will deny it. What I hope to do, with the help of Bill and his class, is make an ironclad case--or as clad as possible--on the one person I am focusing on. And in doing so, shift the burden to this person to deny that he is Throat. I don't believe Woodward would lie for Throat."
For Gaines, part of the motivation is to get students thinking about the ethics of sourcing.
"Woodward is not really protecting his source," Gaines says. "You don't tell anything about your source. It's game-playing. Deep Throat and Woodward are laughing up their sleeves at us. And it detracts from Woodward and Bernstein's true accomplishments to have this ongoing myth about the power of Deep Throat."
Woodward declined to talk to Gaines and his students and chuckled when AJR asked for a response.
"I wish them all the luck in the world," Woodward says. "I don't talk about sources, and I'm certainly not going to at this point."
Luck has never been a key ingredient in Gaines' recipe for revealing stories. He shared his first Pulitzer with other Tribune reporters in 1976 after working undercover as a janitor to detail how a hospital performed unsanitary and unwarranted surgeries. The second Pulitzer came in 1988 when Gaines and others detailed widespread corruption in the Chicago City Council. His projects over the years range from financial revelations about the Nation of Islam to fundraising tactics of Bill Clinton foe Paula Jones and important historical research into the music industry's fleecing of Chicago jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton.
"What makes Gaines the preeminent investigative journalist of two generations is his killer ability to ferret out fact from the most obscure record imaginable, understand its significance to the larger story and use hundreds of those facts to piece together a hidden or seemingly unsolvable puzzle," Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski recently told the Chicago Reader.
Woodward might laugh now, but Professor Harrington doesn't envy him.
"I wouldn't want Bill Gaines on my tail," Harrington says.