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From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

Before Deep Throat    

The FBI director gave me explosive information about Watergate just two months after the break-in, but it never made its way into the New York Times.


By Robert M. Smith
     

The director of the FBI sat across from me over lunch at a French restaurant and told me that the attorney general and the president were involved in a crime.

He told me that in Washington, in August of 1972 — just two months after the Watergate burglary.

He told me that in a public place — a restaurant filled with diners, not an underground garage.

And he told me about a guy who burned his palm, and about Donald Segretti (by name).

And when he intimated over the entrιe that the wrongdoing went further, I leaned back against the wall on my inside banquette and looked at him in frank astonishment.

"The attorney general?" I asked.

He nodded.

I paused.

"The president?" I asked.

He looked me in the eye without denial — or any comment. In other words, confirmation.

I slumped back on the banquette, appetite for food gone.

Here was L. Patrick Gray III — in my mind a stand-up conservative submarine commander turned Republican politician — honest to the cob and naοve right through the husk.

My God, I thought. Why is he telling me this in a crowded restaurant, and in normal tones?

I couldn't take notes — at least in my mind, I couldn't take out my reporter's notebook. Too many people would see the director of the FBI with some youngster in a tweedy sport jacket taking notes over lunch. So I struggled to remember names — a task I have always been notably bad at. Segretti — spaghetti, I thought.

At the end of the meal, I told Pat Gray I would be leaving the New York Times — where I was a reporter in the Washington bureau — the very next day to begin studies at Yale Law School. He seemed more shocked than I had been about Watergate, or perhaps he just didn't mask his reaction.

I raced back to the Times bureau, and told Bob Phelps, my terrific editor, that I needed to see him urgently.

I insisted that we go to his small office, where he sat on a couch with a floral print, and I paced. I got him a reporter's notebook and insisted that he take notes. I also borrowed one of the Times' dictating machines, set it on the wooden desk and turned it on.

"Bob," I remember beginning. "This is incredible." And for the next half hour or so — like a jumping bean, unable to contain myself — I told him about the lunch. Bob never — at least not in my presence — showed emotion about a story. At most, he would smile. He did smile; that was it.

I think I gave Bob the tape so he would have any details that his notes might have missed.

I left the paper the next day. During the next two or three months at Yale Law School, I read the Times every day. I did not see the story. I assumed the paper, for some reason, could not confirm it — even with Segretti's name. I watched in disappointment as the Washington Post began drubbing the Times on the Watergate saga.

At some point, an editor at the Times called and asked me to come back to the paper. I thought it over for a couple of days, and decided not to. In my mind, it was the story of the century versus the intellectual experience of my lifetime. And I had already given a major breakthrough on the story to the Times.

But I did offer to make a telephone call. I called Pat Gray.

He did not call back.

Later I found out about the burning of documents by Gray at the instigation of the Nixon White House.

In the course of researching a book, Phelps told me years later, a member of Gray's family confirmed that the FBI director's diary showed a lunch with me on the day in question, but he denied that his father ever would have made such disclosures. As clearly as I remember "Segretti-spaghetti," I assure you that he did.

In the book "God and the Editor" published this year, Phelps writes of the episode: "Because he had to leave for Yale Law School the next day, Smith didn't have time to check out Gray's leads.

He did the next best thing. Within minutes on returning from the lunch, with the conversation still fresh in his mind, he spoke into a recorder sitting at my desk in my little office while I debriefed him."

But, Phelps continues, "We never developed Gray's tips into publishable stories. Why we failed is a mystery to me. In fact, while I can still picture the debriefing, my memory is fuzzy on the crucial point of what I did with the tape. [My wife] Betty and I flew to Alaska the next week and vacationed there for a month." He concludes, "I should have circulated Smith's debriefing to all our Watergate reporters. It would never have been lost with all those big ears hearing it." Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, working on Watergate for the Times at the time of my meeting with Gray, says he was never told about the tape or the lunch.

What does it mean that Gray wouldn't take my subsequent call, but his deputy, Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, began talking to the Washington Post? Could Felt have really been doing that without Gray's knowledge?

Maybe, given that his boss was so naοve as to sit at a table at a posh Washington restaurant briefing a reporter about such incendiary information? Or maybe because Gray was going to be so hopelessly inept at media manipulation and covert disclosures that he wasn't the man for the job? And perhaps — having been inadvertently foiled at the Times — it was time to move on to someone trustworthy at the Post? (The Post mentioned dirty trickster Segretti in a story October 10.) And perhaps — in a town where deniability is king, if not emperor — it was good to have a Washington-savvy deputy stand in for an honestly maladroit boss who would, in any event, be completely abandoned. And be unsung for his honesty, even after his death.

Robert M. Smith (rms@robertmsmith.com) is a mediator based in San Francisco .