THE SECRET MAN: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat

By Bob Woodward


This book tells the story behind one of the best-kept political secrets of recent times: the identity of “Deep Throat”, the anonymous source who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of the Watergate break-in, which ultimately led to the fall of President Richard Nixon. 


Woodward and Bernstein succeeded in keeping Deep Throat’s identity secret for 33 years.  Despite being the subject of intense speculation, only a few came close to guessing that it was Mark Felt, a career FBI man who rose to second in command to J. Edgar Hoover, a man he revered.  They had committed themselves to keep his identity secret until he died, but Felt himself recently admitted in a Vanity Fair article that he was Deep Throat, so Woodward felt free to publish the secret manuscript he had written long ago.


The book indicates that Felt must have been very conflicted about revealing secrets to journalists.  He was torn between his loyalty to the FBI and its commitment to keep secrets secret and his disgust at the attempts of the Nixon White House to cover up Watergate by politicizing the FBI.


In fact, the book very effectively raises the question: “Does the end justify the means?”  For example:


1.      Did the end of assuring the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972 justify the means of breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters to plant listening devices?


2.      Did the end of protecting classified information regarding national security justify the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the so-called Pentagon Papers to The New York Times?  


3.      Did the end of stopping the terrorist activities of the Weather Underground justify the means of violating the right to privacy of the family members of its activists? (This was an FBI operation for which Felt was later indicted and convicted.  In perhaps the ultimate irony, Richard Nixon testified in his behalf and sent him a bottle of champagne when he was ultimately pardoned by Ronald Reagan!)


4.      Did the end of exposing the cover-up by the White House justify the means of revealing classified information to a reporter?


5.      Did protecting the anonymity of a source (Mark Felt) justify the means of lying about his identity, even to close friends?


I was pleasantly surprised by the transparency and vulnerability with which Bob Woodward treats questions like these.  Although it is clear that his answers to the above questions are no, no, no, yes and yes, respectively, he doesn’t come across in a self-righteous way.  With respect to the last question, for example, he writes:


“’It’s not him’, I said adopting the well-tested Watergate strategy that when all else fails, lie.  I lied, and insisted to Cohen that he had it wrong. W-R-O-N-G!  I spelled it out, I recall.  A real safe truth between friends, I indicated, suggesting that I was helping him from writing something monumentally stupid…I felt bad, but it had been an easy decision.  I objected to reporters or columnists trying to figure out the sources used by other reporters.  It was cheap, and if everyone did it, no one would have sources.  Our job – the reporters’ job collectively – was to protect sources.  Even from other reporters.”


One of the more poignant aspects of this book is Woodward’s ambivalence about Mark Felt and his relationship with him.  He reports being close to tears several times when he thought about the impact of being Deep Throat had had on Felt and how difficult it must have been for a loyal career FBI man to “betray” the government for which he had worked his entire adult life.  Although Watergate was clearly the best thing to ever happen to Bob Woodward professionally (he was thrust on to the national scene at age 30, was later portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie All the President’s Men, and authored several best-selling books based on Watergate or boosted by the reputation he gained from Watergate), he portrays himself as only a flawed hero, at best.  He writes:


“I was hoping to put down the full story, as I have attempted to do here.  I wanted it to be clear, straightforward, nothing held back.  The portrait of me is not all that admirable.  I was pushy, secretive.  I used Mark Felt, and I lied to a colleague, Richard Cohen.  But I wanted this account to be the antidote to Watergate, which had always been so convoluted, things always being concealed.  Because that strange and compelling era played such an important part in my life, I kept going back to it.”


This is refreshing.  My previous impressions of Bob Woodward (and Carl Bernstein) were that they were self-righteous crusaders, perceiving themselves as the defenders of democracy against reactionary Republican barbarians.  Maybe they did at the time of Watergate, but it is clear that Woodward now sees that he too is capable of using the end to justify questionable means.


So, does the end justify the means?  The purist’s answer is “No, it never does”, but we live in a fallen world.  War is probably the clearest example.  Few, if any, question the rightness of using military force to oppose Hitler or of using devious means to hide Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.  One is reminded of Edmund Burke’s maxim that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”


Of course, humanity is not so neatly divided into categories of good people and evil people.  Rather, the line between good and evil actually goes through the middle of every human heart, as Solzhenitsyn reminded us.  Nevertheless, in a fallen world, evil often has to be opposed with force that would be evil under other circumstances.  Romans 13:4 states that the civil authority “does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer…”


Watergate did not involve violence, of course, but it was a monumental political struggle, with both sides deeply convinced that the end they were seeking justified the means they were using.  The Secret Man well illustrates how using the end to justify the means is a delicate operation and how Solzhenitsyn was right: the line between good and evil does go through every human heart.


John Ed Robertson

August 8, 2005


Woodward, Bob; The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat; Simon & Schuster; New York; 2005 ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-8715-9; ISBN-10: 0-7432-8715-0.