It seems that Mark Felt (see photo) had been the number three man in the FBI, deeply loyal to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was feared by everyone in Washington because he collected all the dirt he could, using his own agents, and could have blackmailed almost everyone. And when Hoover died in 1972, the number two man retired, leaving Mark Felt as the de facto head of the FBI. However, Nixon did not appoint him as the official head – a slight that must have rankled.
Felt got even. Though he could have gone to the justice department with his information about the illegal actions of Nixon’s “plumbers,” he chose instead to leak the information to two young journalists on the Washington Post. According to Friedman, Woodward and Bernsteinunderstood what was happening, and so did their boss, Ben Bradlee — that instead of uncovering the secrets themselves, they were being spoonfed the story by the head of the FBI, which was spying on the president of the United States and using the information to settle a personal score. By keeping Deep Throat’s identity secret, they were also keeping hidden a part of the story that seems just as important as the facts they disclosed. What was the FBI doing, spying on the US president?
Only about four years ago did Mark Felt disclose his own identity. Presumably, at that point anyone else could have published the revelations that Friedman has now released. His analysis is speculative, yet it would be hard to think of an explanation other than the one he proposes. The FBI had been collecting evidence — spying on the president and his staff. That inference needs no additional investigation, for it apparently speaks for itself. And to Friedman it is a shocking story.
He goes on, at the end of his story, mulling over the ethical conundrum for journalists facing this kind of situation. It applies to himself as well, for he heads an organization, Stratfor, that trades in “intelligence” — sort of a commercial CIA. He writes,
“In intelligence, we dream of the well-placed source who will reveal important things to us. But we also are aware that the information provided is only the beginning of the story. The rest of the story involves the source's motivation, and frequently that motivation is more important than the information provided. Understanding a source's motivation is essential both to good intelligence and to journalism. In this case, keeping secret the source kept an entire -- and critical -- dimension of Watergate hidden for a generation. Whatever crimes Nixon committed, the FBI had spied on the president and leaked what it knew to The Washington Post in order to destroy him.”
What ethical principles should guide journalists? And how do those principles differ from the ethics of spies? I’m not sure. What's the difference?
I remember having a conversation once with Bill Epstein in the cafeteria of the United Nations. We were talking about spies, but he used the term casually and without apparent disdain. He had worked throughout his long life at the UN and knew plenty of spies, and he said that he thought spying was good. The more information that individuals and countries have about each other, the better it is. We should encourage spying.
I wouldn’t want to make that into a general principle, for there must be plenty of exceptions, but in general I think it’s true. Partly I take that position because if I were a spy, I would not keep information secret. I am just not good at that. I don’t have much of a sense of privacy about my own personal matters; I gossip quite freely; and I have leaked confidential information from a hiring committee once or twice in my life. I should be ashamed, but I’m not. Don’t tell me your secrets because I will almost certainly blab. And that's probably a good thing.
There’s a story in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine about Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary. It seems that the Obama team is absolutely leak-proof. That’s supposed to be good, and because I trust Obama, I will accept the assumption that it is indeed good. But not everyone is good, and in general I think it’s excellent for journalists, spies, and gossipy friends to reveal all the dirt that they can find out in Washington, whatever be their motivations.
Just think: Colin Powellhad been duped so much that he unknowingly gave a deceptive speech in the UN about Iraq’s supposed WMDs. Somebody should have told Powell. How much trouble we would have been spared, had the truth been revealed before Bush attacked Iraq!
So hurrah for loose-lipped spies!