William Mark Felt
William Mark Felt Sr. (August 17, 1913 - December 18, 2008) was an agent of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation who retired in 1973 as the Bureau's number two official. Felt died December 18, 2008 in Santa Rosa, California after suffering from congestive heart failure for several months.
For thirty-three years one of the great mysteries of American politics was the identity of "Deep Throat," the secret source who helped the Washington Post unravel the Watergate scandal. At the age of 91, W. Mark Felt revealed himself as the whistleblower whose leaks to the press eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974 in order to avoid impeachment. At the time, Felt was the Bureau's Associate Director, the second-ranking post in the FBI. He provided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with critical leads on the story of the break-in.
In 1980, Felt was convicted of violating the civil rights of people associated with the Weather Underground by authorizing FBI agents to perform illegal searches of their homes. He was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
An understanding of the American situation in the 1960s and 1970s is necessary in order to understand the motivation and actions of Felt. It was a time of great social unrest, fomented by the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Radical groups were threatening to overthrow the government, while there was great mistrust within the government itself.
Felt is considered by some a villain, and by others a hero. By his own admission, his actions regarding the Weathermen were illegal, and yet, he maintains they were necessary in order to secure the safety of the nation from those who had vowed to overthrow the government by any means.
His course of action regarding the Watergate break-in was dire. It brought down a sitting president and was ultimately used by the radical Left to end America's involvement in Vietnam, though not in a victorious manner - Vietnam fell to communism. Felt might have best served his nation by seeking a resolution through legal means.
William Mark Felt was born in Twin Falls, Idaho, the son of carpenter and building contractor Mark Earl Felt and his wife, Rose. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Idaho in 1935, he went to Washington, D.C. to work in the office of U.S. Senator James P. Pope, (Democratic–Idaho). He stayed on with Pope's successor in the Senate, David Worth Clark (D-Idaho).
In 1938, Felt married Audrey Robinson, his former classmate at the University of Idaho. She had come to Washington to work at the Internal Revenue Service, and they were wed by the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Rev. Sheara Montgomery.
Felt attended The George Washington University Law School at night, earning his law degree in 1940, and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1941.
Upon graduation, Felt took a position at the Federal Trade Commission but was unhappy with the lack of excitement in his assignments. He applied for a job with the FBI in November 1941, and began working there in January 1942.
Early FBI years
After completing sixteen weeks of training at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, and FBI Headquarters in Washington, Felt was first assigned to Texas, working in the field offices in Houston and San Antonio, spending three months in each city.
He then returned to the "Seat of Government," as Hoover called FBI headquarters, and was assigned to the Espionage Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division, tracking down spies and saboteurs during World War II, where he worked on the Major Case Desk. His most notable work there was on the "Peasant" case. Helmut Goldschmidt, operating under the codename "Peasant," was a German agent in custody in England. Under Felt's direction, his German masters were informed "Peasant" had made his way to the United States, and were fed disinformation on Allied plans.
The Espionage Section was abolished in May 1945. Felt was again in the field, sent first to Seattle, Washington. After two years of general work, he spent two years as a firearms instructor and was promoted from agent to supervisor. Upon passage of the Atomic Energy Act and the creation of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the Seattle office became responsible for completing background checks of workers at the Hanford plutonium plant near Richland, Washington. Felt oversaw these checks.
In 1954, Felt returned briefly to Washington as an inspector's aide. Two months later, he was sent to New Orleans, Louisiana, as assistant special agent in charge of the field office, transferring to Los Angeles fifteen months later, with the same rank.
In 1956, Felt was transferred to Salt Lake City, Utah, and promoted to special agent in charge. The Salt Lake office included Nevada within its purview, and while there, Felt oversaw some of the Bureau's earliest investigations into organized crime with the Mob's operations in the casinos of Reno and Las Vegas, even though the official position of the Bureau at the time was that there was no such thing as the Mob. In February 1958, Felt was sent to Kansas City, Missouri (which in his memoir he dubbed, "the Siberia of Field Offices"), where he oversaw additional investigations of organized crime.
He returned to Washington in September 1962, where as assistant to the Bureau's assistant director in charge of the Training Division, he helped oversee the FBI Academy. In November 1964, he became assistant director of the Bureau, as chief inspector of the Bureau and head of the Inspection Division. This division oversaw compliance with Bureau regulations and conducted internal investigations.
On July 1, 1971, Felt was promoted by Hoover to Deputy Associate Director, assisting Associate Director Clyde Tolson. Hoover's right-hand man for decades, Tolson was in failing health and no longer able to attend to his duties. Richard Gid Powers wrote that Hoover installed Felt to rein in William Sullivan's domestic spying operations, as Sullivan had been engaged in secret unofficial work for the White House.
In his book, The Bureau, Ronald Kessler said, "Felt managed to please Hoover by being tactful with him and tough on agents." Curt Gentry called Felt "the director's latest fair-haired boy," but who had "no inherent power" in his new post, the real number three being John P. Mohr.
After Hoover's death
Hoover died in his sleep and was found on the morning of May 2, 1972. Tolson was nominally in charge until the next day when Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray as acting FBI director. Tolson submitted his resignation, dictated by Felt, and Gray accepted it, the acceptance also being dictated by Felt. Felt took Tolson's post as Associate Director, the number-two job in the bureau. Felt served as an honorary pallbearer at Hoover's funeral.
Immediately upon his death, Hoover's secretary for five decades, Helen Gandy, began destroying his files with the approval of Felt and Gray. She turned over twelve boxes of the "Official/Confidential" files to Felt on May 4, 1972. This consisted of 167 files and 17,750 pages, many of them containing derogatory information. Felt stored them in his office, and Gray told the press that afternoon that there were no dossiers or secret files.
Felt was critical at how often Gray, who lived in Connecticut and commuted to Washington, was away from FBI Headquarters. He also visited all of the Bureau's field offices except Honolulu. His frequent absences led to the nickname "Three-Day Gray." These absences, combined with Gray's hospitalization and recuperation from November 20, 1972 to January 2, 1973, meant that Felt was effectively in charge for much of his final year at the Bureau.
On February 17, 1973, Nixon nominated Gray as Hoover's permanent replacement as director. Until then, Gray had been in limbo as acting director. However, he was forced to resign on April 27, after it was revealed he had destroyed a file on the Kennedy family that had been in the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt. Gray recommended Felt as his successor. Nixon instead appointed William Ruckelshaus, with whom Felt was unable to develop a good relationship. Stanley Kutler reported that Nixon wanted a person in that position who was "not part of the old guard." Nixon continued to believe Felt to be the source of leaks to the press.
Felt retired from the Bureau on June 22, 1973, ending a thirty-one year career.
The term "Watergate scandal" refers to a 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., by members of the Richard Nixon administration and the resulting cover-up which led to the resignation of the President. The burglars' aim was to plant listening devices, while disguised as common criminals to provide cover. They were informally called the "plumbers unit" to "plug leaks," and included former members of the CIA. Though then-President Nixon had endured two years of mounting political embarrassments, the court-ordered release in August 1974, of a "smoking gun tape" about the burglaries brought with it the prospect of certain impeachment for Nixon; he resigned only four days later on August 9, making him the only U.S. President to have resigned from office.
As associate director of the FBI, Felt saw everything compiled on Watergate before it went to Gray. The agent in charge, Charles Nuzum, sent his findings to Investigative Division head Robert Gebhardt, who then passed the information on to Felt. From the day of the break-in, June 17, 1972, until the FBI investigation was mostly completed in June 1973, Felt was the key control point for FBI information. He had been among the first to learn of the investigation, being informed at 7:00 on the morning of June 17. Ronald Kessler, who had spoken to former Bureau agents, reported that throughout the investigation, they "were amazed to see material in Woodward and Bernstein's stories lifted almost verbatim from their reports of interviews a few days or weeks earlier."
Woodward first describes Deep Throat in his book, All the President's Men, as "a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at the Committee to Re-elect the President, Nixon's 1972 campaign organization, as well as at the White House." Woodward reportedly had known the source before Watergate and had discussed politics and government with him.
Woodward, in 2005, wrote that he met Felt at the White House in 1969 or 1970, when Woodward was an aide to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivering papers to the White House Situation Room. They stayed in touch and spoke on the telephone several times. When Woodward started working at the Washington Post, he phoned Felt on several occasions to ask for information for articles. Felt's information, taken on a promise that Woodward would never reveal their origin, was a source for a number of stories, notably for an article on May 18, 1972, about Arthur H. Bremer, the man who shot George C. Wallace.
When the Watergate story broke, Woodward called on his friend. Felt advised Woodward on June 19, that E. Howard Hunt was involved; the telephone number of his White House office had been listed in the address book of one of the burglars. Initially, Woodward's source was known at the Post as "My Friend," but was tagged "Deep Throat" by Post editor Howard Simons. Woodward has written that the idea for the nickname first came to Simons because Felt had been providing the information on a "deep background" basis, which is a journalistic term meaning information provided to a reporter on the condition that the source be neither identified nor quoted directly.
Suspected as source
From the beginning, Mark Felt was suspected by many of being "Deep Throat." It was believed he had a personal motive for acting. After the death of Hoover, Felt thought he was a leading candidate to succeed him and wanted to protect the Bureau from his fear of the White House taking political control of the FBI.
Days after the break-in, Nixon and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman talked about putting pressure on the FBI to slow down the investigation. The FBI had been called in by the District of Columbia police because the burglars had been found with wiretapping equipment, and wiretapping is a crime investigated by the FBI. Haldeman reportedly told President Nixon on June 23, 1972, "Mark Felt wants to cooperate because he's ambitious." Nixon himself thought that Felt, at a minimum, had been working against him, and at a maximum, thought Felt was Deep Throat.
When Gray returned from his sick leave in January 1973, he confronted Felt about being the source for Woodward and Bernstein. Gray reportedly had defended Felt to Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst, who pressured Gray to get rid of Felt. Gray instead vouched for Felt's loyalty.
Jack Limpert had published evidence in the Washingtonian Magazine in June 1974, that Felt was the informant.
In May 1992, James Mann, a Washington Post colleague of Woodward in 1972, wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly and listed Felt as one of his top Deep Throat candidates. Mann's article focused on the institutional struggle between the FBI and the White House in the early 1970s over the former's independence and through that, looked at Woodward's other coverage to narrow the field down to the FBI.
Felt called "obvious" the reasons why he was suspected by the White House as the reporters' source; supposed jealousy of Gray, his high position, and previous lack of cooperation with White House requests. He later again denied the allegations, saying "No, it's not me. I would have done better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn't exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?"
Deep Throat revealed
Vanity Fair Magazine magazine revealed William Mark Felt was Deep Throat on May 31, 2005, when it published an article (eventually appearing in the July issue of the magazine) on its website by John D. O'Connor, an attorney acting on Felt's behalf, in which Felt said, "I'm the guy they used to call Deep Throat."
After the Vanity Fair story broke, Benjamin C. Bradlee, the key editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, confirmed that Felt was Deep Throat. According to the Vanity Fair article, Felt was persuaded to come out by his family, who wanted to capitalize on the book deals and other lucrative opportunities that Felt would inevitably be offered in order, at least in part, to pay off his grandchildren's education. They also did not want Bob Woodward to receive all the attention by revealing Deep Throat's identity after Felt's death, which they felt was impending at the time.
Public response varied widely. Felt's family called him an "American hero," suggesting that he leaked information for moral or patriotic reasons. G. Gordon Liddy, who was convicted of burglary in the Watergate scandal, suggested that Felt should have gone to the grand jury rather than leak.
Some have contrasted Felt's media treatment with that of other whistleblowers. Nixon chief counsel Charles Colson, who served prison time for his actions in the Nixon White House, said Felt had violated "his oath to keep this nation's secrets," while a Los Angeles Times editorial argued that this argument was specious, "as if there's no difference between nuclear strategy and rounding up hush money to silence your hired burglars."
Speculation about Felt's motives at the time of the scandal has varied widely as well. Some suggested it was revenge for Nixon choosing Gray over Felt to replace Hoover as FBI Director. Others suggest Felt acted out of institutional loyalty to the FBI. Felt may have simply acted out of patriotism.
In the summer of 2005, Woodward's longtime publisher, Simon and Schuster, issued Woodward's swiftly written account of his contacts with Felt, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat.
The Weather Underground
The 1960s were turbulent years for America, with nearly half the population being under the age of 18. There was widespread revolt against the status quo. Racism, sexism, and classism were attacked, but the biggest outcry was against the Vietnam War. Both peaceful and violent demonstrations began to take place on the college campuses.
Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in order to promote nonviolent protest. This group grew increasingly militant as more and more white middle–class youth joined. The Weather Underground was a a splinter group which believed that peaceful protests were ineffective and used violence as a vehicle for social and political change.
In 1969, the Weathermen announced its intention to overthrow the U.S. Government by any means necessary, and in March 1970 spokesperson Bernardine Dohrn publicly announced a “declaration of war.” When an accidentally detonated bomb killed three Weathermen in the basement of a Manhattan townhouse, the group suddenly became the target of an FBI manhunt, and members were forced to go into hiding. The bomb had been intended to be set off at a dance at a local Army base.
This was understandably an equally turbulent period in the FBI's history. In pursuit of the Weather Underground, Felt, along with Edward S. Miller, authorized FBI agents to break into homes secretly in 1972 and 1973, without a search warrant, on nine separate occasions. These kinds of FBI burglaries were known as "black bag jobs." The break-ins occurred in New York and New Jersey, at the homes of relatives and acquaintances of Weather Underground members, and did not lead to the capture of any fugitives.
The use of "black bag jobs" by the FBI was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the Plamondon case, 407 U.S. 297 (1972).
The "Church Committee," which was chaired by Senator Frank Church and formed to investigate intelligence gathering for illegality by the CIA and FBI after illegal activities had been revealed through the Watergate affair, investigated these "black bag jobs."
Felt stated publicly that he had ordered break-ins and that individual agents were merely obeying orders and should not be punished for it. Felt also implicated Gray, who denied his involvement. He referred to the break-ins as "extralegal," but justified them as protecting the "greater good" and admitted he would do it again.
The Attorney General in the new Carter administration, Griffin B. Bell, investigated, and on April 10, 1978, a federal grand jury charged Felt, Miller, and Gray with conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens by searching their homes without warrants, though Gray's case did not go to trial and was dropped by the government on December 11, 1980.
Felt, Gray, and Miller were arraigned in Washington on April 20, 1978. Seven hundred current and former FBI agents were outside the courthouse applauding the "Washington Three," as Felt referred to himself and his colleagues in his memoir.
Felt and Miller attempted to plea bargain with the government, willing to agree to a misdemeanor guilty plea to conducting searches without warrants, but the government rejected the offer in 1979. After eight postponements, the case against Felt and Miller went to trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on September 18, 1980.
On October 29, former President Richard Nixon appeared as a rebuttal witness for the defense, and testified that presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had authorized the bureau to engage in break-ins while conducting foreign intelligence and counterespionage investigations. It was Nixon's first courtroom appearance since his resignation in 1974. Also testifying were former Attorneys General Herbert Brownell, Jr., Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Ramsey Clark, John N. Mitchell, and Richard G. Kleindienst, all of whom said warrantless searches in national security matters were commonplace and not understood to be illegal, but Mitchell and Kleindienst denied they had authorized any of the break-ins at issue in the trial. (The Bureau used a national security justification for the searches because it alleged the Weather Underground was in the employ of Cuba.)
The jury returned guilty verdicts on November 6, 1980. Although the charge carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, Felt was fined $5,000. Writing in The New York Times a week after the conviction, Roy Cohn claimed that Felt and Miller were being used as scapegoats by the Carter administration and it was an unfair prosecution. Cohn wrote it was the "final dirty trick" and that there had been no "personal motive" to their actions. The Times saluted the convictions saying it showed "the case has established that zeal is no excuse for violating the Constitution."
Felt and Miller appealed the verdict.
Pardoned by Reagan
In January 1981, Edwin Meese encouraged President Ronald Reagan to issue a pardon, and after further encouragement from law enforcement officials and former Bureau agents, he did so. The pardon was given on March 26, 1981, but was not announced to the public until April 15. (The delay was partly because Reagan was shot on March 30.) Reagan wrote:
Pursuant to the grant of authority in article II, section 2 of the Constitution of the United States, I have granted full and unconditional pardons to W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller.
During their long careers, Mark Felt and Edward Miller served the Federal Bureau of Investigation and our nation with great distinction. To punish them further—after 3 years of criminal prosecution proceedings — would not serve the ends of justice. Their convictions in the U.S. District Court, on appeal at the time I signed the pardons, grew out of their good-faith belief that their actions were necessary to preserve the security interests of our country. The record demonstrates that they acted not with criminal intent, but in the belief that they had grants of authority reaching to the highest levels of government. America was at war in 1972, and Messrs. Felt and Miller followed procedures they believed essential to keep the Director of the FBI, the Attorney General, and the President of the United States advised of the activities of hostile foreign powers and their collaborators in this country. They have never denied their actions, but, in fact, came forward to acknowledge them publicly in order to relieve their subordinate agents from criminal actions.
Four years ago, thousands of draft evaders and others who violated the Selective Service laws were unconditionally pardoned by my predecessor. America was generous to those who refused to serve their country in the Vietnam war. We can be no less generous to two men who acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation.
Despite their pardons, Felt and Miller won permission from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to appeal the conviction so as to remove it from their record and to prevent it being used in civil suits by the victims of the break-ins they ordered.
Ultimately, Felt's law license was returned by the court in 1982, which cited Reagan's pardon. In June 1982, Felt and Miller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's security and terrorism subcommittee that the restrictions placed on the FBI by Attorney General Edward H. Levi were threatening the country's safety.
Felt published his memoir, The FBI Pyramid: From the Inside, in 1979. It was co-written with Hoover biographer Ralph de Toledano, though the latter's name appears only in the copyright notice.
The memoir was a strong defense of Hoover and his tenure as Director and condemned the reaction to criticisms of the Bureau made in the 1970s by the Church Committee and civil libertarians. He also denounced the treatment of Bureau agents as criminals and said the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act of 1974 only served to interfere with government work and helped criminals. The flavor of his criticisms is apparent with the very first words of the book: "The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact."
In 1990, Felt moved to Santa Rosa, California, from Alexandria, Virginia, his home since the 1970s. In 1992, he bought his present home in Santa Rosa and since then lived with his daughter Joan Felt. He suffered a stroke before 1999, reported Ronald Kessler, and met with Bob Woodward that same year.
Felt and his wife, Audrey, who died in 1984, had two children, Joan and Mark. Joan earned two degrees from Stanford University and won a Fulbright Scholarship. Joan has three sons, Will Felt, Robbie Jones, and Nick Jones.
Felt's son Mark Jr. is an airline pilot and a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. Felt's grandson, W. Mark Felt III, is a medical doctor.
Felt died December 18, 2008 in Santa Rosa, California after suffering from congestive heart failure for several months. He is survived by his two children and four grandchildren.
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All links retrieved October 4, 2020.
- Dean, John W., June 3, 2005, Why The Revelation of the Identity Of Deep Throat Has Only Created Another Mystery, Findlaw
- Appendix to Why The Revelation of the Identity Of Deep Throat Has Only Created Another Mystery, Findlaw
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