A source breaks cover

June 01, 2005

PERHAPS FITTINGLY, W. Mark Felt's revelation that he is the legendary Watergate source "Deep Throat" failed to end the 30-year-old controversy.

The Vanity Fair account released yesterday sparked questions about Mr. Felt's motives, and about whether any single source had actually played the near-mythical role in toppling the Nixon presidency accorded to Deep Throat. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who have said they relied on the anonymous source to guide them at critical moments in their groundbreaking Watergate reporting, initially stuck by their refusal to reveal Deep Throat's identity until after his death.

Yet Mr. Felt, a 91-year-old former FBI official who has long been on the short list of Deep Throat speculation, provided a timely reminder of the vital role anonymous sources play in making sure the public learns what it has a right to know. Renewed attention to an official who put his career at risk to blow the whistle on Richard Nixon's abuse of power should advance a growing movement to urge the Supreme Court to recognize reporters' right to shield sources.

Obviously, the practice has been overused - by officials reluctant to say anything for attribution and by reporters who let them get away with it. It has also been misused on both ends to hide shoddy tactics such as spreading rumors about enemies and manufacturing information.

The case before the court involves contempt orders filed against New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, who face 18 months in jail for failing to testify in a grand jury investigation of the leak that outed CIA Agent Valerie Plame. Neither reporter published the leak, but both are in the awkward position of protecting a leaker who may have committed a crime for political retribution.

Mr. Felt's circumstances vividly illustrate, however, why sources must be able to speak in confidence with reporters, even if their motives are sometimes suspect.

As the second-highest official in the FBI at the time, he oversaw the bureau's investigation of the Watergate break-in and thus had direct access to key information. He was also a potential target for an increasingly desperate and vindictive president, who urged that the CIA be used to shut down the FBI inquiry.

It's instructive that Mr. Felt did not want his cooperation with reporters revealed, even long after the Nixon crowd was gone, because he feared colleagues would think him disloyal, even dishonorable.

In fact, Deep Throat's role - and that of the other sources who helped avert a constitutional crisis - may have been heroic. A Supreme Court decision enshrining the principle of protecting such sources would be a most appropriate tribute.

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