Dirty tricks, dirty hands

June 07, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Patrick J. Buchanan and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson don't often agree on much politically, but each finds a lot to dislike about Deep Throat. So do I.

Like many folks over the last three decades, I was hoping that the mysterious Deep Throat of Watergate-era fame would turn out to be a pristine-clean Dudley Do-Right, motivated by patriotism, constitutional concerns and maybe a guilty conscience as he fed Watergate revelations to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward.

Instead, he is W. Mark Felt, a top FBI official at the time, whose constitutional concerns did not prevent him from being convicted in 1980 for authorizing government agents to break into homes secretly, without search warrants, in a search for anti-Vietnam War bombing suspects from the radical Weather Underground in 1972 and 1973.

President Ronald Reagan pardoned Mr. Felt five months later on the grounds that he had "acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation."

Today, some right-wingers are castigating Mr. Felt as a turncoat and worse.

Was Mr. Felt a hero or, in Mr. Buchanan's view, a "snake"?

Mr. Buchanan, a veteran of the Nixon White House, describes Mr. Felt in interviews as wielding the FBI with its massive files and investigative powers like a "secret police" force to find and feed material to "the Nixon-haters at The Washington Post."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Jackson, a veteran of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights organization, described his reaction as "mixed." He was delighted that Mr. Nixon's reign ended but troubled that Deep Throat turned out to be a top lieutenant in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's Constitution-trampling war against civil rights leaders, anti-war protesters, Black Panthers and other left-leaners.

Indeed, Mr. Felt was a top enforcer of burglaries, wiretaps, extortions and other "black bag" jobs for Mr. Hoover during the time when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap and otherwise spy on Dr. King, based on Mr. Hoover's unfounded suspicions that Dr. King was a communist.

"If the FBI can come to the press and use its own influence to decide who the press will or won't expose, that's a disturbing situation," Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Felt appears to have had some dirt under his fingernails, and his detractors are making the most of it. He resented being passed over by Mr. Nixon to succeed Mr. Hoover as FBI director. Judging by Mr. Woodward's account, and others, Mr. Felt also was engaged in an old-fashioned Washington turf battle to preserve the independence of Mr. Hoover's FBI against power grabs by Mr. Nixon's White House.

But taking all that into account, Mr. Felt provided good information about criminal enterprises and cover-ups at the top of America's government. It's not hard to see why Mr. Woodward, his partner Carl Bernstein and Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee saw Mr. Felt's professional turf battles as small potatoes in light of the larger story he was helping them to report.

With that in mind, I am amused that many of the same people who called Mr. Felt a turncoat praised Linda Tripp's similar betrayal of a confidence to expose President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern.

For some people, the ethics of whistleblowing depend upon whom the whistle is being blown.

Unlike Mr. Clinton's affair, the Watergate scandal involved far-reaching burglaries, secret slush funds, cover-ups and other criminal activity and violations of the Constitution. With that in mind, I expect history will vindicate Mr. Felt's role in the Watergate story, based on what he was trying to expose and why it was worth exposing.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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