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Opinion

Deep Throat acted appropriately

The Spokesman-Review

After 31 years, Deep Throat has a name and a face, but the debate about the fabled Watergate tipster rages on. Was Mark Felt, disgruntled No. 2 man at the FBI back in the early ‘70s, a hero or a villain?

Admirers say Felt’s courage and ethics enabled Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to unravel the misconduct going on inside President Nixon’s White House. Critics, meanwhile, brand Felt a turncoat who violated his oath of office.

They say Felt had a duty as a law enforcement official to operate within the normal channels and report wrongdoing to superiors, trusting the system to produce a just outcome. Instead, he passed along sensitive inside information and rendezvoused with reporters to abet the toppling of an administration.

But the fact is, Deep Throat did trust the system, and he operated within it – at a fundamental level. Confronted by serious misconduct, and enveloped in a corrupt political power structure, whom was Felt supposed to confide in? His boss, L. Patrick Gray, who turned FBI investigative files of the Watergate break-in over to the White House? Attorney General John Mitchell? President Nixon himself?

Felt found himself in the whistleblower’s classic quandary, pulled in different directions by conflicting loyalties: one to the job and the oaths he swore, another to the people and the overriding principles of democracy. When the transgression resides in the office holders, the ultimate court of appeal must be the people.

As ethicist Sissela Bok puts it: “Every government has an interest in concealment; every public in greater access to information.” For Felt, the most reliable channel to the public at that time was through the press.

Not to paint too noble a face on Felt. He was annoyed when Nixon passed him over and named Gray to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI. And in his own FBI role he had approved investigative actions that violated the civil rights of citizens. His motives for leaking information to Woodward and Bernstein may have been a personal grudge as much as a reverence for truth.

But Felt was risking his career, and he had no way of knowing how the story would end. He was heavily invested in the reporters’ promises to keep his name secret – a promise they kept for three decades.

Notably, the Watergate episode sparked nationwide interest in governmental openness, inspiring a trend toward public-records access and campaign-disclosure legislation. Yet even today, no federal shield law is in place to protect journalists like Woodward and Bernstein from having to identify anonymous sources. The proposal is under consideration, however, and more than 30 state attorneys general, including Washington’s Rob McKenna, have voiced support for it.

In Felt’s case, he pulled the curtain back himself, releasing the former Washington Post team from their pledge.

And while he may not have made the grade as a certifiable hero, neither was he a turncoat. In a country where final political authority rests with the people, exposing vital information to the light of day is an act of ultimate loyalty, and the First Amendment is there to facilitate it. Enactment of a federal shield law would demonstrate the government’s commitment to that principle.

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