In his role as “Deep Throat,” former FBI agent Mark Felt passed information to the Washington Post and helped reveal the Watergate scandal — when men connected to the Nixon White House burgled and wiretapped the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 — as well as other episodes of corruption in the Nixon era.
However, the concept of Deep Throat has often overshadowed the real man. With the biopic Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, starring Liam Neeson, opening on September 29, here’s more about who he truly was: before, during and after his time as Deep Throat.
When Felt met Woodward
Mark Felt and Bob Woodward met years before the younger man was a reporter at the Washington Post. In his 2005 book about Felt, The Secret Man, Woodward recounted that in 1970, when he was still in the Navy, he encountered Felt while bringing documents to the White House. The two conversed, and Felt gave Woodward his contact information. The FBI agent would provide the younger man with career advice and tips on other stories before the Watergate scandal erupted and Felt’s inside information helped transform Woodward into one of the world’s most famous reporters.
Mark Felt photographed in 1958.
The FBI directorship
In 1972, Felt was a loyal lieutenant to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI; after Hoover passed away in May, Felt hoped to be appointed FBI director. Instead, Richard Nixon selected L. Patrick Gray III — who had little relevant experience but was considered loyal to the president — to be acting director. Felt was dismayed, and went on to chafe under Gray’s leadership (such as disapproving of his new boss’s decision to recruit female agents to the Bureau). It’s possible that this disappointment — and a hope of ousting Gray so he could step into the directorship himself — spurred Felt to leak information and become Deep Throat.
Suspected by the White House
While passing information post-Watergate, Felt not only demanded clandestine meetings, he tried to cover his tracks by overseeing an investigation into leaks. But some at the White House still came to believe Felt was the leaker: On October 19, 1972, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, told the President that Felt could be the source because he’d wanted to become head of the FBI. However, Haldeman also cautioned, “If we move on him he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.” For the time, Felt would stay in place.
It was an accusation of leaking that prompted Felt to resign from the Bureau in May 1973 — but this time he wasn’t actually the leaker. As recounted in Max Holland’s 2012 book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, William Ruckelshaus (the FBI’s new acting director, who’d stepped into the role after Gray) received a call that purportedly came from New York Times reporter John Crewdson. “Crewdson” informed Ruckelshaus that Felt was his source for a recent story; Ruckelshaus confronted Felt, who proclaimed his innocence and ended up indignantly submitting his resignation. Crewdson admitted to Holland that his source had actually died in 1977, and stated he’d never phoned Ruckelshaus — meaning Felt was brought down by a leak he hadn’t been responsible for.
Mark Felt (right) gets well wishes from FBI agents as he leaves US District court after pleading innocent to federal charges involving alleged illegal wiretaps in the investigation of Weatherman terrorists.
(Photo: Bettmann Contributor/Getty Images)
Felt on trial
Being Deep Throat was risky, but Felt never faced any charges for his role. However, other actions he’d taken at the FBI ended up placing him in judicial jeopardy. Felt had pursued the Weather Underground, a radical group believed responsible for planting bombs. In July 1972 he’d received instructions from Gray that read: “Hunt to exhaustion. No holds barred.” Felt went on to authorize agents to break into the homes of people connected to members of the organization. These break-ins resulted in Felt being indicted in 1978; he went on trial in 1980.
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Support from Nixon
During his trial, Felt had an unexpected supporter: former President Nixon. Felt’s defense claimed that the break-ins had been in the interests of national security, and Nixon backed this in his testimony (at the time, Nixon likely no longer suspected Felt of being Deep Throat, as new leaks had come out even after Felt’s resignation from the FBI). Though Felt was convicted in the fall of 1980, President Ronald Reagan pardoned him after taking office in 1981; Nixon subsequently sent Felt champagne to celebrate.
The Deep Throat reveal
Over the years, people continued to speculate about Deep Throat’s true identity. As someone who’d had access to FBI files and the Nixon White House, Felt was a natural suspect — but he always denied his involvement when asked (he also didn’t appreciate the fact that the nickname came from a hit porn film). Yet in 2005, Felt and his family decided to reveal his identity. Felt, who was then in his 90s, got to tell his side of the story before it was too late — and was able to provide his family with any income that resulted from the public announcement.
Liam Neeson as Mark Felt and Julian Morris as Bob Woodward in ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.’
(Photo: Bob Mahoney, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
What motivated Felt
With Felt outed as Deep Throat, his motives were analyzed once more. Was he simply resentful about being passed over for a promotion? How could he judge the Nixon White House when his own actions had crossed lines? In the end, Felt’s love for the FBI is the most likely explanation. Felt’s son once stated, “He believed in the F.B.I. more than anything else he believed in in his life.” However complex Felt’s motivations — as Woodward himself noted, “There is no such thing as a perfect source” — he helped protect the independence of the FBI and the American system of justice.