Political Hay

It Felt Wrong

Honor, betrayal, and Agent Deep Throat.

By 6.7.05

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One of the striking things about press coverage of the unmasking of Watergate's "Deep Throat" has been that, while there have been multiple suggestions of a real debate about whether Mark Felt's actions in revealing confidential FBI information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post were admirable or not, there have been remarkably few spokesmen for the point of view that they were not. Pat Buchanan, it's true, unabashedly called Felt "a snake," but his was a lonely voice. In the Post itself, Dan Eggen wrote that the revelation "has come as a shock to many retired and current agents at the FBI, some of whom say they are discomfited" -- like most journalists who use this word, Eggen means "made uncomfortable" and not defeated, routed or balked in their purposes, which is its actual meaning -- "by a senior FBI executive leaking details of an investigation to the press. In some chat rooms frequented by retired FBI veterans, Felt is even being accused of betraying the bureau." But Eggen doesn't quote anybody who makes such an accusation, and those he does quote seem to be of the opinion of Paul V. Daly, a former agent who thought that Felt had acted "for a noble purpose" but that he himself was "not sure whether he approves of the methods."

Fox News Sunday staged what it billed as a debate on the subject between Richard Ben-Veniste and Gordon Liddy, but even Mr. Liddy appeared to have little to say in response to Mr. Ben-Veniste's assertion that Felt's snitching on his White House bosses was nothing more than a demonstration that he owed his loyalty to the Constitution rather than the president. This, said Mr. Ben-Veniste, was "the difference between a democratic country and a banana republic." There is some truth in this contention, but if I had been Mr. Liddy, I would have replied that it is more precisely the difference between a system based on law and ethics, like that of America's democracy, and a system based on custom and honor, like that of most banana republics. But this does not mean that a system based on law and ethics is therefore able completely to disregard any questions of honor.

In the case of "Deep Throat," for instance, though Mark Felt may have acted in accordance with the demands of law and ethics -- we'll come back to that question in a moment -- the lingering sense that there was something dirty or disreputable about his action is largely owing to a sense of institutional honor that we have largely lost the vocabulary even to talk about. That's why even those who feel that sense most strongly may be reluctant to talk about it or to condemn Mark Felt more openly. For the same reason it is extraordinarily difficult to get those who belong to a body of men bound by a strong sense of institutional honor, such as a police force or a military unit, to give up to the authorities one of their number who may have acted illegally. In theory there is no reason why they should not do so, but in practice we know they often don't -- because the same sense of loyalty to their fellow officers or soldiers which makes them effective as a unit militates against it.

The FBI is that kind of organization too, and it would be surprising if there were not stronger feelings about Mr. Felt's behavior among agents both active and retired even than Mr. Eggen hints at. It is almost never mentioned anymore, except by people like Ben Stein, that Richard Nixon's paranoia about internal threats to American security in the early 1970s were not merely fanciful, and that if he or his agents sometimes went too far in attempting to forestall them, the FBI was or ought to have been on his side rather that of those who committed or sought to commit even greater excesses in the pursuit of their anti-war and very often explicitly anti-American activities. Nor was it a mistake for Nixon's supporters to regard the Watergate affair and all those such as Mr. Felt who were instrumental in making it what it was as being objectively useful to those who opposed not only America's purposes in Southeast Asia and in the Cold War but the Constitution to which Mr. Felt's supporters now say he owed a higher loyalty. And that's to say nothing of what their activities cost those in Southeast Asia itself who were subsequently sent to death or re-education camps on account of America's abandonment of their cause.

But let's say that Mr. Nixon and others were wrong, and that there was no real, no serious threat to the Constitution. Let us go further and say that Felt would have been fully justified if he had offered his help to any duly constituted authority, such as the courts or the Congress, rather than a couple of journalists who got rich off his revelations. There was certainly no shortage of Nixon's opponents in those areas, any more than there was in the press, who would have prevented him from being stifled or punished. No, Felt did what he did and in the way that he did it because he himself was ashamed of his actions -- either because he was conscious of having disreputable motives (he was said to be resentful about not getting the top job at the FBI) or just because anyone who has ever been a part of an organization like the FBI instinctively feels the shame of being thought by his colleagues to be a rat. That's obviously what he meant by saying that he had been silent for so long because of his fear that he would "bring dishonor on his family." For him now to have allowed himself to be browbeaten by his revolting family into thinking, quite falsely, that what he did was honorable just so that they could cash in on his fame -- or notoriety -- before he dies is pitiable. Yet we can't help feeling that there is also something appropriate about it. Judas only really becomes Judas when he finally accepts the 30 pieces of silver.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.