FBI Cleared W. Mark Felt of Watergate Leaks


An internal FBI investigation in the midst of the Watergate saga was unable to find evidence that W. Mark Felt had been a source for the Washington Post‘s stories about the Nixon scandal, three former senior FBI officials now say.

News that the onetime second-ranking official at the bureau was essentially cleared of having leaked to the Post may seem improbable, in that not only Felt and his family but also the newspaper have recently confirmed that he was Deep Throat.

But new details uncovered by the Voice appear to support a growing body of evidence that rather than acting alone, Felt worked in concert with, or perhaps even as the lead of, a band of then top FBI officials who sought to give details of the FBI’s Watergate investigation to the press as a means of keeping the Nixon White House at bay while the investigation proceeded.

The fresh information suggests that the FBI was openly in revolt against the administration, and that the agents involved would have leaked what they knew about Watergate to any reporter willing to listen.

Paul V. Daly, a former high-ranking FBI manager, told the Voice he had personal relationships with the people involved. “These were men determined to protect the integrity of the FBI as an institution and to protect the integrity of a criminal investigation,” he said. “I don’t agree with what they did, but I believe they had a noble purpose.”

Daly began telling his story in an extraordinary but little-noticed June 6 article in the Albany Times Union He said that three other senior officials had worked closely with Felt in devising and carrying out a strategy of leaking sensitive information from the Watergate investigation–to the Post and other news outlets. Daly told the newspaper that Richard Long, chief of the FBI’s white-collar crimes section then, told him in 1978 of his own role and those of other senior officials.

If Daly’s account is correct, Deep Throat was less a single individual than a committee of sorts.

The disclosure that Felt was possibly working as the leader of a group of other senior FBI agents may be of a magnitude equal to or even greater than the recent revelation that Felt was Deep Throat.

Surprisingly, the nation’s major newspapers, most notably the Washington Post, have been silent about these new revelations. If true, they would appear to diminish the historical credit due to the Post and its star reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In a June 1 article confirming Felt as Deep Throat, the Post did note that the mystery over the source’s identity may have amplified Felt’s importance. “Felt’s role in all this can be overstated,” Bernstein told the paper. “[W]e didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions. You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources.”

A retired agent who worked on the Watergate matter in the Washington Field Office, and who said he had no first-hand knowledge of Felt and others specifically leaking to the press, told the Voice that street agents working the Watergate case had long suspected a scenario such as the one Daly described. “That it was Felt came as no surprise to those of us who worked this,” he said. “And neither should it come as a surprise to anyone that others were working with Felt in some coordinated matter. They were going to protect our ability to do the job. And if it wasn’t the Post, they would have gone somewhere else.”

The investigation into whether Felt was Deep Throat was described to the Voice by Daly, who headed FBI field offices in North Carolina and Albany, New York; a second former FBI official familiar with the investigation and its findings; and a third retired FBI agent who said he himself had been a subject of the probe.

The effort was led by Harold Bassett, then the assistant director of the FBI’s inspection division. Nixon and his aides were angered and frustrated by leaks from the FBI’s Watergate investigation, and even discussed the possibility that Felt was the source of them, according to White House tapes of the era.

L. Patrick Gray III, then the acting FBI director, was also assisting the Nixon White House in the Watergate coverup. According to one published account, Gray once convened a meeting of the 26 FBI agents who worked on the Watergate investigation full-time and berated them for “suffering from flap jaw.”

Later, Gray directed that Bassett delve into whether Felt or others were leaking Watergate information, although Felt was a main target. Daly and the others also said that Bassett was unable to find enough evidence to show that Felt was Deep Throat.

“They looked at specific information that was leaked to the Post,” Daly told me, “and they looked at whether Felt had actually seen the actual teletypes that contained the material. And there was no paper trail that he had. That is why they cleared Felt.”

Another retired FBI agent who was also suspected of being a potential leak and was investigated similarly said: “I was under suspicion, but there was just too much that was appearing in print that I wasn’t privy to. The agents [conducting the investigation] were frustrated because there did not seem to appear to be a single person who had access to everything.”

That Felt was cleared lends additional credence to Daly’s claim that Felt worked with other senior FBI officials in leaking Watergate details to the press. Daly points out that the information Felt provided to the Post, and perhaps other papers, was material that Felt would not ordinarily have had access to unless he was being briefed by other senior FBI officials.

The Times Union account first quoted Daly as saying that “during the height of the Watergate investigation . . . three high-ranking FBI officials conspired with the agency’s deputy director to leak information about their probe to the press. . . .

“The FBI officials met regularly in their Washington D.C., offices to
discuss what information they would reveal to fuel media interest. . . .”

Daly identified those who attended the meetings with Felt, then FBI deputy director, as Richard Long, chief of the FBI’s white collar crimes section; Robert G. Kunkel, special-agent-in-charge, or SAC, of the Washington field office of the FBI; and Charles Bates, then assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division.

It is all but impossible to independently verify Daly’s account because Long, Kunkel, and Bates have all died.

Felt, of course, is still yet to be heard from, and it is unclear whether, at 91, he remembers much about events that occurred more than 30 years ago.

But Daly’s account can hardly be dismissed because of the lack of corroboration. He is a highly respected 30-year veteran of the FBI. In interviews over the last several days with several former senior FBI officials, not a single one had a bad thing to say about him.

John J. McDermott, the special-agent-in-charge of the Washington field office of the FBI, between October 1972 and May, 1974—during most of the Watergate period—told me in an interview that he had no firsthand information that senior FBI officials worked with Felt to tip off the media. And he said their behavior was “disgraceful” if they in fact did leak.

But he had only kind words for Daly: “Paul Daly was a very bright and straight arrow, as I have met him and done business with him through the years. I am confident in saying that he is somebody that I and others can implicitly trust.”

Daly has said that Long first told him of his own role and that of other FBI officials in working with Felt in 1978. They were then preparing Felt for his trial on federal criminal charges of authorizing nine illegal break-ins of the homes and relatives of the Weather Underground, the leftist organization that bombed government buildings in protest of the Vietnam war. Daly wanted to know whether Felt might suffer any challenges to his credibility if Felt took the stand in his own defense.

Felt and Edward S. Miller, an assistant FBI director, were convicted of the charges after an eight-week trial. Both men were subsequently pardoned by President Reagan.

According to Daly, Long then explained how he, Kunkel, and Bates worked closely with Felt to decide what information should be leaked to keep the White House from interfering with the FBI.

During the crucial conversation with Long, Daly told me, Bassett, the assistant FBI director who conducted the investigation and who was also present, slyly smiled and said: “That son-of-a-gun. . . . That explains it.”

Daly told me he took that comment to mean Bassett was referring to the way Felt had escaped being found out in the probe.

Murray Waas will continue to write about Watergate and Mark Felt over the next several days on his blog:

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