If you can't get enough Deep Throat . . . | Bleader

If you can't get enough Deep Throat . . .

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William Sullivan
  • William Sullivan
A few weeks ago investigative reporter Max Holland came out with Leak, his revisionist look at the character and motives of Mark Felt, the onetime deputy associate director of the FBI—the number three job in the bureau. In 2005 Felt was revealed to be Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat," the highly placed secret source whose hints and nudges helped the two young Washington Post reporters get to the bottom of Watergate.

Though anyone with an ounce of romance in his soul would prefer to think of Deep Throat as a patriot with a keen sense of the dramatic, given to blowing the whistle on scoundrels in late-night meetings in parking lots, Leak advises us not to. To quote my April column on Holland's book, it makes the case that Felt's motives were "cynical and opportunistic." President Nixon had passed over Felt for the top job at the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, and Felt still wanted it. Secretly discrediting L. Patrick Gray, who was Nixon's choice as acting director, by leaking details of the FBI's own Watergate investigation, struck Felt as the way to go.

"Felt held the news media in contempt," wrote Holland, "and was neither a high-minded whistle-blower, nor was he genuinely concerned about defending his institution’s integrity. He was not even hopelessly embittered—just calculating.”

With publication, Holland's interest in Felt, Watergate, and the Post has not abated, and he occasionally writes to pass along things he's turned up. The other day he sent two letters written shortly after Hoover died. They were written by Bill Sullivan, Felt's predecessor as deputy associate director, to former assistant attorney general Robert Mardian. They come from Mardian's papers at the Hoover Institution and were dug up there by Dr. Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University.

No friend of Felt's was Sullivan, but his equal as a schemer. In Leak, Holland puts it this way, and the italics are his:

"William Sullivan framed Mark Felt. This is the thread, if pulled, that unravels the mystery of Deep Throat's motive."

Framed him how?

Sullivan wanted Hoover's job, and his problem was that he lacked the patience to wait for Hoover to die. In August 1971 he sent Hoover a letter that—to quote Leak—"said bluntly that Hoover had lost his grip and the Bureau was suffering as a result." Hoover fired him. Sullivan came back to work from his annual leave to discover not only that he'd been moved out of his office but that, at the suggestion of Felt, his replacement, "even the locks on the file cabinets in Sullivan's former office had been changed."

But Sullivan still had friends in high places and he wasn't gone for good. In August 1972 he took the job of director of the Justice Department's new Office of National Narcotics Intelligence, and was soon "inundating his old administration ally on internal security issues, Robert Mardian . . . with letters extolling his own qualifications and ideas for the Bureau's top job." By now Mardian had left Justice and had a high post in the Committee to Reelect the President.

As Holland tells the story, Felt realized when Sullivan came back to town that his quest to undermine Gray had just got a lot more complicated. For one thing, Sullivan was smart enough to figure out who'd been leaking the FBI's Watergate files. Second, Sullivan was a rival candidate for Gray's job and Gray was even thinking about bringing him back into the Bureau.

"It was one thing to leak particulars about the break-in that were meant only to infuriate the White House and prove Pat Gray inept," Holland writes. "It would be another to foment disclosures aimed at discrediting William Sullivan. That task would involve divulging the administration's innermost secrets."

To summarize, Felt's lust for the FBI's top job led him to try to undermine Gray and Sullivan while Sullivan's own lust for the same job led him to try to undermine Felt and butter up Gray. "Never at a loss for ideas," Holland writes, "Sullivan gave Gray a host of suggestions about everything from reorganizing the Bureau's divisions to guidelines for the discipline of individual agents. He openly advocated the resumption of 'black-bag jobs,' that is, surreptitious and illegal searches by FBI agents, telling Gray the Bureau had some 'very good talent in that regard."

Sullivan won, Leak tells us. First Sullivan leaked, to a New York Times reporter, details of reporters being wiretapped at White House orders. By the time the story ran in May 1973, Gray was out. So up to a point Felt's campaign had worked. But then Gray's replacement as interim head of the FBI got a call from someone who claimed to be the Times reporter who'd broken the wiretap story. The caller, whoever he actually was, said Felt had been his source. It wasn't true. But because Felt was already under suspicion, in June 1973 he had to resign under fire from the FBI.

And the mystery unraveled how? I asked Holland.

He replied, "First I realized that Sullivan had successfully framed Felt, and derailed his career, for a leak that Sullivan was responsible for. It dawned on me then that perhaps Felt had played that same game against Sullivan, that is, he had been the source of leaks designed to injure Sullivan . . . and then I realized perhaps that tactic explained Felt's leaks to Woodward, except those were largely designed to hurt Gray."

It's a tangled tale, and there are no heroes. The two letters from Sullivan to Mardian are a small piece of the mosaic. They show Sullivan pursuing his agenda to praise Gray and shiv Felt. Links to PDFs of both are below.

One shows him commenting on a New York Times story about big changes Gray was planning to make in the FBI's policies and methods of operation. "Bob, Thank God. At long last it has happened. Change, progress, efficiency becomes possible. Granted it is long overdue but now it is here."

And a few lines down he knifes Felt.

"I am glad Mr. Gray is bringing in some outsiders in his own office. Very, very wise. I assume from this he realized that some of top men in the Bureau for years won't hesitate, if it serves there purpose to cover up and withhold things from Mr. Gray and also give him some poor advice. I am told he asked Felt about liason with other agencies and Felt replied all was well and what is is right. If this is the case his reply is a damn lie and you know it as well as I do . . . "

The other letter tears into Felt. "Felt was one of my mistakes," Sullivan told Mardian. "Years ago I use to lecture regularly at the Command and Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas and usually gave a speech in Kansas City on the trip. Felt was the head of our Kansas City, MO office at the time. He never did up any of our big and important offices for he was regarded as quite limited in ability and a medium size office was his level . . ."

But as a favor to Felt, Sullivan asked Hoover to give Felt a shot in Washington. "He did reasonably well handling inspections but he is a weak personality and definitely is not a leader of men. The men laugh at him behind his back for his 'apple-polishing', his penchant for saying 'yes' to all the 'powers' even when it means contradicting himself with impunity. The fellow has no strength of character and it is too bad he is in the position he is but this I guess is largely my fault . . . "

Sullivan then tells Mardian what he thinks Mardian needs to know about Felt's wife, describing hers as a "menace to good relations" who's "obsessed with social climbing and all the 'ills' related to it."

Holland doesn't buy all this. He doesn't believe Sullivan got Felt a job in Washington even though he considered him a second-rater. Holland says in an e-mail, "He probably thought highly of him and believed he would be loyal in return as Sullivan sought to fulfill his ambition. That's how the Bureau worked (and probably still does to an extent): you were supposed to remain loyal to the exec (your 'rabbi') who did you favors, protected you, insured your promotions."

Holland continues, "Where I do find Sullivan credible is when he predicts Felt might cover up, withhold information, and give interim director Pat Gray bad advice. Here Sullivan is spot on, for all those things did in fact happen."

The movie All the President's Men invited us to think of Deep Throat as a stand-up guy who couldn't stomach what was happening to his country. Bill Sullivan wanted Mardian to think of Felt as a weakling and second-rater whose men snickered at him behind his back. We don't have to take either caricature seriously.

Incidentally, in 1977 Sullivan was shot to death while hunting in New Hampshire. It was officially called an accident. But years later, in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote this:

"Bill told me [in a conversation with Sullivan after Hoover died] I probably would read about his death in some kind of accident but not to believe it. It would be murder."

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