On at least four occasions (twice on television and twice on the radio) during the last week, I’ve had to endure listening to dominant media outlets host debates on whether or not Mark Felt was “a hero” for feeding Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward with information on the notorious Watergate break-in of June 1972, when four spies working for the Richard Nixon re-election campaign were caught burglarizing the Democratic Party’s headquarters.
These debates seemed to suggest that Felt is a hero of “the left,” assigning Republicans the role of denying Felt’s goodness.
Felt, a hero? God, no…at least not from this (mine) left perspective, at least. For one thing, the “hero” designation accepts the wrongheaded notion that the Watergate revelations were “heroic” in the first place.
They weren’t. The amateurish Watergate operation, as Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman pointed out in 1988, was a relatively small sin compared to other crimes more professionally committed by the Nixon administration. Those other transgressions included the “secret bombing” of Cambodia, which killed possibly 200,000 people and terribly damaged a poor peasant nation, and the undertaking of a massive FBI operation to undermine basic democratic freedoms at home.
The Nixon administration was involved in the flat out Nazi-style assassination of a leading Black Panther (Fred Hampton), the sparking of racial disturbances to discredit the black power movement, numerous murderous attacks on the American Indian Movement, and numerous acts of infiltration, burglary, and illegal espionage against radical organizations like the Weather Underground and the Socialist Workers Party. See among other documents, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Hall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (South End Press, 1988).
In “comparison to [all] this” [and I didn’t even mention the Nixon administration’s murderous schemes against the sovereign and democratically elected Allende government in Chile], Chomsky noted in 1990, “Watergate is a tea party.” (Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, New Press, 2002, p. 118).
Why all the attention to the Watergate break-in compared to that “other” stuff? By Chomsky and Herman’s analysis in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988), “powerful groups” like the Democratic Party “are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by [American corporate] media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether.” (p. 300)
For Chomsky and Herman, the disparity between the media’s obsession with Watergate and its relative disinterest in, say, the carpet bombing of Cambodia or the destruction of domestic opposition groups was a textbook example of the corporate media’s servility to state power. Truly “heroic” revelations and media coverage would have attended to the infinitely greater crimes committed against Cambodia, AIM, Chile, and the Black Panthers.
I agree with Greg Palast when he writes the following:
“Every time I say investigative reporting is dead or barely breathing in the USA, some little smartass will challenge me, ‘What about Watergate? Huh?’ Hey, buddy, the Watergate investigation was 32 years ago -- that means it’s been nearly a third of a century since the Washington Post has printed a big investigative scoop.”
“The Post today would never run the Watergate story: a hidden source versus official denial. Let’s face it, Bob Woodward, now managing editor at the Post, has gone from ‘All the President’s Men’ to becoming the President’s Man -- Bush at War. Ugh!”
“And now the Post is considering further restrictions on the use of confidential sources --no more ‘Deep Throats.’”
“Despite its supposed new concern for hidden sources, let’s note that Newsweek and the Post have no trouble providing, even in the midst of this story, cover for secret Administration sources that are FAVORABLE to Bush. Editor Whitaker’s retraction relies on ‘Administration officials’ whose names he kindly withholds.”
“In other words, unnamed sources are OK if they defend Bush, unacceptable if they expose the Administration’s mendacity or evil.” (Greg Palast, “Cowardice in Journalism Award for Newsweek,” June 2, 2005)
Still, we should go deeper than Palast to the Chomsky and Herman level. It’s not just that Watergate is more than three decades old and that dominant media no longer practices the sort of tough investigative journalism that helped produce the Watergate story. The problem is also that Watergate wasn’t even close to the worst thing done by the Nixon administration and that the servile press is still patted on the back for “unseating a government” with revelations about a clumsy break-in that was conducted with unclear motives and no apparent direct presidential involvement (Nixon’s illegalities had to do with his efforts to cover up the subsequent investigation) against the other leading US business party. The Nixon administration should have been unseated as a result of revelations about much worse criminal activity directed at less powerful others at home and abroad.
The second reason not to consider Felt a hero is that he was a leading agent in the broader American repressive state criminality of the Watergate era. The de facto number two at the FBI for a period (thanks to the frequent illness of J. Edgar Hoover’s lover Clyde Tolson) in the early 1970s, Felt was actually a leading architect of the Bureau’s infamous COINTELPRO operation, the federal government’s domestic spying-and-burglary campaign against the domestic American antiwar and black and Native American left. A G-man’s G-man, Felt was convicted in 1980 of authorizing nine illegal entries in New Jersey in 1972 and 1973.
Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins during the very same time that he was so “heroically” opening his “Deep Throat” for Bob Woodward in a Washington DC parking garage!
And guess what? “In a strange footnote to history,” the Washington Post reported last week, “Richard M. Nixon unwittingly testified on behalf of Deep Throat in a federal court trial in October 1980 -- six years after Nixon was forced to resign as president because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal.” Nixon testified, in other words, in support of Felt, in the trial that led to Felt’s conviction.
Is that wild or what?
Felt must have been happy when Ronald Reagan got elected (possibly with some help from Republican Party hostage release shenanigans in Iran) in 1980. Felt got pardoned later that same year by Reagan, who (by the way) would face a smaller scandal because his administration “was found to have violated congressional prerogatives during the Iran-contra affair” but NOT “when it dismissed with contempt the judgment of the International Court of Justice that the United States was engaged in the ‘unlawful use of force’ and violation of treaties . . . in its attack against Nicaragua” (Chomsky and Herman, p. 300). Isn’t history fun?
Then, finally, there’s the issue of Felt’s motivation, past and present. In 1973, his motive appears to have been retribution for having been passed over by Nixon for the top FBI job. Heartfelt concern for the fate of the democratic republic does not appear to have been the driving force, considering his illegal operations in New Jersey and (no doubt) elsewhere. Today, the best guess is that his main goal is to get some money out of it all for his surviving family members before he dies.
Maybe he is also trying to go down (no pun intended) in history as Deep Throat instead of the high placed hack who Nixon passed over and Regan pardoned.
Paul Street is
the author of Empire and Inequality:
From Watergate to Downing Street -- Lying for War by Norman Solomon
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