David Warsh: Watergate lessons for the last days of the 2016 election


It has become an article of faith among many Democrats that FBI Director James Comey’s letter last Oct. 28 disclosing that agents had discovered one last trove of unexamined e-mails, cost Hillary Clinton the election. Clinton herself said as much last week: “If the election had been on Oct. 27, I would be your president.”

The New York Times had lent support few days before, in a lead story running across four full inside pages, “In Trying to Avoid Politics, Comey Shaped an Election”. And last week, statistician Nate Silver weighed in with a lengthy analysis, “The Comey Letter probably Cost Clinton the Election.”

This view is almost certainly mistaken. Let me explain why I think so. The argument begins with the Watergate affair, and the cloak of protection that, without quite meaning to, The Washington Post threw over the FBI after June 1973.


If you are like most people, what you remember about Watergate is an Academy Award-winning film, All the President’s Men, and, in particular, actor Hal Holbrook role as “Deep Throat,’’ the high-ranking government official “trying to protect the office [of the presidency]” from the Nixon White House’s lawless ways.  Parking garages have never seemed the same since. 

It turns out that the real Deep Throat was not like the tormented, principled whistle-blower that Holbrook portrayal. Instead, it was FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, who provided guidance to reporter Bob Woodward in exchange for a promise of lifelong confidentiality.  J. Edgar Hoover had died in May 1972, and Felt considered that he deserved to replace him. Instead, Nixon appointed an outsider, L. Patrick Gray III. Felt was out to get Gray. He never intended to bring down the administration. 

This information is not to be found in the 1974 best-seller that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate stories, also called All the President’s Men, still less in director Alan Pakula’s film.   Only 30 years later, when an increasingly senescent Felt publish an account, in Vanity Fair, of the role he played in the affair, were the reporters freed from the promise of lifetime confidentiality given Felt in exchange for his periodic guidance.  Woodward followed with his own account, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, in 2006.  Even then, he muddied this issue, ascribing a complexity to Felt’s motivation that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  As for the difficulty of sorting things out at the time, Woodward wrote:

“With a story as enticing, complex, and competitive and quickly unfolding as Watergate, there was little tendency or time to consider the motives of our sources.  What was important was whether the information checked out and whether it was true…. The cliché about drinking from a fire hose was true.  There was no time to ask our sources, Why are you talking? Do you have an ax to grind? Why don’t you blow the whistle publicly, stand up there and tell all you know? This was the case with Mark Felt.

  “ .…His words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering, authority.  The weight, authenticity, and restraint were more important than his design, if he had one.’’

To their credit, Woodward and Bernstein sought to badger Felt into going on the record in 1973, first when they disclosed the existence of “a wary informer” in a New York magazine story about the Watergate saga by a friend, then by contributing, anonymously but identifiably to close readers, to a story by star Washington Post reporter Laurence Stern, “Bureau Hurt by Watergate.”  The past year had seen develop “a form of guerrilla warfare against the administration from within the ranks of the FBI,” wrote Stern.

“Reporters who covered the case acknowledge the role of [FBI] agents in opening up the initial peep-holes in the cover-up façade some administration officials were trying to erect.’’

“’It wasn’t a matter of getting rancorous leaks dumped in your lap,”’ said one Watergate reportorial specialist.  ‘You’d have to go to them and say, what about this or what about that?  They’d respond, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ I can think of one guy in the Bureau without whom we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

Felt declined to take the suggestion, despite the fact that his role had already been discovered by the White House.  Indeed, he had been unceremoniously forced into retirement between the New York magazine and Stern stories. He ignored the hint that going public might be good for his reputation.  Instead he continued to advise Woodward a little while longer, and artfully denied speculation whenever he was asked about his role. 

Then came the book, the first anyone had ever heard of Post editors’ nickname for “the wary informer,” followed by the movie, establishing Deep Throat as a mythic figure – a truth-teller in Richard Nixon’s war against the system of justice. Official Washington lost interest in the specifics. The task of identifying Deep Throat shifted to a platoon of independent sleuths.

All this is laid out in satisfying detail in Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, an excellent book published by the University of Kansas Press in 2012, which finally appeared in a paperback edition last year. Author Max Holland, an independent journalist, produced a taut if linear account of what was learned, and when, by all the interested parties about Felt’s role in Watergate.  He was greatly aided by the White House tapes.  For anyone who savored the Watergate story at the time, the book is deeply satisfying. 

“Contrary to the widely held perception that The Washington Post ‘uncovered’ Watergate,” wrote Holland, “the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI’s investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors’ case well in advance of the trial.”  This was, he acknowledges, a tremendous public service.  But The Post never followed up to establish that their key breaks in the story stemmed from a succession war in the FBI.

Nor did The New York Timespursue the matter, despite having gradually taken over eventual leadership on the Watergate story. Their major phase on the story began in May 1973, when John Crewdson first reported – thanks to Felt – the existence of wire taps of severalreporters and former aides to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that had been ordered by the White House.  

Marveling at the newspapers’ willingness to print the legend of Felt’s public spirited truth-telling rather than explore his motives, Holland concluded in 2012 that the damage done was no longer to an individual (Patrick Gray, who resigned in disgrace after admitting to destroying documents in the wake of the Watergate burglary) or to the FBI itself, but rather “to history, to public understanding….”

“Felt’s success in manipulating the media is a cautionary tale, and one that remains a potent lesson even now, forty years later.  While he clearly contributed to Richard Nixon’s undoing, that was not his original intent.  More broadly, Felt’s machinations make the history of Watergate, and how the scandal brought Nixon down, considerably messier and less of a fairy tale.’’

Alas, Leak was not reviewed either by The Post or by The Times.  Thus Woodward and his editors’ reputations have not suffered the modest write-downs that Holland’s account requires.  The story of the FBI meltdown after 1972 and its subsequent internal efforts to repair its integrity and credibility are not widely understood.  Journalists for the most part have been unprepared for the possibilities for mischief in FBI ranks – most, but not all reporters.


What roles did leaks play in the 2016 election?  None, actually, and therein lies the story of Director Comey’s letter of Oct.  28. Three days before the director’sannouncement, former New York Mayor RudolphGiuliani, an adviser to Donald Trump, said on Fox News that the campaign had “a couple of surprises” in store.  The day after, Trump told a Colorado crowd, “I’ll bet you without any knowledge there was as revolt in the FBI.”

In fact, reporter Devlin Barrett, of The Wall Street Journal, on Oct. 31, described an intricate argument within the FBI, and between FBI leadership and Obama’s Justice Department, as some agents sought to refocus the investigation on the Clinton Foundation after the probe of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices wrapped up.  Four FBI field offices – New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Little Rock – had been investigating charges of influence-peddling for most of the year. 

Fierce arguments had taken place. Some agents felt they had been all but ordered to shut down what was considered an adequately predicated investigation. No mention was made of that the lengthy Times story two weeks ago, even though The Times in November had corroborated and extended somewhat the WSJ account.  Meanwhile, reporter Barrett has left the WSJ for The Post.  It seems that someone in Washington has absorbed the lessons of Leak.

Mutiny was brewing in the FBI in the weeks before the election.  If Comey hadn’t gone public, rebellious agents would have, with leaks – probably with even more disruptive results.  In other words, the FBI director made the best of a bad hand. In congressional hearings last week, Comey acknowledged that the FBI was investigating itself. “If I find out that people were leaking information about our investigations, whether to reporters or private parties, there will be severe consequences.” 

It wasn’t Comey who cost Clinton the election.  It was Trump adviser Steve Bannon and the Mercer family, who funded the publication of Clinton Cash Machine, by Peter Schweizer, and a movie based on it, which in turn apparently formed the basis of the second FBI investigation. Let’s hope that the story is illuminated sooner than the Deep Throat yarn. It’s time for Democrats to stop scapegoating Comey and Russian hackers and get on with the business of choosing new leaders.

David Warsh is a veteran financial and political writer and economic historian and proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran. He and the editor of New England Diary, Robert Whitcomb, worked at The Wall Street Journal during Watergate.