Felt to Woodward: Secrecy at All Cost
On Saturday, June 17, 1972, the FBI night supervisor called then-Deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt at home. Five men in business suits, pockets stuffed with $100 bills and carrying eavesdropping and photographic equipment, had been arrested inside the Democrats’ national headquarters at the Watergate office building earlier at about 2:30 a.m.
By 8:30 a.m., Felt was in his office at the FBI, seeking more details. About the same time, the Washington Post’s city editor woke me at home and asked me to come in to cover an unusual burglary.
The first paragraph of the front-page story that ran the next day in the Post read: “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”
The next day, Carl Bernstein and I wrote our first article together, identifying one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., as the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee. On Monday, I went to work on E. Howard Hunt, whose telephone number had been found in the address books of two of the burglars with the small notations “W. House” and “W.H.” by his name.
This was the moment when a source or friend in the investigative agencies of government is invaluable. I called Felt at the FBI, reaching him through his secretary. It would be our first talk about Watergate. (Editor’s note: Woodward had met Felt two years earlier when he was a young naval officer, and had kept in touch with the FBI official as he began his career as a journalist in Washington.)
He reminded me how he disliked phone calls at the office, but said that the Watergate burglary case was going to “heat up” for reasons he could not explain. He then hung up abruptly.
I was tentatively assigned to write the next day’s Watergate bugging story, but I was not sure I had anything. Carl had the day off. I picked up the phone and dialed 456-1414 -- the White House -- and asked for Howard Hunt. There was no answer, but the operator helpfully said he might be in the office of Charles W. Colson, Nixon’s special counsel. Colson’s secretary said Hunt was not there that moment but might be at a public relations firm where he worked as a writer. I called and reached Hunt and asked why his name was in the address book of two of the Watergate burglars.
“Good God!” Hunt shouted before slamming down the phone. I called the president of the public relations firm, Robert F. Bennett, who is now a Republican U.S. senator from Utah. “I guess it’s no secret that Howard was with the CIA,” Bennett said blandly.
It had been a secret to me, and a CIA spokesman confirmed that Hunt had been with the agency from 1949 to 1970. I called Felt again at the FBI. Colson, White House, CIA, I said. What did I have? Anyone could have someone’s name in an address book. I wanted to be careful about guilt by association.
Felt sounded nervous. He said off the record -- meaning I could not use the information -- that Hunt was a prime suspect in the burglary at the Watergate for many reasons beyond the address books. So reporting the connections forcefully would not be unfair.
Following the Money
In July, Carl went to Miami, home of four of the burglars, on the money trail and ingeniously tracked down a local prosecutor and his chief investigator who had copies of $89,000 in Mexican checks and a $25,000 check that had gone into the account of Bernard L. Barker, one of the burglars. We were able to establish that the $25,000 check had been campaign money that had been given to Maurice H. Stans, Nixon’s chief fundraiser, on a Florida golf course. The Aug. 1 story on this was the first to tie Nixon campaign money directly to Watergate.
I tried to call Felt, but he wouldn’t take the call. I tried his home in Virginia and had no better luck. So one night I showed up at his home. It was a plain vanilla, perfectly kept, everything-in-its-place suburban house. His manner made me nervous. He said no more phone calls, no more visits to his home, nothing in the open.
I did not know then that in Felt’s earliest days in the FBI, during World War II, he had been assigned to work on the general desk of the Espionage Section. He learned a great deal about German spying in the job, and after the war, Felt spent time keeping suspected Soviet agents under surveillance.
So at his home in Virginia that summer, Felt said that if we were to talk it would have to be face to face where no one could observe us.
I said anything would be fine with me.
We would need a preplanned notification system -- a change in the environment that no one else would notice or attach any meaning to. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
If you keep the drapes in your apartment closed, open them and that could signal me, he said. He could check each day or have them checked, and if they were open we could meet that night at a designated place. I liked to let the light in at times, I explained.
We needed another signal, he said, indicating that he could check my apartment regularly. He never explained how he could do this.
Feeling under some pressure, I said that I had a red cloth flag, less than a foot square -- the kind used as warnings on long truckloads -- that a girlfriend had found on the street. She had stuck it in an empty flowerpot on my apartment balcony.
Felt and I agreed that I would move the flowerpot with the flag, which usually was in the front near the railing, to the rear of the balcony if I needed an urgent meeting. This would have to be important and rare, he said sternly. The signal, he said, would mean we would meet that same night about 2 a.m. on the bottom level of an underground garage just over the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, Va.
Felt said I would have to follow strict counter-surveillance techniques. How did I get out of my apartment?
I walked out, down the hall and took the elevator.
Which takes you to the lobby? he asked.
Did I have back stairs to my apartment house?
Use them when you are heading for a meeting. Do they open into an alley?
Take the alley. Don’t use your own car. Take a taxi to several blocks from a hotel where there are cabs after midnight, get dropped off and then walk to get a second cab to Rosslyn. Don’t get dropped off directly at the parking garage. Walk the last several blocks. If you are being followed, don’t go down to the garage. I’ll understand if you don’t show. All this was like a lecture. The key was taking the necessary time -- one to two hours to get there. Be patient, serene. Trust the prearrangements. There was no fallback meeting place or time. If we both didn’t show, there would be no meeting.
Felt said that if he had something for me, he could get me a message. He quizzed me about my daily routine, what came to my apartment, the mailbox, etc. The Post was delivered outside my apartment door. I did have a subscription to the New York Times. A number of people in my apartment building near Dupont Circle got the Times. The copies were left in the lobby with the apartment number. Mine was No. 617, and it was written clearly on the outside of each paper in marker pen. Felt said if there was something important he could get to my New York Times -- how, I never knew. Page 20 would be circled and the hands of a clock in the lower part of the page would be drawn to indicate the time of the meeting that night, probably 2 a.m., in the same Rosslyn parking garage.
The relationship with him was a compact of trust; nothing about it was to be discussed or shared with anyone, he said.
How he could have made a daily observation of my balcony is still a mystery to me. At the time, the back of the building was not enclosed, so anyone could have driven in the back alley to observe my balcony. In addition, my balcony and the back of the apartment complex faced onto a courtyard or back area that was shared with a number of other apartment or office buildings in the area. My balcony could have been seen from dozens of apartments or offices as best I can tell.
A number of embassies were located in the area. The Iraqi Embassy was down the street, and I thought it possible that the FBI had surveillance or listening posts nearby. Could Felt have had the counterintelligence agents regularly report on the status of my flag and flowerpot? That seems highly unlikely, if not impossible.
In the course of this and other discussions, I was somewhat apologetic for plaguing him and being such a nag, but explained that we had nowhere else to turn. Carl and I had obtained a list of everyone who worked for Nixon’s reelection committee and were frequently going out into the night knocking on the doors of these people to try to interview them. I explained to Felt that we were getting lots of slammed doors in our faces. There also were lots of frightened looks. I was frustrated.
Felt said I should not worry about pushing him. He had done his time as a street agent, interviewing people. The FBI, like the press, had to rely on voluntary cooperation. Most people wanted to help the FBI, but the FBI knew about rejection. Felt perhaps tolerated my aggressiveness and pushy approach because he had been the same way himself when he was younger, once talking his way into an interview with former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and telling him of his ambition to become a special agent in charge of an FBI field office.
It was an unusual message, emphatically encouraging me to get in his face.
Motives Were Secondary
With a story as enticing, complex, competitive and fast-breaking 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.
I was thankful for any morsel of information, confirmation or assistance Felt gave me while Carl and I were attempting to understand the many-headed monster of Watergate. Because of his position virtually atop the chief investigative agency, his words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering, authority. The weight, authenticity and his restraint were more important than his design if he had one.
It was only later, after Nixon resigned, that I began to wonder why Felt had talked when doing so carried substantial risks for him and the FBI. Had he been exposed early on, Felt would have been no hero. Technically, it was illegal to talk about grand jury information or FBI files; or it could have been made to look illegal.
Felt believed he was protecting the bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the bureau for political reasons. The young eager-beaver patrol of White House underlings, best exemplified by John W. Dean III, were odious to him.
Felt’s reverence for Hoover and strict bureau procedure made L. Patrick Gray III’s appointment as FBI director all the more shocking. Felt obviously concluded he himself was Hoover’s logical successor.
And the former World War II spy hunter liked the game. I suspect in his mind I was his agent. He beat it into my head: secrecy at all cost, no loose talk, no talk about him at all, no indication to anyone that such a secret source existed.
In our book “All the President’s Men,” Carl and I described how we had speculated about Deep Throat and his piecemeal approach to providing information. Maybe it was to minimize his risk. Or because one or two big stories, no matter how devastating, could be blunted by the White House. Maybe it was simply to make the game more interesting. More likely, we concluded, “Deep Throat was trying to protect the office, to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.”
Each time I raised the question with Felt, he had the same answer: “I have to do this my way.”
Woodward is an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post. He and Carl Bernstein wrote “All the President’s Men,” an account of their reporting for the Post during Watergate.