Deep Throat And The Third Man

    Over at his site Washington Decoded, DC journalist Max Holland has uncovered something truly startling: the identity of a man who seemingly was the very first person, after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to learn that W. Mark Felt, assistant FBI director at the time of the Watergate break-in, was the person who provided a preponderance of the information to Woodward that, in the book All The President’s Men, was attributed to a source codenamed “Deep Throat.”

    (That may sound like a roundabout way of saying “was the very first person after Woodstein to learn the identity of Deep Throat,” but I have my reasons for putting it in those words. This weekend, when I do a little housecleaning, I’ll see if I can find the detailed notes I made when reading Woodward’s book The Secret Man. In the meantime, TNN readers interested in the DT question could do worse than to read journalist Ed Gray’s examination of the matter in the book, In Nixon’s Web, that he co-authored with his father, former FBI director L. Patrick Gray.)

    What Holland found was something that really has been in plain sight for decades: an article published in the Washington Post on June 17, 1973, the first anniversary of the break-in. It was entitled “Bureau Hurt By Watergate,” and was written by Laurence Stern.

    Stern, who died of a heart attack (brought on by a bee sting, according to Ben Bradlee) in 1979 at the age of 50, is not a man who looms large in the annals of Watergate. Indeed, he hardly looms large at all except in the memories of veteran Post staffers, most of them retired, and in the research of some historians who specialize in the Cold War.

    Stern started work at the Post in 1952 and rose through the ranks until he achieved the post of assistant managing editor not long before his death. In the 1960s and 1970s, he worked the international beat, specializing in national-security and Cold War issues. In that capacity he developed many sources with the CIA, going all the way up to the agency’s director, Richard Helms. (It should be kept in mind that, when Woodward and Bernstein began publishing their articles about Watergate, it was thought by a number of people in the CIA who were keeping tabs on the case that the information in the articles was primarily coming from sources within the FBI.)

    Stern’s article focused mainly on the administrative shakeups that had roiled the FBI following articles in the Post and other newspapers about the agency’s handling of the investigation of the break-in and cover-up, rather than on what had been revealed in the articles themselves. But the article contained two paragraphs which, had anyone kept them in mind the following year when the book All The President’s Men stirred interest in Deep Throat, could very well have narrowed down the list of “suspects” from the very start:

    One highly placed FBI executive acknowledged that FBI agents may have been instrumental in getting the initial Watergate revelations into public print. Reporters who covered the case acknowledged the role of the agents in opening up the initial peepholes in the cover-up facade 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 and 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.”

    According to The Secret Man, prior to the publication of Vanity Fair’s 2005 article in which Felt identified himself as DT, and Woodward and Bernstein’s subsequent confirmation that he was their source, the following people were the only ones who knew DT’s identity: DT himself; Woodward; Bernstein (when Woodward told him in the fall of 1972); Ben Bradlee (when Woodward told him sometime not long after Nixon’s resignation, presumably in 1974 or 1975); attorney Stanley Pottinger (who, when working in the Justice Department, asked Felt in the course of a grand-jury investigation if he was DT, and when the latter, under oath, “turned white” and denied it, allowed him to withdraw the answer); Woodward’s wife Elsa Walsh (probably sometime in the early 1980s); and former Post executive editor Len Downie, who would seem to be the last of this group to know it.

    Could Laurence Stern, unknown to Woodward, have been among them?

    Holland points out that the “Watergate reportorial specialist” would most likely have been one of Stern’s Post colleagues. So he emailed both Woodward and Bernstein to ask if they recalled speaking to Stern for the article. Woodward’s reply was that the Stern article “does not ring a bell with me;” he also remarked that a dozen other Post journalists were on the Watergate beat at the time.

    But Bernstein’s response was just a little different. It did not arrive before Holland put up his post about Stern, but is quoted by Slate’s Timothy Noah in his discussion of Holland’s discovery. Bernstein simply said: “Thanks, Max – interesting….”

    What could be in that ellipse that trails off so, well, elliptically?

    According to Stern’s son Marcus (who spoke with Noah for the Slate piece), the journalist indeed spent a good deal of time with Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate coverage – and spoke with Bernstein, as the younger Stern recalled it, more often than with Woodward.

    And, even more tantalizingly, Marcus Stern (a distinguished journalist in his own right, who won the Pulitzer Prize and George Polk award in 2006 for uncovering the bribery scandal involving congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham) described to Noah the night he attended the Kennedy Center premiere of the movie All The President’s Men with his father. “Who was Deep Throat, Dad?” Marcus asked, his curiosity naturally stirred by Hal Holbrook’s memorable portrayal. “I think the movie suggested that,” Laurence answered, and then remarked that one particular thing about the movie – his son doesn’t recall just what – seemed to show that the filmmakers knew who DT was. (Although, as Noah points out, none of those involved in the making of the film ever claimed to have that knowledge.)

    This all seems to suggest that Stern did know. And if so, who told him? Could the answer lie somewhere in the back pages of a notebook in the Woodward/Bernstein collection at the Ransom Center in Texas?


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