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Watergate

Carl Bernstein

How important was protecting sources for the Watergate story?

Absolutely essential. We did not name a single significant source in the first 150 stories that we did in the first year of Watergate. In fact, we never did. The only people who were identified by name more often than not were telling lies, because they were spokesmen for the Nixon White House. In terms of real sources of information, they were all confidential, every one. It would have been totally impossible to have done the Watergate reporting and identified our sources.

When we wrote All the President's Men, we went back to all of our sources, and we asked them, could we identify them? Some of them said yes. Hugh Sloan, the bookkeeper for the Committee [for the Re-election of] the President [CRP], said yes. The treasurer for the Nixon re-election committee, some others -- Mark Felt, the individual known as Deep Throat -- said no. We kept that secret for 33 years because we believe in the confidentiality of sources.

I know of very little important reporting of the last 30 to 40 years that has been done without use of confidential sources, particularly in the national security area. ... What we know about the last five, six, seven presidencies, we know through the use of confidential sources. If we had relied on the information from this president, from this secretary of state, from this secretary of defense, from this vice president, we would know almost nothing of the truth of [the Iraq war]. ...

But with the use of confidential sources, certain things are incumbent on the reporter: to represent a kind of responsibility and refuse to be whipped around by a source, to be led astray by a source. There's a responsibility, if possible, to identify the particular orientation of a source. For instance, if it's a story involving fund raising in the Republican National Committee, and the source is a Republican fund-raiser, it would be very significant to identify that person as a Republican fund-raiser. If it were a Democrat off on the sidelines, it would seem to me you would have to say that the source is a Democrat and then explain how he's come into information and why it's credible. So it's a tricky question how you present it.

Weren't you subpoenaed during Watergate for your sources?

Yes. ... There was a civil suit brought by the Nixon re-election committee against the Democratic National Committee for the purpose of trying to find out how they were getting their information to us, among other things. ...

[When we] knew that the subpoena had reached the building, I went to [then-executive editor of The Washington Post Ben] Bradlee, and I said, "Look, I just got a call from the guard downstairs that there's a subpoena with a piece of paper with my name on it." And he said, "Look, go see a movie while we figure out what to do."

So I went to see a movie; in fact, the movie I saw was Deep Throat. I came back to the office, and by then the strategy had been gone over with the lawyers. Our notes, my notes, were transferred to the custody of Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. Therefore, if anybody was going to go to jail, she was going to go also. As Bradlee said: "Wouldn't that be something? Every photographer in town would be down at the courthouse to look at our girl going off to the slam." And Mrs. Graham was ready to go to jail because she understood the principle. I accepted the subpoena, because by then, the custody of my notes had been transferred to Katharine Graham.

And so what happened? You didn't go to jail, did you?

They backed off. ... They didn't want to take on Katharine Graham. They took on Katharine Graham by trying to take the licenses of The Washington Post television stations away, which was the real money-making ability of The Washington Post Company at the time. ... It paid a lot of the bills. ...

Today we see the further economic pressure through subpoenas because stockholders don't want to see their companies embroiled with the federal government in a big suit that might hurt the value of their stock. So that now has become a consideration, as it was I believe in the case of Time Inc. in the Valerie Plame case.

 
Len Downie

Editor, The Washington Post

Len Downie

Let's talk about the ultimate confidential source, Deep Throat, the decision to reveal his identity. What happened?

What happened was that Bob [Woodward] had pledged to Deep Throat that he would not reveal his identity until after he had died, as is the case with a number of other Watergate sources, by the way, whose names are known to Bob's editors but are not known to the public. ...

So in this particular case, Bob was in contact with Mark Felt, who turned out to be Deep Throat, in recent years, and was told by his family that he might be ready to reveal himself as Deep Throat. Bob's conversations with Mark Felt, who was not completely well, did not convince him that Mark Felt was ready to have his identity revealed.

In his estimation, he really wasn't in control of his faculties.

Correct. So Bob did not believe that he had informed consent from Mark Felt to reveal him as Deep Throat and was going to wait until he died. It was Mark Felt's family and lawyer who revealed his identity, and once they had done so, then I made the decision that this constituted their breaking of the confidentiality relationship, and we were free to go ahead and report about it.

Even though the person in question was, if you will, not in control of his faculties.

Absolutely, but because the family was the nearest thing to consent here, and they'd already made it public. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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