History will decide whether W. Mark Felt, an iconic figure whose identity as Watergate?s ?Deep Throat? was hidden until 2005, was an American hero or something less.
Pat Buchanan once called him a ?traitor,? but only a highly partisan view of Felt?s actions would support such a judgment.
Felt sought nor gained either money or fame for what he did. In becoming a central character in the Washington Post investigation that brought down a president, Felt?s primary motivation appeared to be one of principle and perhaps some measure of self-preservation. The alternative was to participate in something illegal.
Although once considered a possible successor to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Felt, who retired more than a year before Richard Nixon left office, died Thursday in his daughter?s modest home in Santa Rosa. His death would have been in relative obscurity were it not for a family decision in 2005 to reveal that he was ?Deep Throat? ? a fact quickly confirmed by Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.
By all appearances, Felt was a loyal FBI employee who found himself at a crossroads for himself and the bureau. From his spot as associate director, he saw the White House trying to gain control of the bureau for political purposes. He felt the political pressure that was being applied to the FBI to overlook the Watergate break-in.
Would it be loyalty to an organization or devotion to a principle ? and the law? He chose the latter.
Felt tipped Woodward to follow the money, a path that eventually led to the fall of a president and the establishment of new standards of accountability and behavior for the White House.
But these gains for a nation came at a heavy price to an individual. Felt was often the subject of speculation and criticism about his role in the Watergate investigation. As his grandson Mark Felt Jr. told Vanity Fair in 2005, Felt was ?tortured inside? about his decisions.
But, according to his family, Felt always believed he had done the right thing.
That aspect of his life lives on.
The cover of Newsweek this week features a profile of another career G-man turned informant ? Thomas M. Tamm, whom the magazine identifies as the person who blew the whistle on the Bush Administration?s secret and illegal warrantless wiretapping program.
Tamm, who came from a family of FBI officials and once played under Hoover?s desk, stumbled across the highly classified National Security Agency wiretapping program while doing another investigation. When he inquired, he was instructed to back off. One supervisor noted that the program was ?probably illegal.?
As with Felt, Tamm agonized over what to do, according to the story. As with Felt, he was a loyal company man upset that those around him and those above him were allowing this to go on.
As with Felt, he ended up making a call to a newspaper reporter. This time, it was to the New York Times in 2004, which eventually disclosed the program in a package of stories a year later.
But as with Felt, Tamm was not able to keep his identity secret and now faces possible criminal prosecution on espionage charges.
Newsweek poses the question of whether Tamm, too, is ?a hero ? or a criminal.? That too will be left to history ? but it?s hard to argue that the public would be better off today not knowing about a program of intercepting phone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents without judicial warrants.