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Who Was Deep Throat?

An investigative reporter enlists his journalism students to help him solve Watergate's most intriguing puzzle

In June 2002, "Dateline NBC" interviewed the students about our project. The students said the leading candidate was Buchanan. But a month later, one of them, Jessica Heckinger, got a note from him: "Please thank the class for me—for the unanimous vote. It is one of the few primaries I have won, outside of the Reform Party where I won them all. However, you made some mistakes. Buchanan gave up smoking on the China trip (February ’72) and Buchanan has no motive." It was not a flat-out denial, but most of the students and I found Buchanan’s remarks persuasive. We struck him from the list.

A few weeks later, we got a break. We were trying to determine who on our shortlist would have had knowledge of the secret slush fund controlled by members of Nixon’s reelection campaign committee. This money bank-rolled the Watergate burglars.

Judith Hoback, a bookkeeper for Nixon’s reelection campaign committee, was the general accountant for the fund. In All the President’s Men, Hoback says that soon after the break-in, she deduced that the money she was disbursing might have something to do with the burglary, so she approached the FBI. She told them that cash disbursements of more than $50,000 apiece were given to committee officials Herbert Porter and Jeb Magruder. In their book, Woodward and Bernstein recalled that Hoback had revealed her suspicions about a slush fund to Woodward in an interview. Before the pair published a story about the secret fund in the Post, they confirmed the information, including the amounts, with Deep Throat.

The breadth of Deep Throat’s information surprised my students. How could he have knowledge of the reelection committee’s secret finances?

The students learned that the FBI had shared some of its findings with the White House counsel, John Dean. We did not consider Dean himself to be a candidate because he had left the White House in April 1973. This led us to Dean’s assistant, Fred Fielding, who was already on our shortlist.

In the fall of 2002, student Thomas Rybarczyk dug up a June 1973 letter from Fielding that noted that Dean had given him a summary of a July 1972 FBI report detailing Hoback’s account of the cash transactions. However, Hoback’s recollections of the disbursements were mistaken; she had initially provided the FBI as well as Woodward and Bernstein with incorrect figures. In fact, Magruder had received $20,000, not the $50,000 she remembered. Curiously, though, Deep Throat had confirmed the incorrect figures, which suggests that he gleaned the information from the FBI report given to Dean.

Other clues started pointing us toward Fielding. For instance, Woodward and Bernstein omitted Fielding’s name from stories about the White House counsel’s office. Leaving a key source’s name out of a story is a journalistic commonplace; it not only protects sources but prevents rival reporters from learning the identity of a valuable informant.

As far as we could determine, Fielding shared Deep Throat’s taste for cigarettes and whisky. He had access to information that Deep Throat corroborated for Woodward and Bernstein. And as student Robert Breslin found in 2002, Fielding even fit a characterization of the mysterious source that Woodward and Bernstein deleted from that early, unpublished draft of their book. The reporters wrote that Deep Throat was "perhaps the only person in government in a position to possibly understand the whole scheme and not be a potential conspirator himself."

Fielding, who helped Dean run the White House’s law office during the growing Watergate crisis, left the White House before Nixon resigned and returned to private law practice. In 1981, he became chief counsel to President Reagan and served in the White House for another five years before again returning to private practice. Fielding became a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. In 2002, he became a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Today, at age 64, he is a senior partner in the law firm Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP in Washington, D.C.

In 1978, Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s first chief of staff, wrote in his book The Ends of Power about his belief that Fielding was Deep Throat and that "only Dean, or his associate, had access from the White House to the CRP [Committee to Re-elect the President], the FBI and the Justice Department during Watergate." Fielding denied the charge at the time. But Woodward has said, as recently as October of this year at a lecture, that "Deep Throat is a source who lied to his family, to his friends and colleagues denying that he had helped us." (Fielding did not respond to Smithsonian magazine’s request for comment.)

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