Who Was Deep Throat? | History | Smithsonian
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Who Was Deep Throat?

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

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After 36 years as a full-time reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I retired in 1999 to teach journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During that first semester, as the students searched for an investigative project to tackle, I showed them All the President’s Men. This 1976 movie is based on the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973 for their stories about the political scandal known as Watergate. The film, starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, accurately portrays how investigative reporters comport themselves, ask questions, conduct interviews, even the unobtrusive way they hold a notebook. What most intrigued the students, however, were the secret meetings between the Woodward character and a high-level government official, played by Hal Holbrook, that the book referred to only as Deep Throat. The name echoes a 1972 pornographic movie and plays off the term “deep background,” or information provided to a reporter on the condition that the source be neither identified nor quoted directly.

Deep Throat met with Woodward seven times between September 1972 and May 1973 to help the two reporters break several stories about the involvement of Nixon administration officials in the June 17, 1972, burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office-apartment-hotel complex in Northwest Washington. (The burglars, who were seeking information that could be used against Democrats in the upcoming elections, were indicted later for conspiracy, burglary, wiretapping and planting secret listening devices.)

The Post’s stories, along with those of other newspapers and several rulings by Judge John Sirica, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the Watergate trials, led to televised hearings in the U.S. Senate about the break-in. From these, a riveted nation learned about an administration coverup of the break-in and a covert White House operation that engaged in burglary and political spying. The hearings were followed by impeachment proceedings by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. But before the full House could vote on whether the president should be impeached, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president. At least 19 high-level officials and other conspirators would plead guilty to or be convicted of various crimes related to Watergate.

Besides adding the suffix "-gate" to our lexicon as an indicator of scandal, and evoking campaign finance reform bills, Watergate resulted in a lasting public distrust of government. It also left one of the century’s most intriguing political mysteries unsolved.

For the past 30 years, guessing the identity of Deep Throat has become something of a parlor game among journalists, pundits and conspiracy theorists. At least three books and scores of articles have delved into the identity of Deep Throat. The list of likely suspects has included former White House aide and current network anchor Diane Sawyer; Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig; acting FBI director Patrick Gray; and John Sears, one of Nixon’s deputy counsels. At the same time, some have argued that Deep Throat wasn’t one person but a composite of several sources, while others have posited that he was merely a literary invention.

Woodward and Bernstein have both said they will not reveal their secret source’s name until the individual dies, although Woodward did disclose that Deep Throat was a living male. Likewise, Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, has said he knows Deep Throat’s identity but won’t divulge it. About 75 archival boxes, containing more than 250 notebooks, assorted files, galleys for the book All the President’s Men, and photographs, which the University of Texas bought for $5 million this past April, will be available to the public in the fall of 2004. But documents referring to Deep Throat and other confidential sources will be kept sealed in an undisclosed location until the sources’ deaths.

Why, my students asked, was Deep Throat’s identity still not known after so many years? It was not an easy question to answer. Walt Harrington, a fellow journalism professor at the University of Illinois, once told me he had heard Bradlee say that anyone wanting to learn Deep Throat’s identity should search a computer database for Watergate figures who were actually in Washington at the time of those meetings. To my knowledge, no one had ever done so. Though few organizations would have the resources or motivation to unmask Deep Throat, it seemed a challenging pursuit for my students.

The students read autobiographies of potential suspects and filled a computer spreadsheet with dates, meetings, events and other information. During eight semesters, about 60 undergraduate and graduate students pored over more than 16,000 pages of FBI reports on microfilm in our university library, as well as all the newspaper stories Woodward and Bernstein had written in the first two years of the scandal. From those documents, they concluded that only a member of the FBI or the White House would have had access to the information Deep Throat evidently leaked to Woodward. Later, we concluded that Deep Throat could not be in the FBI after we found a quote in a 1973 Woodward and Bernstein Post story attributed to a "White House" source that was similar in wording to one attributed to Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. In an unpublished early draft of that book, we also read that neither reporter had FBI sources. The admission was later excised, in our view, to protect Deep Throat’s identity.

We obtained the 1972 and ’73 White House staff directories, which listed 72 people in high-level jobs; of those, 39 were living males. The students then ruled out anyone not working at the White House between September 1972 and May 1973, the period when Deep Throat met with Woodward. Newspaper reports showed that some promising Deep Throat candidates, including Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, were out of the country during the time of those meetings. Because the reporters had written that Deep Throat drank Scotch whisky and smoked, the students also eliminated confirmed teetotalers and nonsmokers.

That left just seven candidates: Patrick Buchanan, speechwriter and special assistant to Nixon and later a newspaper columnist and presidential candidate; Stephen Bull, a personal aide to Nixon; David Gergen and Raymond Price, both speechwriters; Jonathan Rose, attorney for regulatory affairs; Gerald Warren, deputy press secretary; and Fred Fielding, an attorney and assistant to White House chief legal counsel John Dean.

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