Mark Felt

The Man Who Brought Down the White House


By Mark Felt

By John O’Connor

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Mark Felt’s role in history was secured when he decided to share his views on the Watergate break-in with a young reporter on the Washington Post named Bob Woodward. He made sure that the greatest political scandal in the twentieth century, which would besmirch an entire administration and bring down a presidency, was revealed in an unchallengeable way.

This absorbing account of Felt’s FBI career, from the end of the great American crime wave through World War II, the culture wars of the 1960s, and his conviction for his role in penetrating the Weather Underground, provides a rich historical and personal context to the “Deep Throat” chapter of his life. It also provides Felt’s personal recollections of the Watergate scandal, which he wrote in 1982 and kept secret, in which he explains how he came to feel that the FBI needed a “Lone Ranger” to protection it from White House corruption. Much more than a Watergate procedural, A G-Man’s Life is about life as a spy, the culture of the FBI, and the internal political struggles of mid-20th century America.

Only as he neared the end of his life did Felt confide his role in our national history to members of his family, who then shared it with their lawyer, John O’Connor. The answers to the questions Who is Mark Felt? And why did he risk so much for his country? are brilliantly answered in A G-Man’s Life.



In Felt,* Mark Felt and I gave Watergate a brand new, incisive perspective––from that of a crack FBI agent leading the investigation and definitely not, like the hundreds of other books tackling the subject, from that of a journalist or historian.

For those unfamiliar with Watergate, Deep Throat was Mark Felt, who died aged ninety-five in December 2008. He was an FBI special agent and later the Bureau’s deputy director who had anonymously fed the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (working with Carl Bernstein) snippets of information, making sure they concentrated on specific issues, that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Felt knew that Nixon and his administration were lying, trying to cover-up the 1972 break-in to, and bugging of, the Watergate HQ of their political rivals, the Democratic National Committee. Nixon eventually jumped before being impeached, while sixty-nine people, many leading figures in the administration, were indicted, with forty-eight found guilty. Felt kept his role as Deep Throat a secret for nearly thirty-three years until he and I, his lawyer, revealed it in Vanity Fair magazine in 2005.

He cleverly managed to foil the obstruction of justice while avoiding any embarrassment to the FBI, but he clearly had clashing ethical concerns. To show his pivotal part in toppling Nixon’s White House administration, we melded (in the original book) the story of Felt’s moral upbringing with that of his career in the FBI. We added information in the public and private domain, from Mark’s own 1979 memoir to conversations with his family and friends. We provided inside knowledge of federal investigative and prosecutorial protocol. And now, for this new edition, I have included some strikingly pertinent material only recently uncovered, both by dint of hard work and serendipity.

While elucidating what we viewed as Mark Felt’s noble enterprise, we touched on several corollary issues that strongly resonate now more than ever. What is the proper balance between the demands of popularly elected politicians and those of civil servants sworn to perform their duties without regard to politics? How far should a journalist go, in the interest of writing an accurate story, to describe a key source who wants to remain anonymous? What ethical standards should apply to leakers who must also conform to the law? And should the same civil liberties protecting citizens from political oppression also apply to, and shackle, law enforcement’s anti-terrorism efforts? This final question actually applied to Mark when he was prosecuted in 1980. He’d been accused of illegally authorizing FBI agents in the early 1970s to break into the homes of suspected supporters of the terrorist group Weather Underground, which had launched a bombing campaign in Washington. Ironically, Nixon testified on Mark’s behalf, stating that the FBI was authorized to carry out such break-ins and, although found guilty in 1980, Mark was pardoned by President Reagan in 1981.

In the light of the issues, it is clear that this edition is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 2006, given the political and legal crosscurrents now dominating the news. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Watergate and its issues are still with us.


* Published in 2006 as A G-Man’s Life.



It was one of those events that divide history. Before dawn on the morning of June 17, 1972, five intruders wearing surgical gloves and business suits were found hiding in a small office at the Watergate, a luxury complex located along the Potomac River in Washington. The crime itself was a curiosity; there didn’t seem to be much worth bugging or stealing in the office, part of a suite occupied by the Democratic National Committee. But within two days, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had linked the intruders to the White House. The investigation intensified into a war of wills between FBI agents determined to follow these links and senior officials of the Nixon administration determined to hide them. Over the next two years, the confrontation shook the U.S. government to its constitutional foundations.

As the scandal developed, the headlines grew bigger and darker. Nixon’s men had subverted the democratic electoral process and obstructed the criminal justice system. The Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Communications Commission, and other government offices were manipulated to punish political enemies and harass opponents. White House agents committed burglaries and conducted illegal electronic surveillance. The investigation spread from the FBI to the courts to Congress. On August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace.

American politics still can be classified as either Before Watergate or After Watergate. In the end, the “national nightmare” led to the destruction of a presidency and criminal cases against dozens of government officials. But what survives from that era is the series of reforms that came in the aftermath. Today, Washington operates by new standards of openness and accountability. Presidents face stronger scrutiny by Congress and the press. Since Nixon’s time, the use of presidential power has been examined microscopically, and any scandal worth its salt has become a “gate,” from “Iran-Contragate” to “Monicagate.” But “Watergate” above all has entered the political lexicon, standing for abuses of epic proportions—and for the forces that worked against those crimes.

The phenomenon we now call Watergate began to take shape years earlier, in the first months of the Nixon presidency. It was a time of war in Vietnam and confrontation at home, pitting the children of a growing counterculture against their parents in the “silent majority.” Nixon came to office in 1969 on a promise to withdraw from Vietnam honorably, yet his first move was to expand the war, targeting enemy sanctuaries in neighboring Cambodia. When news of the administration’s secret bombing campaign leaked out, the antiwar movement exploded—and so did Nixon’s staffers, enraged by the unauthorized disclosure. On White House orders, the FBI tapped the phones of administration officials and journalists in search of the leaker. When the leaks continued, Nixon’s men ordered up a more aggressive program of break-ins, bugging, mail opening, and other measures. The FBI and other intelligence agencies resisted them. So the White House organized its own “Plumbers,” a group of extralegal operatives tasked to stop the leaks.

Once the Plumbers had set up shop, it was all but inevitable that they would delve into politics. Nixon’s men called on their services to gather intelligence and disrupt the plans of the administration’s opponents. Much of this work proceeded in the netherworld of political competition until that June night in 1972 when a security guard discovered the break-in at the Watergate—and a Washington Post editor assigned junior reporter Bob Woodward to the story.

When we think of Watergate, we think of Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who pursued the case, and the force they unleashed: the tremendous power of modern investigative journalism. Today’s era of adversarial reporting, for better or worse, offers financial rewards and critical acclaim to journalists who make sensational, politically charged investigative breakthroughs.

Watergate also established the rights and duties of whistleblowers—government and business employees who report illegal activities in the workplace. In 2002 three whistleblowers, Coleen Rowley of the FBI, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Sherron Watkins of Enron, were named Persons of the Year by Time magazine. The deference we afford these truth tellers today and the various whistle-blowing statutes that protect them testify to the power of Watergate’s most mysterious figure and one of the most sensational secret agents of all time, Woodward’s confidential source, the man dubbed Deep Throat by a Post editor.

As Woodward and Bernstein made clear in their book, All the President’s Men, Deep Throat essentially created the Watergate story, steering Woodward to the major issues of crime and corruption that went far beyond the “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex. From the moment the book was published, guessing the identity of Deep Throat became a high-level parlor game. Deep Throat is the model for the modern whistleblower. Deep Throat introduced the era of anonymous sources that have become a staple of journalism today. Deep Throat helped reinvent the profession of investigative journalism. And Deep Throat set the high standards of government transparency that we have come to expect.

The question is not simply, Who is Deep Throat? but, Why did he do it? What motivated “my friend,” as Woodward identified him, “a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at [Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President] as well as at the White House”? Was he a man of honor willing to risk his career for the truth, or a man with a grudge? Why did Deep Throat remain anonymous for so many years, in spite of the fame and fortune to be gained through his notoriety?

The main question was answered on May 31, 2005, when I identified Deep Throat in a press release announcing my article on the subject in the magazine Vanity Fair. That person is my client, William Mark Felt, ninety-two years old at this writing, formerly the number two man in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With his consent and the encouragement of his family, Deep Throat finally went public almost thirty-three years after the Watergate break-in.

The Vanity Fair article described how we identified W. Mark Felt and how his family persuaded him to reveal the secret he had intended to keep until death. Much of the article recapitulated the Watergate story for the benefit of younger readers. But what of Mark himself, his personality, moral background, and motives? How did he work his way through a time of tension and isolation, taking on not only a corrupt administration but the new, compliant FBI leadership that the Nixon administration had installed? How did this rational careerist become the nervous agent recorded by Woodward, the secret source pacing in a darkened parking garage, his jaw quivering, as he issued the warning that Woodward later relayed to Bernstein: “Everyone’s life is in danger”?

The purpose of this book is to allow Mark Felt to answer these questions in his own words. For more than three decades, the world has known him only through the work of Woodward. Woodward used only Mark’s newsroom nickname, taken from the title of a popular pornographic movie of the 1970s. “Deep Throat” was an irreverent honorific at the Washington Post—describing an impressive source with a prodigious ability to open his mouth. If this book does nothing else, let it destroy that caricature. Deep Throat was a journalistic joke; Mark Felt never accepted the name. After Woodward revealed that he had a senior source in the executive branch, thereby breaking his agreement with Mark, and after the journalist identified his confidant as Deep Throat, the retired FBI man was furious—slamming down the phone when Woodward called for his reaction.

Mark has never seen himself as a chatterbox who gave up secrets. Nor would he concede that he was a “leaker,” as journalists label those sources who impart confidential information, although Mark did pass a few tidbits to Woodward and other reporters. Mark Felt was a classic G-man (a shortened form of “government man” and a popular nickname for federal agents since the 1930s). Above all, he was a protector, a man willing to shoulder responsibility alone, if need be, to guard his family and his Bureau. In Watergate, facing immense odds, he stood alone to guard the FBI’s integrity. When the Nixon administration tried to subvert the Bureau as it had other government agencies, Mark met with Woodward to shed light on the abundant misuses of power. Woodward used Felt effectively. But Felt used Woodward brilliantly, guiding the young reporter one step at a time toward the biggest story of his life. “I suspect he did not consider that he was ‘leaking’ information—he was only supposed to confirm what I had and steer me,” Woodward wrote in his book, The Secret Man. “But the sum of all the confirmations and guidance added up to more than a leak. It was a road map.”

In writing this book we have drawn from Mark Felt’s own writings—including his 1979 memoir as well as a manuscript prepared with his son in the 1980s, his FBI memos, Mark’s private reminiscences, and many comments he made to his family, his caretaker, and me from early 2002 to late 2005. Though the debilitations of age caused Mark to lose most of his memories, he had moments when associations and attitudes came back to him (in some instances after we prodded him with his old memos), and we recorded as many of his recollections as we could. I supplemented Mark’s observations on his own trial (see here), which concluded after he had published his memoir, and to a lesser extent on Watergate, but the central analysis is his, drawn from his own writings. My introduction and epilogue are designed to provide a context for his story and to fill in gaps from the perspective of family, friends, and former associates.

His memoir, The FBI Pyramid from the Inside, gives us a narrative account of his rise through the FBI ranks from adventure-seeking agent to J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. It was written at the nadir of his career, as he faced conviction for authorizing what were said to be illegal break-ins against a domestic terrorist group, the Weather Underground Organization (WUO). He lashed out at his accusers and denied leaking Watergate stories to Woodward and Bernstein (without quite denying that he had been Woodward’s source).

In a subsequent manuscript, completed after he cleared his name, Felt recounted happier times as a counterspy and crime-busting G-man (including stories that had been left out of his published book). A more relaxed author edged closer to his Deep Throat identity, providing his rationale for steering Woodward toward the Watergate story (never “leaking” information not known to Woodward, Mark claimed). During the most pressure-filled moments, as the full weight of the White House, Justice Department, and even the new Bureau leadership seemed to be closing on him, Felt saw himself as one man alone fighting for the integrity of the FBI. “I really can’t describe adequately how bad it was,” he wrote. “What we needed was a ‘Lone Ranger’ who could derail the White House cover-up.” The image is compatible with his public persona. The world came to see Mark Felt as the shadowy figure in the parking garage, pushing a young reporter to pursue justice; Felt saw himself as the masked lawman, riding alone in pursuit of justice.

Now in his nineties, Mark Felt remains alert and articulate, with a strong handshake, a lively sense of humor, and a leader’s way of making his guests feel comfortable. The important people in his life remain clear in his mind: his late wife, Audrey; his stern boss, J. Edgar Hoover; and, yes, Bob Woodward, among others. Though memories of his Deep Throat operations—arranging the clandestine meetings with Woodward, deciding how to direct the story, covering his tracks—have faded, the record as it exists gives us a compelling account of the making of the world’s most famous secret source. We have combined and edited the manuscripts to chronicle the events and influences that helped shape Felt’s hidden identity, from his days tracking Nazi and Soviet spies to his battles against the Kansas City mob to his role as protector of Hoover’s ideals at the FBI. This book adds to what has already been told about Mark Felt, his work, and his motives.


Mark Felt always had style. He was six feet tall, a good athlete, and kept himself trim and fit with regular exercise. He had a head of unusually thick, sandy hair that had turned handsomely silver by the early 1960s, fitting well with his clear blue eyes. His strong jaw line was accented by a lip always slightly upturned on the left side, giving the impression of thoughtfulness, which could, with slight adjustment, morph into either a scowl or an inviting smile.

His blue eyes were framed by black horn-rimmed glasses. Always impeccably tailored at work, he favored crisp blue or gray pinstriped suits with starched white shirts and Italian ties. He stood and sat ramrod straight. He commanded respect.

Mark Felt was a listener, not a talker, always observing, assessing, sensing the psychology of the speaker. When he did speak, the words were succinct. This spare style allowed him to present different personalities to different audiences. To a field agent he was questioning in his role as a high-level official with the Inspection Division, Mark could be an imposing, icy disciplinarian. To the wives of other FBI agents he encountered socially, he was a charming, attentive gentleman. To White House adversaries, he was an inscrutable bureaucrat playing his cards close to the vest. And to his superiors, he was an industrious if serene subordinate. “He reminded me of a quiet Baptist minister,” said Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, a senior FBI official who retired in 1970. “He seemed not to be a leader, but simply a fellow who was doing his job.”

Mark Felt carefully developed this ability to modulate his image. He was an early student of body language, a novel concept in the 1960s. Felt was intensely curious about the psychology of sales, said longtime friend and neighbor Bea Reade Burke, a marketing consultant, often making suggestions to her about sales psychology, choice of words, and presentation. His astuteness always impressed Burke. “He saw into the trick, through the trick. You didn’t fool Mark Felt,” Burke said.

These characteristics made Felt an effective subordinate to the legendary Hoover. That Felt knew how to manipulate Hoover is beyond dispute. Felt, a great listener, prided himself on knowing how to make Hoover, an avid talker, feel that any decision was Hoover’s idea. But Hoover had captivated Felt as well. Mark bought the image of the FBI that Hoover had so masterfully sold prior to Watergate: an incorruptible law enforcement organization, pursuing the highest American ideals and values, with the best and most honorable agents the world had known.

Mark Felt took responsibility for protecting the image of the FBI. He saw the Bureau as the primary guardian of America’s rule of law and its solid middle-class values. To his way of thinking, protecting the FBI from political corruption was the same as protecting the country. He showed his instincts before Watergate developed. In early 1972, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson came up with a memo from lobbyist Dita Beard, suggesting that Nixon’s Justice Department would dismiss a serious antitrust case against ITT in exchange for a $400,000 political contribution from the corporation. The White House wanted the FBI to declare the memo a forgery, but Felt stood by his lab’s conclusion that it was probably authentic.

At times, Felt had to protect the FBI from itself. He engaged in a multiyear bureaucratic war with the associate director for counterintelligence, William Sullivan, who was as abrasive and scruffy as Felt was smooth and well groomed. Sullivan had risen to power within the FBI on the strength of his anticommunist investigations, which Hoover used astutely on Capitol Hill to bolster the Bureau’s image and budget. As a counterintelligence official, Sullivan had amassed power in the secret world of electronic surveillance and other spook-like operations, rarely dealing with the rank-and-file agents who represented the FBI to the public. Felt, on the other hand, had risen to power in the Inspection Division after distinguished service as a field agent and supervisor, and as such was the chief enforcer of correct behavior throughout the Bureau.

No two Bureau officials could have been more different, and their conflicts came to a head when Sullivan supported (and likely coauthored anonymously) a massive constitutional incursion known as the Huston plan. This White House initiative called for the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency, among other services, to undertake a massive campaign of electronic surveillance, wiretaps, mail openings, and warrantless entries, an effort that would have served Nixon’s political strategy more than legitimate national security needs.

It was Felt’s ultimate victory in derailing this plan that led Nixon to form the so-called Plumber’s Unit to perform outlaw operations, now that the White House could not count on governmental agencies to perform the skullduggery. Although the defeat of the Huston plan was a major blow for Sullivan and ultimately helped force him from the Bureau, it also pushed Sullivan deeper into the Nixon camp, where he not only helped the White House fight the Washington Post but also probably fingered Mark Felt early in the Watergate probe as the Post’s key source.

By the time Hoover died suddenly on May 2, 1972, Felt had become a bogey on the White House radar screen. Determined to tame the FBI, Nixon bypassed the logical inside candidate to succeed Hoover—Felt—and appointed L. Patrick Gray, an undistinguished political loyalist, as the new director. Many analysts have speculated that Felt’s resentment at being passed over prompted him to attack the Nixon administration as Deep Throat. Felt admits he was disappointed not to get the top job, but insists that he worked to make a smooth transition. Gray kept Felt as number two and delegated most decisions to the established pro. Gray came to his office at headquarters so rarely that he was known as “Three-Day Gray,” and Felt was happy to run the Bureau on a routine basis. Before the Watergate burglary, Felt kept the FBI machinery running efficiently, controlling all the major FBI cases and decisions. He also guarded the Bureau’s integrity against a chain of command that now included an ethically challenged White House. The Lone Ranger was in the saddle.

Felt quickly showed that he understood the uses of the press in his new role. Less than a month after Hoover’s death, the new FBI team had to contend with the attempted assassination of Alabama governor George Wallace, who was shot and paralyzed while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in Laurel, Maryland. Felt sensed that the incident could blow into a violent political storm, fanned by conspiracy theories on both the left and the right, each side claiming the other had reason to eliminate the conservative Democrat for political advantage. Then the results of the hard-charging FBI investigation were leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, whose lengthy report dispelled both notions, casting would-be assassin Arthur Bremer as a crazed loner. Felt had protected the Bureau and the country before a gathering threat could gain momentum.

Years after Watergate, Felt was still in this protective mode. By the mid-1970s, the massive crackdown on government abuses unleashed by Watergate—and in large measure by Deep Throat—had turned on the FBI itself. For Felt, the climax came in August 1976. He showed up voluntarily to testify before a Washington grand jury investigating charges against numerous lower-level FBI agents for warrantless break-ins conducted in 1972 and 1973 against friends and relatives of the Weather Underground Organization. The WUO had bombed fifty government buildings and had received training in North Vietnam and Cuba, both active enemies of the United States. By stepping in front of the grand jury and national press and accepting responsibility for ordering these break-ins, Mark Felt ruined the government’s cases against these field agents and made himself the prosecutor’s bull’s-eye, a target who was later indicted and found guilty. Mark Felt shouldered this responsibility to defend what he saw as the FBI’s lawful battle against foreign-inspired terrorism.

His trial followed years of governmental harassment. Mark Felt endured long stints as a witness or potential target in the investigations inspired by the post-Watergate catharsis. He remained emotionally strong and defended his actions and those of the Bureau firmly and coolly. He refused to break, refused to turn on Gray and others in exchange for soft treatment, and ultimately refused a sweetheart, no-jail misdemeanor plea that would have extricated him from the stress of the WUO trial. Mark Felt would never admit that his FBI had acted inappropriately. During trial, Felt watched impassively as his actions were defended by witness Richard M. Nixon, who, as Felt knew, hurt the defendant in front of an urban jury clearly dismissive of the disgraced ex-president.

Felt looked forward to a peaceful retirement with his beautiful wife. Audrey Felt, however, was deteriorating emotionally from the stress of the investigations and prosecutions involving her husband. Even after President Reagan pardoned Mark in 1981 and thus ended his legal problems, Audrey’s decline continued. In 1984, while her husband was running errands, she walked into the guest bathroom in their apartment near Washington and shot herself in the temple with his .38 service revolver. Mark came home and found the body. Their son, Mark Jr., lived nearby and was there to console his father. For years, Felt kept Audrey’s suicide secret, even from his daughter, Joan, explaining that her mother had died of heart failure. As he had protected the Bureau from Watergate, he now wanted to protect family and friends from unnecessary trauma and shouldered the personal burden, as he had his political burdens, mostly alone.


I first met Mark Felt in late April 2002, in the modest Santa Rosa, California, home he shared with his daughter Joan, a busy single mother of three scratching out a modest living as a college Spanish instructor. I found a man with an enviable shock of white hair, a firm handshake, and a welcoming smile, making steady eye contact. He spent most of his hours in an apartment converted from an attached garage, a comfortable arrangement that gave him access to the yard without the burden of stairs. He moved about with the aid of his Zimmer frame, assisted by his gentle Fijian caregiver.

I had long suspected that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. I had spent the summer of 1970 working as an intern in the Justice Department, and from 1974 through 1979 I was an assistant United States attorney in San Francisco, working mainly with FBI investigators. Consequently I understood the flow of investigative information within the Justice Department. Based on Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book and my knowledge of the federal criminal process, I had concluded that Felt alone had the motive, means, and opportunity to be Deep Throat. While I had come to believe this in the late 1970s, my law practice and family life kept me too busy to take the time to prove my thesis.

As I wrote in Vanity Fair in 2005, my hobby became an obsession in early 2002. One spring evening, my wife, Jan, and I served a meal of pasta and grilled chicken to our daughter, Christy, and seven of her friends from Stanford University. Some of the students had just come back from a sabbatical in South America, and traded adventure stories in the serene setting of our home in Marin County, overlooking the San Rafael Hills. I told them about my father, an attorney who had served in Rio during World War II as an undercover agent for the FBI. One of Christy’s friends, Nick Jones, said his grandfather, also an attorney, had joined the Bureau at about the same time—in the early 1940s—and had made his career there.


On Sale
Sep 26, 2017
Page Count
384 pages

Mark Felt

About the Author

Mark Felt (1913-2008) retired from his position as associate director of the FBI in 1973. He was the whistleblower who was referred to as “Deep Throat” during the investigation of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. In addition to A G-Man’s Life, his memoir detailing his life as an FBI agent, he is also the author of The FBI Pyramid from the Inside.

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