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Graduate shares role in identification of ‘Deep Throat’

Pat Dowd | Monday, November 7, 2005

Notre Dame graduate John O’Connor, the litigation lawyer responsible for revealing the identity of Watergate source “Deep Throat” in a Vanity Fair article last summer, spoke Friday on the broader significance of the famous Nixon White House scandal.

O’Connor’s lecture was part of the Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni lecture Series and was co-sponsored by the University’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.

The lecture revisited the saga of events that eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office on Aug. 9, 1974. It focused on how the courageous actions of the source long known only as “Deep Throat” – unmasked in June as FBI No. 2 Mark Felt – have altered the political and journalistic realities of modern leak investigations.

The lingering mystery of which Nixon administration insider supplied Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with the incriminating information that eventually leveraged the president out of office has been a hotly debated political and media topic of the last 30 years.

Many thought the question, “Who was Deep Throat?” would have to wait until the anonymous informant died because Woodward had always held that as the necessary condition for revealing his source.

Through a rather happenstance course of events, however, O’Connor had the opportunity to name the secretive source before his death. While swapping stories about family members that may have been in the secret service, one of his children’s college classmates mentioned his grandfather was Felt, second in command at the FBI under Nixon.

“Your Grandfather is ‘Deep Throat,'” O’Connor exclaimed. Felt had long been top on O’Connor’s list of possible individuals, and with opportunity waiting at his doorstep, he worked with Felt’s extended family to help him feel comfortable revealing to the world that he was “Deep Throat.”

“Mark Felt was in charge of the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in, and he like many other government officials above him, knew of the corrupt cover-up efforts taking place,” O’Connor said. “But he found a way to expose the truth because he felt compelled as a public servant to expose the scandal.”

O’Connor had hoped that Woodward would be able to confirm his client was the famous Deep Throat, but the reporter upheld his promise only to reveal Deep Throat’s identity upon his death.

Since revealing Deep Throat’s identity to the public last summer, O’Connor has been working with Felt on a new book entitled “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington,” to be published this spring by Public Affairs Books.

O’Connor cited the Watergate scandal as example of the good that can result when sources are kept confidential. “Deep Throat” led a “a skillful and highly courageous public discussion” by secretly informing Woodward and Bernstein of the misdeeds of Nixon’s administration, O’Connor said.

The central issue the reporters O’Connor addressed was the extent to which journalists are currently and should be protected from having to reveal their sources when the issues they report on become objects of public controversy.

“Deep Throat” was an example of journalists being able to withhold the identity of their source, O’Connor said. He believes the protection currently provided to journalists is insufficient and under fire.

O’Connor cited pre-war intelligence reporting as an example.

“I looked almost everywhere for contemporaneous investigative journalism on the Bush administration’s allegations that Saddam Hussein had WMDs in Iraq, and it was extremely hard to come by,” O’Connor said. “Journalists need to be reassured that they can inform the public without risk of later being forced to reveal their sources or be indicted.”

O’Connor expressed concern that today’s public demand for “headline-grabbing journalism” turns leak investigations into precarious situations for journalists and said they “may be harmful to the future of government transparency.”

He emphasized the need for a federal shield law, which currently provides some protection to journalists, to be “strengthened so that journalists can present the issues without fear of indictment, and let the public debate.”

O’Connor also acknowledged how the nature of modern leak investigations is in some ways different from the Nixon era, saying that “today Woodward and Bernstein might be bloggers.”