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Forecast: chilling effect on informants
Warren Flagg, an FBI agent for 22 years, is president of Flaggman Inc., a New York-based investigative firm.
June 2, 2005
Former FBI official W. Mark Felt's disclosure that he was Deep Throat rightly makes him a hero to some, but it also may throw roadblocks in the path of current street agents.
On the one hand, Felt is a courageous whistle-blower to many, especially those of us who served under him in the FBI. He did the nation a great service in helping expose the wrongdoing in Richard Nixon's administration. And he took the hit - with his criminal conviction - for many street agents who participated in the FBI's controversial counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against left-wing groups.
I, myself, worked at least peripherally on that program.
The other side of the coin is that current street agents may have to pay a price for Felt's disclosure that he was the Deep Throat in the Watergate investigation.
Since Felt was the FBI's No.2 official and now admits he leaked information to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, informants could have more reason to be reluctant to provide agents with crucial information. They may ask: "How do I know you won't leak this to the media?"
The FBI and other investigative agencies function only as well as their informants enable them to do so. One reason the United States has been having trouble dealing with al-Qaida is that, even in this era of high-tech investigative tools, on-the-ground informants are necessary, and we have trouble getting them inside al-Qaida.
For all the attention, there are some misconceptions about Felt's significance in the Watergate investigation. He didn't blow the case wide open for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as some believe. Watergate burglar James McCord, who warned federal Judge John Sirica about the White House cover-up, and former Nixon aide John Dean were more influential in that regard than Felt.
But the truth is that the top editors and officials at The Washington Post wanted corroboration of information the paper was obtaining elsewhere. They wouldn't have published it without corroboration - and that's what Felt provided.
If Felt had not stood up to the Nixon administration, I'm convinced that L. Patrick Gray - a former submarine commander appointed by Nixon as acting FBI director (and not a lifetime FBI man) - would have done what his commander in chief ordered and killed the FBI's Watergate investigation.
There was a burglary at the Democratic national headquarters, so there had to be some kind of investigation. But had it not been for Felt's courage, Gray would have killed it before it resulted in major revelations about the administration.
Gray and Felt were both indicted, along with another FBI official, Edward Miller, on charges of authorizing illegal break-ins of the radical Weather Underground group as part of COINTELPRO. The FBI program was intended to "expose, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize" organizations considered national security threats.
The Justice Department dropped the indictment against Gray, but Felt and Miller were convicted - although they were later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
Many street agents considered Felt a stand-up guy for taking the heat in that case and not trying to dump some of the responsibility on them.
No matter what sort of investigation is involved, information at the FBI flows from field offices to Washington. You hope nobody along the line is going to leak information. Leaks can endanger not only investigations, but also the lives of agents and informants.
There is a feeling in some quarters that the government will not protect its sources. That hurts law enforcement. It would be a shame if Felt's disclosure that he was Deep Throat hurts street agents' ability to do their work.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.