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Mark Felt and Watergate

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Mark Felt and Watergate

For more than 30 years, W. Mark Felt kept his secret. He was the Nixon administration insider known to the world as "Deep Throat."

It was Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, who provided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information about the Watergate scandal, information that would eventually bring down President Richard Nixon.

Felt, who was 95 when he died in 2008, revealed his identity in a 2005 Vanity Fair article written by his lawyer that included interviews with his family and friends. In the piece, Felt's daughter said her father was seriously ill and she hoped the news would "make at least enough money to pay some bills."

So one of the greatest political secrets of our time was finally revealed for something as ordinary as money. This, after Felt risked his career, reputation and possibly his life to make the truth public.

In the early 1970s, Felt "was a dashing gray-haired figure," Woodward recalled in a 2005 Washington Post article. After World War II, Felt had worked in espionage, "tracking down Axis spies and saboteurs," according to Biography.com. He went on to top posts in New Orleans and Los Angeles, oversaw training at the FBI Academy, and in 1972 became the agency's second-in-command.

In June 1972, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in DC's Watergate Hotel. Their goal, it was later revealed, was to install listening devices and photograph confidential documents.

An alert security guard noticed something amiss and called police, leading to the arrest of five men. Those men were almost immediately linked to Nixon and his re-election campaign.

The president downplayed and denied involvement in any wrongdoing. One spokesman called the incident "a third-rate burglary attempt." At an August press conference, Nixon said top officials had looked into the matter and found no signs of involvement, "I can say categorically that … no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident." Woodward had met Felt years before and turned to his FBI source as the story unfolded. Initially, the men spoke over the phone. Soon, though, Felt believed that was unsafe. (After all, wire tapping was at the heart of the scandal.)

As the Washington Post reported in 2005, Felt's "experience as an anti-Nazi spy hunter early in his career at the FBI had endowed him with a whole bag of counterintelligence tricks. Felt dreamed up the signal by which Woodward would summon him to a meeting (a flowerpot innocuously displayed on the reporter’s balcony) and also hatched the countersign by which Felt could contact Woodward (a clock face inked on Page 20 of Woodward’s daily New York Times)."

The source –– often referred to as "My Friend" or "MF" in the newsroom –– soon became so integral to Woodward and Bernstein's reporting that the Post's managing editor proposed giving him a more distinctive moniker; he suggested Deep Throat based on the notorious 1972 pornographic movie of the same name, journalist Alicia C. Shepard, who wrote a book about Woodward and Bernstein, told National Public Radio in 2008. "The nickname stuck," she said. "Among several unanswered questions is a basic one: Would Felt have become such a cultural icon if his moniker were 'My Friend'?"

"In place of a name and a face, the source acquired a magic and a mystique," the Post wrote in 2005. "He was the romantic truth teller half-hidden in the shadows of a Washington-area parking garage."

While some in the White House suspected Felt at the time –– in one recording, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman is heard telling Nixon that Felt was the probably leak –– he always adamantly denied being the newspaper's source. "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!" he wrote in his 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid.

In fact, Felt was one of the people assigned to find out who was leaking information. Not surprisingly, the investigation led nowhere.

Felt's critics, including those who went to prison for their role in Watergate, "called him a traitor for betraying the commander in chief," The Associated Press wrote in Felt's 2008 obituary. "Supporters hailed him as a hero for blowing the whistle on a corrupt administration trying to cover up attempts to sabotage opponents,"

In his 2006 memoir, A G-Man's Life: The FBI, "Deep Throat" and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, Felt said he did what he believed was right. "People will debate for a long time whether I did the right thing by helping Woodward," he said. "The bottom line is that we did get the whole truth out, and isn't that what the FBI is supposed to do?"

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."