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Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat

Max Holland

March 2012
xvi, 286 pages
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1829-3, $29.95 (t)
Ebook ISBN 978-0-7006-1973-3, $24.95 (available March 2014)


book cover imageThrough the shadowy persona of “Deep Throat,” FBI official Mark Felt became as famous as the Watergate scandal his “leaks” helped uncover. Best known through Hal Holbrook’s portrayal in the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, Felt was regarded for decades as a conscientious but highly secretive whistleblower who shunned the limelight. Yet even after he finally revealed his identity in 2005, questions about his true motivations persisted.

Max Holland has found the missing piece of that Deep Throat puzzle—one that’s been hidden in plain sight all along. He reveals for the first time in detail what truly motivated the FBI’s number-two executive to become the most fabled secret source in American history. In the process, he directly challenges Felt’s own explanations while also demolishing the legend fostered by Woodward and Bernstein’s bestselling account.

Holland critiques all the theories of Felt’s motivation that have circulated over the years, including notions that Felt had been genuinely upset by White House law-breaking or had tried to defend and insulate the FBI from the machinations of President Nixon and his Watergate henchmen. And, while acknowledging that Woodward finally disowned the “principled whistleblower” image of Felt in The Secret Man, Holland shows why that famed journalist’s latest explanation still falls short of the truth.

Holland showcases the many twists and turns to Felt’s story that are not widely known, revealing not a selfless official acting out of altruistic patriotism, but rather a career bureaucrat with his own very private agenda. Drawing on new interviews and oral histories, old and just-released FBI Watergate files, papers of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, presidential tape recordings, and Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate-related papers, he sheds important new light on both Felt’s motivations and the complex and often problematic relationship between the press and government officials.

Fast-paced and scrupulously fact-checked, Leak resolves the mystery residing at the heart of Mark Felt’s actions. By doing so, it radically revises our understanding of America’s most famous presidential scandal.

“In an impressively researched and smartly reasoned page-turner of a book, Max Holland offers up a persuasive revisionist history that tarnishes Woodward's halo and that of the source who leaked to him. . . . Holl and brilliantly reconstructs, and deconstructs, the Watergate chronology to connect missing dots and figure out the hidden agendas of reporters and their sources. His book reveals the often-unappetizing way the news sausage is manufactured in Washington. It is an ideal primer for advanced undergraduate and graduate studnets, and will be nectar for scholars, journalists, and Watergate buffs. . . . [This] original, thought-provoking book provides a corrective to what Holland calls the romantic 'fairy tale' that a courageous whistleblower was all that was needed for a journalistic David to slay a presidential Goliath.”—Mark Feldstein, American Journalism

“Mandatory Reading for Watergateans: Max Holland’s Leak. Brilliant explanation of Deep Throat's (ugly) motive.”—Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann)

“Holland’s exhaustively researched work is a must-read for any person interested in the tangled scandal that drove President Nixon from office. . . . As Holland authoritatively establishes, Felt turns out not to be an altruistic hero, but a scheming bureaucrat who yearned to replace J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, and did so by staging a smear campaign in an attempt to discredit rivals for the job.”—Washington Lawyer

“Holland’s book, based on massive research and scores of interviews over many years, exposes so many lies uttered by Felt that this reviewer simply stopped counting them. . . . The author smashes the All the Presidents Men mythology of brave, purely motivated journalists bringing down the mighty from on high.”—Washington Times

“The strength of Leak is its quality of research. The author utilizes a wide variety of sources including interviews with former executives and agents of the FBI, other U.S. government officials, reporters, including Bob Woodward, oral histories, Nixon Library materials, Woodward/Bernstein Watergate Papers, selected U.S. government records, and of course Watergate/political books, papers, studies. Out of this archival stew, the author weaves a likely and believable case for Felt's subterfuge, and underlying motivation. . . . For Watergate aficionados this book is a must.. . . . The unvarnished, definitive account of Mark Felt and his twisted relationship with the press.”—Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies

“This important and gripping addition to the Watergate saga challenges, if not discredits, heroic portrayals of Deep Throat in Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men.”—Library Journal (starred review)

Leak is a work of impressive scholarship, yet it is vividly told and quite engrossing. Reading it on the subway, I missed my stop.”—Steve Aftergood, Secrecy News

“Holland has conducted fresh interviews and sifted through mountains of previouslyunpublished FBI files, Nixon tapes, and other relevant documents. Leak is a crisp and engrossing page-turner, essential reading on Watergate, a detailed and unsparing accounting of the Machiavellian machinations practiced by that self-serving anonymous source.”—James Rosen, New York Post

“After many years as a muckraking journalist, Max Holland has returned to wallow, with grand results. Leak is an assault on the foundation myth of modern American journalism. . . . Here, then, is what we’ve been dealing with all these years: an inaccurate account explaining an erroneous newspaper article containing facts supplied by a double-dealing source who knew them to be untrue. A messy business, journalism. . . . The constellation of crimes we've come to call Watergate was unfathomably messy. . . . How this jumbled reality was packaged as a morality tale makes for a pretty good story, too. Max Holland won't be forgiven for telling a crucial part of it.”—Commentary

“Through interviews, declassified documents, and Nixon’s White House tapes, Holland demonstrates convincingly that Felt’s objectives were covetous rather than civic. He desperately wanted to be director of the FBI.”—Miami Herald

"In an ideal world, Leak would be a required text at every school of journalism. . . . Holland's research has revealed that much of the standard narrative is half-true at best and fraudulent at worst."—Lead and Gold blog

“Holland has given clarity to a misunderstood, complicated, and murky story. A probing, revealing, and necessary addition to the Watergate saga.”—Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate

“Lucidly written and prodigiously researched, this gripping corrective deserves five out of five stars—plus a Bravo!”—Irwin F. Gellman, author of The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946–1952

“Convincingly destroys the myth of Deep Throat’s alleged altruism.”—Keith Olson, author of Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America

“The definitive account of Mark Felt’s role in Watergate.”—Athan Theoharis, author of The FBI and American Democracy

“Consistently smart and savvy.”—David J. Garrow, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Bearing the Cross

MAX HOLLAND is editor of the website Washington Decoded, contributing editor to the Wilson Quarterly and The Nation, and author of The Kennedy Assassination Tapes: The White House Conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson Regarding the Assassination, the Warren Commission, and the Aftermath. He received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for a forthcoming book on the Warren Commission. 

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