Wednesday, June 01, 2005

W. Mark Felt - Hero?

Yesterday W. Mark Felt was revealed to be the infamous "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame.

From your perspective, was Felt a hero?

Dadmanly Responds:

I note that as the Number 2 man at the FBI at the time, Felt arguably could have put a stop to dirty tricks within his own agency, and been a part of official reaction and punishment of wrongdoing. Lower in the organization, in some less directly involved agency, or outside the inner decision-making circles, all that’s been said would probably be justified.

Felt saying no to his superiors, and calling in the full weight and measure of the FBI’s own ample arsenal of oversight capabilities (or even Congress, if those self-policing organs were inadequate). That would have been heroic, would have achieved a better result that might have allowed the government to correct abuse within the system. That might have allowed the Government to demonstrate internal checks and balances within the system of Government.

Worst of all, he was one of the many cogs – and a pretty highly placed one at that – that lacked the courage of conviction and dedication to public trust to publicly and in the course of his official duties to say no to wrongdoing when first he had the chance. (Or when second, or third…)

Instead, Watergate and its aftermath created a nuclear blast in public mistrust and skepticism that persists to this day, and amply reflected in the conspiracy musings on both left and right. After all, our Government was capable of Watergate, and no one stopped it until some poor apparatchik blew the whistle. Some Apparatchik. He’s like the hit man goon who turns against his Mob boss for immunity from prosecution. Public Service? Yeah, if we ignore all those bodies stuffed in the trunk.

He could have said no to dirty tricks himself, but as the record shows, he was convicted later of much of what he "blew the whistle on."

Instead, he hid behind anonymity, and saved his career. With the death of J. Edgar Hoover only 6 weeks prior, and the known enmity between Nixon and Hoover, there is a strong reason to suspect this was as much due to bureaucratic infighting, than Felt's sense of public service.

He was right to have acted, wrong in his choice of method, morally deficient in not using the power and authority of his position – like so many others in this sad spectacle of Watergate – to stand up against wrongful use of position.

You might quibble with how much power he could have wielded, but we deal with this kind of issue in the military all the time.

Having said all that, a point of reference to military life.

Things happen which Soldiers think are wrong. They are strongly encouraged to use their chain of command (going to the boss). The intent is to give that leader a chance to take appropriate action. If unsatisfied with the response, the Soldier is entitled to bump it up a level. If all else fails, or the chain of command is entirely reluctant to address the wrong -- or doesn't view the offense as wrong -- the Soldier can then access the Inspector General, a ubiquitous ombudsman of sorts with direct access to all levels of command.

No command wants their attention if they might be in the wrong (or come out looking that way). Congressmen are very responsive, and a Soldier can always place a call or send a letter, and that Congressman will initiate a Congessional Investigation. These are incredibly painful to commanders, and usually end up firing up the entire Chain of Command (at least a little, from the SecDef on down). Lastly, and furthest outside, would be to notify the Press.

My point, Felt was in a position well suited to respond appropriately to wrong doing, but instead he went way outside the chain of command, and in the process, did vastly more harm to his organization (and prior and future employer by the way) than would have been the case had he stood up from within and done so publicly if necessary. Of course, this route was easier for him, and more beneficial.

That wipes the hero word right off the board, in my view.

Dadmanly Addendum:

I'm sorry, I didn't finish my point on the military example.

Early on, we had some very poor leadership decisions (higher than my Company), and several of our soldiers contacted the Inspector General (IG), which they were absolutely entitled to do. My Commander and I sat through several IG interviews and fact finding missions, and watched as eventually Division leadership must have brought down the hammer, and things lightened up.

But from that point forward, we used to joke that half the Joes had the IG on speed dial, because whenever we made any decisions that caused unpleasantness (and this is the Army, so there's lots of that), in would come the call from the IG, or they'd stop by for a visit.

Now my Commander, who is quite good, and I don't mind these at all really, everything we do is by the book and on the up and up, so we aren't worried about the result. If there are administrative deficiencies, we have an opportunity to correct them, so laregly no harm no foul. And we ourselves were very honest and direct about the source of problems with the IG staff, and were actually glad to have them involved.

But it did get frustrating at times, when we were ready and prepared to address concerns, sometimes encouraging Soldiers to come forward so we could take their case against higher commands, and they call the IG instead. Or call a Congressman. Or a reporter. Part of the problem was an IG relatively inexperienced, who gave a lot of attention to initial complaints, and of course part of it was our superior commander and some poor leadership on his part.

But my point was, that Soldiers should utilize (and usually can get better results)if they involve the Chain of Commmand and the NCO Support Channel (enlisted leadership). And when they draw the big guns, it wastes a lot of time and sometimes creates a result that is less favorable than what they could have gained through their immediate superiors. Sometimes, you have to give the system a chance.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Hida Reju said...

I would like to think so, he reported crimes being commited at the highest level of our own government.

As for the long term effects I have no idea. Would Nixon have been a more effective president? I think so he had strength and force of will. His main crime was not accepting the limits of his office not the work he did for our country.

But since it was not to be then we live with what happened. But right or wrong and regardless of Nixon himself I believe Felt stood up for his beliefs and should be considered a hero

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Liberal Serving said...

Whistleblowers are the best kind of patriots. Definitely heros.

At 7:12 PM, Blogger wanda said...

Another vote for the hero column.
He may have had a bruised ego, or he may have simply been one of the few uncorruptable men in Washington at that time.
A man such as him would be destroyed today. Which ever political party he crossed would go after him with a vengence.
There are no Woodward and Bernstein journalist who are willing to put it all on the line (just look what happened to those who try). There are no newspaper editors who would take the heat for such a story today. The heros of the press are gone.
Whistle blowers of today are tarred, feathered and banished to forced retirments or other nether regions.
The inmates are running the asylum.

At 3:20 AM, Blogger The Phnom Penh said...

It's all well and good to say that a would-be whistleblower should go through the chain of command. But what if the offense was, as in this case, committed by those at the top of the chain of command? And the offense, or the coverup, involved lots of very powerful people?

Given the rather extreme vindictiveness exhibited by the Nixon White House (maybe it was the times — I'd say LBJ was pretty comparable), Felt may well have feared retribution if he had gone to, say, the Attorney General's office. Perhaps he was unwilling to stay silent, and believed that anonymously informing the press was the only route open to him.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger Adam Gurri said...

I agree with Dadmanly. The man was convincted of the things he was whistle-blowing, he didn't do anything to actually stop the dirty tricks and with the authority he had, he could have done something.

Moreover, he could have turned in the evidence he had to the officials investigating at the time, but instead chose to become an anonymous stool pigeon for the press because he didn't want to risk his own career.

Heros are willing to take risks to do the right thing. This guy was no hero.

At 2:43 AM, Blogger wanda said...

To suggest that Felt could have taken his complaints up his chain of command is a farce. His chain of command WAS the problem. The corruption reached the highest levels of command. Right into the oval office. Many forget that while all this was going on the Vice President was fighting demons of his own, and was eventually forced to resign. There was corruption in every corner. Nixon was trying to fire the Independent Counsel who was investigating him. What do you think they would have done to Mark Felt?
What I find astonishing is those who suggest he should have done nothing more than lodge a complaint and let his COC handle the rest.
If only there were men like Felt in Washington today.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.

At 5:12 AM, Blogger dadmanly said...


You miss my point. Felt didn't even make an effort, and by his silence within the organization -- remember, no one but him and Woodward and Bernstein knew he was Deep Throat -- he was party to criminal behavior.

I am not begrudging him his act, just his methods. And if he had tried from within, then stepped forward and called a press conference, same result, without the secrecy, and it would have caused everything to explode into the open right then and there.

Who knows how much faster or more effectively that might have corrected for the abuses that occurred? We'll never know.

Pretending Felt didn't have ulterior motives or wasn't keeping himself safe and sound and employed, and trying to paint that as heroic sounds more blinded by ideology than the contrasting point of view that assumes this guy had dirty hands too.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger dadmanly said...


One last point, but not standing against this behavior within the organization or publicly, he deprived other individuals in the same or similar situation within government an opportunity to learn from his example, see him as a role model, or help them get past their own fears or reluctance to come forward.

I am sure there were many in government at that time who wish they had done more to stop the wrongdoing before it went as far as it did. And Felt, rightfully, might have reason to feel the same.

By analogy, he let the fire burn until the structure was lost (even threw some gasoline on the flames here and there), then placed the 911 call, but through the organs of the press. The law enforcement switchboard never lit up.

That's not blind, just seeing all apsects of the situation and his motivations, not just the ones that fit my world view.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Chuck Rightmire said...

I think Dadmanly doesn't seem to realize that within the military there is an unofficial chain of command that is much more effective than the official chain of command, or there was when I was in so many years ago. Those of us who didn't know how to use it were the low men on the totem. If you went through the official chain there was almost certain to be retaliation, particularly if the offender was in that chain of command. Felt's immediate superior, who was the first step up his chain of command, was a Nixon appointee who, it has been said in news reports, had his hand in the pot. Maybe the news conference would have been effective, but damage control would have gone into effect at the first shock and probably the shock wave would have been aimed first at Felt. Look back at what happened to the Teflon president who probably should have been impeached in the Contra scandal and the current president who should be impeached for lying to the public about Iraq. Lots of damage control in both cases, usually some of it aimed at the credibility of the person who brings the charges (re the outing of a CIA agent).

With that said, I don't believe that Felt is a hero, nor do I believe he is a villain. He is a man who was caught up in a crisis and made the decisions he felt he had to make and acted in the only way he thought was possible to be effective. He was right that it was a way to be effective.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger wanda said...

"If you went through the official chain there was almost certain to be retaliation, particularly if the offender was in that chain of command."

You are so right Chuck.
I suspect had Felt voiced his concerns to anyone in his chain of command, his body would have been found floating in the Potomac. Don't think they weren't dead serious about keeping their crimes and the subsequent cover up secret. Just listen to (or rather read the transcripts) the tapes.
I will concede, maybe his manner of revealing the criminals and their crimes was a bit underhanded and thereby robs him of hero status. He still did our country a great service.
I firmly believe relying on the chain of command to address the issues of the lower ranks is an urban myth. Whether it be in the military or civilian sector. One only need to see who is being punished and who skated scott free in the Abu Ghraib incident.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Rhiannon said...

He did what he thought was right, in what he probably considers the best way possible. Not being him or in his situation I cannot say one way or another if his actions were the *best* or *most correct* actions for him to take or not. I assume he knew whom he could or could not trust and made his decisions as we all do, based on what we know and whom we trust.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Synova said...

Chuck and Wanda,

If you don't trust your chain of command, and it is possible that there is legitimate reason not to, then you go around it or over it.

To be considered a "hero" a person's actions ought to be heroic. That's sorta-kinda the definition of the word, hm? Of all the possible right things, we can say he did the right thing but I can't say that it was the *heroic* right thing. Reporting anonymously was certainly braver than not reporting at all, but was it heroic? Heroism tends to involve sacrifice or potential sacrifice... a firefighter running into a burning building may come out unscathed but the risk was real.

And if we're talking significant risk, such as having one's suicide note discovered with one's body, being public rather than anonymous is far safer, don't you think?

But what about Dadmanly's point about the destruction of public trust over the whole affair? Having everything come out is best in any case, but there were better options. Public servants ought to have their eye on the larger picture. The role model of a brave man willing to take risks on principle is a good thing for people to see when they are having to come to terms with exposed corruption.


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