Deep Throat, the secret source whose insider guidance was vital to The Washington Post's groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal...

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WASHINGTON — Deep Throat, the secret source whose insider guidance was vital to The Washington Post’s groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, was a pillar of the FBI named W. Mark Felt, The Post confirmed yesterday.

As the No. 2 man at the bureau during the administration of President Nixon, Felt had the means and the motive to help uncover the web of internal spies, secret surveillance, dirty tricks and cover-ups that led to Nixon’s resignation Aug. 8, 1974, and to prison sentences for some of Nixon’s highest-ranking aides.

Felt’s identity as Washington’s most celebrated secret source has been an object of speculation for more than 30 years until yesterday, when his role was revealed in a Vanity Fair magazine article. Even Nixon was caught on tape speculating that Felt was “an informer” as early as February 1973, at a time when Deep Throat was actively supplying confirmation and context for some of The Post’s most explosive Watergate stories.

But Felt’s repeated denials, and the stalwart silence of the reporters he aided — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — kept the cloak of mystery drawn around Deep Throat.

He was the truth-teller half-hidden in the shadows of a Washington parking garage. This image was rendered indelibly by the dramatic best-selling memoir Woodward and Bernstein published in 1974, “All the President’s Men,” and a blockbuster movie two years later.

“He knew he was taking a monumental risk,” said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor of The Post. Felt also knew, by firsthand experience, that Nixon’s administration was willing to use wiretaps and break-ins to hunt down leakers, so no amount of caution was too great.

Indeed, the mystery came to obscure the many other elements that went into the Watergate story — other sources, other investigators, high-impact Senate hearings, a shocking trove of secret White House tape recordings and the decisive intervention of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.

“Felt’s role in all this can be overstated,” said Bernstein, who went on after Watergate to a career of books, magazine articles and television investigations. “When we wrote the book, we didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions. You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources.”

Felt, 91 and enfeebled by a stroke, lives in California, his memory dimmed. For decades, Woodward, Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor during the Watergate coverage, maintained that they would not disclose his identity until after his death. “We’ve kept that secret because we keep our word,” Woodward said.

The secrecy held through some amazing twists of fate. In 1980, Felt and another senior FBI veteran were convicted of conspiring a decade earlier to violate the civil rights of domestic dissidents in the Weather Underground movement; President Reagan then issued a pardon.

Yesterday, however, Vanity Fair released an article by a California attorney named John D. O’Connor, who was enlisted by Felt’s daughter, Joan Felt, to help coax her father into admitting his role in history. O’Connor’s article quoted a number of Felt’s friends and family members saying he had shared his secret with them, and went on to say that Felt told the author — under the shield of attorney-client privilege — “I’m the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”

O’Connor wrote that he was released from his obligation of secrecy by Mark Felt and Joan Felt.

Woodward and others at The Post were caught by surprise. Woodward had known that Felt’s family was considering going public; in fact, they had talked repeatedly with Woodward about the possibility of jointly writing a book to reveal the news. An e-mail from Felt’s family over the Memorial Day weekend continued to hold out the idea that Woodward and Felt would disclose the secret together.

Throughout those contacts, Woodward was dogged by reservations about Felt’s mental condition, he said yesterday, wondering whether the source was competent to undo the long-standing pledge of anonymity that bound them.

Caught flatfooted by Vanity Fair’s announcement, Woodward and Bernstein initially issued a terse statement reaffirming their promise to keep the secret until Deep Throat died. But the Vanity Fair article was enough to bring the current executive editor of The Post, Leonard Downie Jr., back to Washington from a corporate retreat in Maryland. After consulting with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, “the newspaper decided that the newspaper had been released from its obligation by Mark Felt’s family and by his lawyer, through the publication of this piece,” Downie said.

Bradlee said he was amazed that the mystery had lasted through the decades. “What would you think the odds were that this town could keep that secret for this long?” he said.

It wasn’t for lack of sleuths. “Who Was Deep Throat?” has been among the most compelling questions of modern American history, dissected in books, films, Internet sites, thousands of articles and hundreds of television programs.

Felt fended off the searchlight each time it swung in his direction. “I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!” he wrote in his 1979 memoir, “The FBI Pyramid.”

In an article being prepared for tomorrow’s Washington Post, Woodward will detail the “accident of history” that connected a young reporter fresh from the suburbs to a man who many FBI agents considered the best choice to succeed the legendary J. Edgar Hoover as director of the bureau. Woodward and Felt met by chance, he said, but their friendship quickly became a source of information for the reporter. On May 15, 1972, presidential candidate George Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, in a parking lot in Laurel, Md.

Eager to break news on a Metro story of major national importance, Woodward contacted Felt for information on the FBI’s investigation. Unlike many in the bureau, Felt was known to talk with reporters, and he provided Woodward with a series of front-page nuggets — though not with his name attached.

By coincidence, the Bremer case came two weeks after the death of Hoover. Felt wanted the director’s job, he later wrote. He also wanted his beloved bureau to maintain its independence. And so his motivations were complex when Woodward called a month later seeking clues to the strange case of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

Felt established extremely strict initial ground rules: He could never be quoted — even as an anonymous source — and he would not provide information. He would “confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and … add some perspective,” in the words of “All the President’s Men.”

Initially, the two men spoke by telephone, but Watergate was, after all, a case that began with a telephone wiretap. Felt had been summoned at least once to the White House, before Watergate, to discuss the use of telephone surveillance against administration leakers. He soon concluded that his own phones — and the reporters’ — might be tapped. That’s when he developed the system of coded signals and parking-garage encounters.

The relationship immediately bore fruit. On June 19, 1972, two days after the botched break-in, Felt assured Woodward that he could draw a connection between burglars and a former CIA agent with connections at the White House, E. Howard Hunt. Three months later, he again provided key context and reassurance, telling Woodward that a story tying Nixon’s campaign committee to the break-in could be “much stronger” and still be on solid ground.

One of the most important encounters between Woodward and his source came a month later, on Oct. 8, 1972. In four months, the scandal had grown in its reach but faded in its seeming importance. Nixon was sailing to what would be a landslide re-election.

In the wee hours in a Washington-area garage, Felt laid out a much broader view of the scandal than Woodward and Bernstein had yet imagined.

From the book:

“On evenings such as these, Deep Throat had talked about how politics had infiltrated every corner of government — a strong-arm takeover of the agencies by the Nixon White House. … He had once called it the ‘switchblade mentality’ — and had referred to the willingness of the president’s men to fight dirty and for keeps….

“The Nixon White House worried him. ‘They are underhanded and unknowable,’ he had said numerous times. He also distrusted the press. ‘I don’t like newspapers,’ he had said flatly.”

As Felt talked through the night — of his love for gossip and his competing desire for exactitude — he urged Woodward to follow the case to the top: to Nixon’s former attorney general John Mitchell, to Nixon’s inner brace of aides, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and even to Nixon himself.

That meeting and others gave senior Post editors the confidence they needed to stick with the story through withering fire from the administration and its defenders.

Woodward’s source became such a key part of the discussion among top editors that then-Managing Editor Howard Simons gave him a nickname, Deep Throat, a blend of the rules of engagement Felt had with Woodward — “deep background” — and the title of a notorious pornographic movie.

When the book and then the movie were released, Woodward said, Felt was shocked to have his place in history tagged with such a tawdry title.