In 1970, when I was a Navy lieutenant assigned to Adm. Thomas Moorer, the chief of naval operations, I sometimes acted as a courier, taking...

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WASHINGTON — In 1970, when I was a Navy lieutenant assigned to Adm. Thomas Moorer, the chief of naval operations, I sometimes acted as a courier, taking documents to the White House.

One evening I was dispatched with a package to the lower level of the West Wing, where there was a little waiting area near the Situation Room. It could be a long wait for the right person to sign for the material, and after I had been waiting for a while, a tall man with perfectly combed gray hair came in and sat down near me. His suit was dark, his shirt white, his necktie subdued.

He probably was 25 to 30 years older and was carrying what looked like a file case or briefcase. He was distinguished looking and had a studied air of confidence, the posture and calm of someone used to giving orders and having them obeyed instantly.

After several minutes, I introduced myself. “Lieutenant Bob Woodward,” I said, carefully appending a deferential “sir.”

“Mark Felt,” he said.

We were like two passengers sitting next to each other on a long airline flight with nowhere to go and nothing to do but resign ourselves to the dead time. I began telling him about myself, that this was my last year in the Navy and that I was taking graduate courses at George Washington University.

When I mentioned the graduate work to Felt, he perked up immediately, saying he had gone to night law school at GW in the 1930s before joining the FBI.

He told me he was an assistant director in charge of the inspection division, an important post under Director J. Edgar Hoover. That meant Felt led teams of agents who visited field offices to make sure they were adhering to procedures and carrying out Hoover’s orders. I later learned this was called the “goon squad.”

Here was someone at the center of the secret world I was only glimpsing in my Navy assignment, so I peppered him with questions about his job and his world.

He was friendly, and his interest in me seemed somehow paternal. Still, the most vivid impression I have is that of his distant but formal manner, in most ways a product of Hoover’s FBI. I asked Felt for his phone number, and he gave me the direct line to his office.

Setting the hook

A young man seeks advice about his future

I believe I encountered him only one more time at the White House. But I had set the hook. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future, which loomed more ominously as the date of my discharge from the Navy approached. At some point I called him, first at the FBI and then at his home in Virginia. I was a little desperate. I had applied to several law schools but, at 27, wondered if I could stand spending three years in law school before starting real work.

I was formally discharged from the Navy in August 1970. I had subscribed to The Washington Post, which I knew was led by a colorful, hard-charging editor named Ben Bradlee. There was a toughness and edge to the news coverage that I liked; it seemed to fit the times, to fit with a general sense of where the world was, much more than law school. Maybe reporting was something I could do.

I sent a letter to The Post asking for a job as a reporter. Harry Rosenfeld, The Post’s metropolitan editor, agreed to see me.

He stared at me through his glasses in some bewilderment. Why, he wondered, would I want to be a reporter? Why would The Washington Post want to hire someone with no experience? But this is just crazy enough, he finally said, that we ought to try it. We’ll give you a two-week tryout.

After two weeks, I had written perhaps a dozen stories or fragments of stories. None had been published or come close to being published. None had even been edited.

I see you don’t know how to do this, Rosenfeld said, bringing my tryout to a merciful close. But I left the newsroom more enthralled than ever. I had found something that I loved.

I took a job for about $115 a week at the Montgomery (Md.) Sentinel, a weekly newspaper where Rosenfeld said I could learn how to be a reporter.

I called Mark Felt, who, in a gentle way, indicated that he thought this was crazy. He said he thought newspapers were too shallow and too quick on the draw. Newspapers didn’t do in-depth work and rarely got to the bottom of events.

Well, I said, I was elated. Maybe he could help me with stories.

He didn’t answer, I recall.

During the year I spent on the Sentinel, I kept in touch with Felt through phone calls to his office or home. We were becoming friends of a sort. He was the mentor, and I kept asking for advice. I drove to his home in Virginia one weekend and met his wife, Audrey.

Somewhat to my astonishment, Felt was an admirer of Hoover. Felt appreciated Hoover’s orderliness and the way he ran the bureau with rigid procedures and an iron fist. Felt said he appreciated that Hoover arrived at the office at 6:30 each morning and that everyone knew what was expected.

The Nixon White House was another matter, Felt said. The political pressures were immense, he said, without being specific. I believe he called it “corrupt” and sinister. Hoover, Felt and the old guard were the wall that protected the FBI, he said.

At the time, there was little or no public knowledge of the acrimony between the Nixon White House and Hoover’s FBI. The Watergate investigations later revealed that in 1970 a young White House aide named Tom Charles Huston had come up with a plan to authorize the CIA, FBI and military intelligence units to intensify electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats,” authorize illegal opening of mail and lift the restrictions on break-ins to gather intelligence.

Huston warned in a top-secret memo that the plan was “clearly illegal.” Nixon initially approved the plan anyway. Hoover strenuously objected, because eavesdropping, opening mail and breaking into homes and offices of domestic-security threats were the FBI’s bailiwick and the bureau didn’t want competition. Nixon rescinded the Huston plan four days later.

There is little doubt Felt thought the Nixon team were Nazis. During this period, he had to stop efforts by others in the bureau to “identify every member of every hippie commune” in the Los Angeles area, for example, or to open a file on every member of the Students for a Democratic Society.

None of this surfaced directly in our discussions, but he clearly was a man under pressure, and the threat to the integrity and independence of the bureau was real and seemed uppermost in his mind.

On July 1, 1971 — about a year before Hoover’s death and the Watergate break-in — Hoover promoted Felt to be the No. 3 official in the FBI. Although Hoover’s sidekick, Clyde Tolson, was technically the No. 2 official, Tolson was ill. Thus, my friend became the day-to-day manager of all FBI matters as long as he kept Hoover and Tolson informed or sought Hoover’s approval on policy matters.

In August, a year after my failed tryout, Rosenfeld hired me. I started at The Post the next month.

I kept Felt on my call list and checked in with him. He was relatively free with me but insisted that he, the FBI and the Justice Department be kept out of anything I might use indirectly or pass on to others. I promised, and he said that it was essential that I be careful. The only way to ensure that was to tell no one that we knew each other. No one.

Passed over

After Hoover’s death,

Felt doesn’t get top job

On May 2, 1972, Felt was in his office when he learned Hoover had died at his home. Felt was stunned. For practical purposes, he was next in line to take over the bureau.

Yet Felt was soon to be visited with immense disappointment. Nixon nominated L. Patrick Gray, a longtime Nixon loyalist, to be acting director.

As best I could tell Felt was crushed, but he put on a good face. “Had I been wiser, I would have retired,” Felt wrote in his 1979 memoir, “The FBI Pyramid From the Inside.”

On Saturday, June 17, the FBI night supervisor called Felt at home. Five men in business suits, pockets stuffed with $100 bills, and carrying eavesdropping and photographic equipment, had been arrested inside the Democrats’ national headquarters at the Watergate Office Building at about 2:30 a.m.

Felt was in his office at the FBI by 8:30 a.m., seeking more details. The Post’s city editor woke me at home about the same time and asked me to come in to cover an unusual burglary.

The first paragraph of the front-page story that ran the next day in The Post read: “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

The next day, Carl Bernstein and I wrote our first article together, identifying one of the burglars, James McCord, as the salaried security coordinator for Nixon’s re-election committee. On Monday, I went to work on E. Howard Hunt, whose telephone number had been found in the address books of two of the burglars with small notations “W. House” and “W.H.” by his name.

This was the moment when a source or friend in the investigative agencies of government is invaluable. I called Felt at the FBI, reaching him through his secretary. It would be our first talk about Watergate. He reminded me how he disliked phone calls at the office but said the Watergate burglary case was going to “heat up” for reasons he could not explain. He then hung up abruptly.

Nothing in the open

Woodward wants to talk,

but Felt sets the rules

In July, Carl went to Miami, home of four of the burglars, on the money trail and tracked down a local prosecutor and his chief investigator who had copies of $89,000 in Mexican checks and a $25,000 check that had gone into the account of Bernard Barker, one of the burglars. We were able to establish that the $25,000 check had been campaign money that had been given to Maurice Stans, Nixon’s chief fund-raiser, on a Florida golf course. The Aug. 1 story on this was the first to tie Nixon campaign money directly to Watergate.

I tried to call Felt, but he wouldn’t take the call. I tried his home in Virginia and had no better luck. So I showed up at his home one night. His manner made me nervous. He said no more phone calls, no more visits to his home, nothing in the open.

If we were to talk, Felt said, it would have to be face to face where no one could observe us. We would need a preplanned notification system — a change in the environment that no one else would notice or attach any meaning to.

Felt and I agreed that I would move a flowerpot with a red flag, which usually was in the front near the railing, to the rear of my balcony if I needed an urgent meeting. The signal would mean we would meet that same night about 2 a.m. on the bottom level of an underground garage just over Key Bridge in Arlington, Va.

Felt said I would have to follow strict counter-surveillance techniques: Use the back stairs of my apartment house rather than the elevator. Don’t use your car, and change taxis on the way. Walk the last several blocks. If you are being followed, don’t go down to the garage.

Felt said that if he had something for me, he could get me a message. He said if there was something important he could get to my New York Times — how I never knew. Page 20 would be circled, and the hands of a clock in the lower part of the page would be drawn to indicate the time of the meeting that night.

The relationship was a compact of trust; nothing about it was to be discussed or shared with anyone, he said.

In the course of this and other discussions, I was somewhat apologetic for plaguing him, but explained that we had nowhere else to turn.

Pounding pavement

Encouragement comes

from surprising source

Carl and I had obtained a list of everyone who worked for Nixon’s re-election committee and were frequently going out into the night knocking on the doors of these people to try to interview them. I explained to Felt that we were getting lots of slammed doors in our faces. There also were lots of frightened looks. I was frustrated.

Felt said I should not worry about pushing him. He had done his time as a street agent, interviewing people. The FBI, like the press, had to rely on voluntary cooperation. It was an unusual message, emphatically encouraging me to get in his face.

With a story as enticing, complex, competitive and fast-breaking as Watergate, there was little tendency or time to consider the motives of our sources. What was important was whether the information checked out and whether it was true.

I was thankful for any morsel or information, confirmation or assistance Felt gave me while Carl and I were attempting to understand the many-headed monster of Watergate. Because of his position virtually atop the chief investigative agency, his words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering, authority. The weight, authenticity and his restraint were more important than his design, if he had one.

It was only later, after Nixon resigned, that I began to wonder why Felt had talked when doing so carried substantial risks for him and the FBI. Had he been exposed early on, Felt would have been no hero. Technically, it was illegal to talk about grand-jury information or FBI files, or it could have been made to look illegal.

Felt believed he was protecting the bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their efforts to manipulate the bureau for political reasons. The young eager-beaver patrol of White House underlings, best exemplified by John Dean, were odious to him.

His reverence for Hoover and strict bureau procedure made Gray’s appointment as director all the more shocking. Felt obviously concluded he was Hoover’s logical successor.

And the former World War II spy hunter liked the game. I suspect in his mind I was his agent. He beat it into my head: secrecy at all cost, no loose talk, no talk about him at all, no indication to anyone that such a secret source existed.

In our book “All the President’s Men,” Carl and I described how we had speculated about Deep Throat and his piecemeal approach to providing information. Maybe it was to minimize his risk. Or because one or two big stories, no matter how devastating, could be blunted by the White House. Maybe it simply was to make the game more interesting. More likely, we concluded, “Deep Throat was trying to protect the office, to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.”

Each time I raised the question with Felt, he had the same answer: “I have to do this my way.”

This is an abridged version of Woodward’s account in The Washington Post.