BFP Book Club: Leaking & Whistleblowing- A Review of Max Holland’s Leak

Max Holland; Leak: Why Mark Felt became Deep Throat; Univ Press of Kansas (March 2012)


What was Watergate about?  Who was Mark Felt?  Was he “Deep Throat?” If he was, why did he do it?  Why should we care, now?  These are some of the questions underlying, addressed in, and raised by a new book by Max Holland titled Leak:  Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.[1]

Watergate, at its root, was about the abuse of executive branch powers.  The discovery of a break-in at the office of a rival political party spiraled into an affair leading to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of a President, following revelations of high-level support for illegal activity including campaign finance violations, money laundering, wiretapping, and burglaries.

In a country based on constitutional principles like ours, drawn on a tapestry following a war for independence from tyrannical government authority, the exercise of executive branch authority always calls for oversight.  And good lessons from history can help illuminate current events.  In Leak, Holland provides a valuable and original inquiry into important historical questions.  Holland’s interpretation gives us some insight into a murky history, and it also provides context for currently pressing questions about the integrity of government and our Rule of Law.

Who Do You Trust?

Who can we trust, when lawmakers and law enforcers become lawbreakers?  What motivates those who speak out, or “leak,” to provide sensitive and previously secret information to society?  Can we always rely on people of integrity to speak out when warranted?   What if we can’t trust the people who do speak out, or the people who report what they say?

An “old friend” of young Robert Woodward apparently became a source for some of the most sensational Washington Post reporting from Woodward and Carl Bernstein on Watergate.[2]  Famously dubbed “Deep Throat” by a senior Washington Post newsroom executive, his motivations have been a source of evolving interpretation, even for Woodward and Bernstein.  In All the President’s Men, the image is closer to a person with a conscience, driven to speak out by his concern for the integrity of the Oval Office.

Trouble is, he didn’t just stand up for what he believed in.  The information came from out of the shadows, on “deep background.”

Mark Felt:  What Did He Do, and Why? 

In Leak, Holland states that it is now a fact that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.[3]  At the time at issue, Felt was one of the top officials in the FBI.  Bernstein and Woodward wrote many articles based on his alleged “leaking” during the latter half of 1972, but they regarded their October 10 story, later called their “assault on democracy” story, as one of their most important.  In the aftermath of the story, Felt’s identity as a source apparently had been divined by senior White House officials, but he couldn’t be attacked for some of the same reasons the Watergate burglars and their immediate supporters couldn’t be disowned or attacked.  Felt, and the burglars, simply knew too much.

But why did Felt “leak?”

Holland’s conclusion is that Felt was an ambitious man, so ambitious that he was eager for the top spot at the FBI following J. Edgar Hoover’s departure, and so eager that he was willing to risk talking to the press about an ongoing investigation so as to undermine the interim director (L. Patrick Gray) and other top officials in his quest for the top spot.  One of those others was William Sullivan, who paired with Felt in a colorful story told by Holland involving a threat of a fistfight.  In turn, Holland’s interpretation of Felt’s 1973 departure from the FBI involves a “live by the sword, die by the sword” lesson about bureaucratic infighting.

The fistfight threat and live by the sword, die by the sword analogies serve as good symbols of a larger reality here.  Politics ain’t beanbag, and bureaucracies can get really, really ugly.  For these reasons, this book is valuable not only for a general audience interested in some of our most important history.  I’d also recommend it to public policy or government studies students considering a career in government, for the cautionary tale about what can lie ahead.

But sometimes, competition can help breed the truth, even from within a den of thieves.

From Where Does Truth Spring?  Ambition vs. Whistleblowing

In 1973 and 1974, after Nixon was re-elected, the wheels of justice continued to grind on Watergate, driven in part by the drumbeat of media stories such as those based on Felt’s revelations to Woodward and Bernstein.  A peak event arrived in July 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a subpoena issued by a special prosecutor seeking taped recordings of White House conversations.

These conversations related to a criminal case involving senior White House officials including Attorney General John Mitchell along with H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, Charles Colson and others.  President Richard Nixon argued that the tapes were protected by “executive privilege,” a privilege asserted to flow from a need to protect confidentiality in Presidential conversations and implied from the President’s powers in Article II of the U.S. constitution.  In United States vs. Nixon[4], the Supreme Court denied the claim, at least in this case.  Writing for the majority (actually, the vote was 8-0, with Justice Rehnquist recusing), Chief Justice Warren Burger penned:

“We conclude that, when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.”

But the Supreme Court did not decide that a claim to “executive privilege” could never be upheld.

“The President's need for complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference from the courts. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished by production of such material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obliged to provide.”

In other words, were the President to assert a need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, the Supreme Court might find that a claim to privilege could serve as a valid defense -- even potentially in a case involving criminal matters.

The United States Supreme Court may be the highest court in the land, but it isn’t infallible.  Two decades earlier, a dubious Supreme Court decision laid the groundwork for a related doctrine called the “State Secrets Privilege.”  After a military plane crashed, victim family members sued to obtain information they believed would help them learn about the reason for the accident, and support their case for damages.  But the Air Force and U.S. government resisted, citing a need to protect national security, as the flight was testing secret equipment.  In United States vs. Reynolds (1953), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s claim to defend “state secrets.”  But when the accident report sought by the victim family members was declassified decades later, it contained no secret information, just noting that secret equipment was on board, a fact that was public at the time.  Instead, the information revealed was asserted to support a claim of negligence.

The United States vs. Reynolds case was the first formal recognition of the state secrets privilege in the Supreme Court.  In a special Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the issues in 2008, constitutional law scholar Louis Fisher, author of In the Name of National Security[5] (a book about the Reynolds case), was invited to testify.  Fisher critically examined the Reynolds history as well as the asserted need for broad deference to executive branch claims to secrecy.  He called for statutory recognition of the need for independent judicial review, and an explicit statement in the legislative definition that “The state secrets privilege may not shield illegal or unconstitutional activities.”[6]  We have yet to see these recommendations put into practice, but they deserve further consideration as well as implementation.[7]

Earlier this year, Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator, wrote and self-published a book describing her experience with the state secrets privilege in a case she took all the way to the Supreme Court.  In late 2002, the office of the U.S. Attorney General (then, John Ashcroft) issued a press release announcing the United States Department of Justice was invoking the state secrets privilege in Sibel Edmonds vs. Department of Justice.  This action was taken after a formal request from the Director of the FBI, and the press release specifically cited how “… the litigation creates substantial risks of disclosing classified and sensitive national security information that could cause serious risks to our country’s security.”[8]

Bringing to mind the opening paragraphs of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, and in particular, his warning how:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.[9]

… Edmonds went on to describe her initial reaction to the invocation of the state secrets privilege in her case in these terms:

What in the name of God was State Secrets Privilege?  What did they mean by “to protect national security.”  From what I knew, what these agencies were covering up was endangering national security.[10]

As the matters at issue in Watergate were largely concentrated on embarrassing and/or illegal activity in the executive branch, the administration’s defense included claims to “executive privilege.”  By way of contrast, Edmonds’ material and her concern about its treatment by the state involves issues shared across the three main branches of our government, one factor underlying the assertion of the broader “state secrets privilege” in her case.  In her memoir, Edmonds went on to list some questions she had about what the government might be “shielding.” The list included:


  • Was it Congressional corruption that involved one of the most powerful men in Congress and a few others there?


  • Was it government officials within the State Department and Pentagon, on the payroll of foreign entities who sold our secrets, intelligence, and technology?


  • Did this have anything to do with narcotics trafficking, with some of those involved connected to the higher-ups at the State Department, Pentagon, NATO, as well as certain lobbyists?


  • Was it the cover-up related to 9/11 -- those issues we’d all been warned to keep quiet about?


No matter.  United States v. Nixon was not to be repeated.  The Supreme Court stated it would not hear Edmonds’ case, without explanation.

Sibel Edmonds and Mark Felt – what are some of their similarities and differences?  Edmonds and Felt both revealed sensitive, previously closely-held and/or secret  information.  They both “leaked,” but this is a pejorative term that applies more closely to the Felt case.

Accepting the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in April 2006, Edmonds offered some clues to her own selfish, ambitious motives:

Standing up to despotism and tyranny has always been considered illegal by those in power, and dangerous to those who would expose them.  Today we are facing despots who use ‘national security’ to push everything under a blanket of secrecy; to gag and call it a privilege; to detain without having to show a cause; and to torture yet believe it’s fully justified.

We must be vigilant and fight back, for our freedom is under assault – not from terrorists – for they only attack us, not our freedom, and they can never prevail.  No, the attacks on our freedom are from within, from our very own government; and unless we recognize these attacks for what they are, and stand up, and speak out – no, shout out – against those in government who are attempting to silence the brave few who are warning us, then we are doomed to wake up one sad morning and wonder when and where our freedom died.

# # # #

Bill Bergman has 10 years of experience as a stock market analyst sandwiched around 13 years as an economist and financial markets policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He earned an M.B.A. as well as an M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Chicago in 1990. Mr. Bergman is currently working with Social Movement Sciences LLC, a new enterprise developing evaluation and funding services for not-for-profit organizations.


[1] Max Holland, Leak:  Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, University Press of Kansas (2012)

[2]In 1973, Robert Woodward was 30 years old, while Mark Felt was 60 years old.

[3] This remains a matter of some uncertainty.  See for example this recent article in New York magazine by Jeff Himmelman,, or this article by Russ Baker,

[4]418 U.S. 683 (1974)

[5] Louis Fisher, In the Name of National Security:  Unchecked Presidential Power and the Reynolds Case; University of Kansas Press (2006).  See review at

[6] Fisher’s prepared statement at this hearing is available here --

[7] A collection of some of Fisher’s recent work on the state secrets privilege, executive privilege, and other issues is available here --

[8] As quoted in Sibel Edmonds, Classified Woman: A Memoir (2012), p. 201

[10] Sibel Edmonds, Classified Woman: A Memoir (2012), pp. 201-202

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  1. Cu Chulainn says:

    Any discussion on Watergate that does not address Russ Baker’s work in _Family of Secrets_ leaves me with more questions than answers.

  2. Bill Bergman says:

    See for example footnote 3 above, Cu.

  3. Hal 9000 says:

    Bill, thanks for the info.

    There is substantial research published in written and audio form that makes a compelling case for Watergate being a covert military/intelligence operation aimed at destroying the Nixon presidency, or removing him from office. This is a very different scenario than the Watergate story popularized in the US media in the decade following the events. In your opinion, to which of these scenarios, if either, does Mr. Holland subscribe in his book?

  4. gogetem says:

    I agree with Hal and Cu. I’ve read Baker’s “Family of Secrets” and he makes a compelling case that Nixon was framed by the CIA. And I believe Baker isn’t the only researcher to come to this conclusion. I believe that Nixon was extremely crooked but the jury is still out on Watergate.

  5. Bill Bergman says:

    Hal, Holland is careful and sometimes critical of Bernstein and Woodward, for example in noting their occasional practice of ‘mixing fiction with fact.’ But if anything, given your two alternatives, Holland is closer to the traditional story. He takes it as a given that Felt was Deep Throat, when some of that other perspective you mention questions if that fully captures what Woodward was relying on. And it’s Hollands interpretation that Nixon’s downfall was not high on Felt’s list of priorities, where that other perspective you mention suggests it may have been at the top of the list for those involved. Russ Baker isn’t referenced at all in the index of Leak, nor is Family of Secrets included in the bibliography.

  6. Bill Bergman says:

    gogetem,the word ‘framed’ normally applies to the innocent, but you also call Nixon ‘extremely crooked.’ Holland has some material discussing how the White House was trying to offload blame for Watergate on the CIA, which could have had some related blowback in the information flow getting out, in addition to the other motivations underlying material you and Hal are talking about. This is still a murky area, and Holland may not be complete, but his work still helps shine some light in there, taken with a grain of salt. I tried to take Holland’s history to draw some useful perspective for matters of interest at Boiling Frogs.

  7. Bill Bergman says:

    Here’s some recent related work from Woodward and Bernstein.

  8. Bill Bergman says:
  9. Frankly, any discussion of Watergate, “Deep Throat” and the crimes of the Nixon regime that doesn’t mention the investigative work of reporter Jim Hougan, the author of “Spooks” and what I consider the definitive Watergate account, “Secret Agenda,” isn’t worth having.

    That Max Holland, a cover-up specialist for The Nation magazine and long-time Warren Commission propagandist for the “single bullet” conspiracy theory which contends that Oswald was a “lone nut” (see Jim DiEugenio’s searing demolition of Holland on The CTKA web site is now turning his attention to Watergate means one thing in my opinion: “Danger – Obfuscation Ahead!”

    Anyone who doubts the connections between the JFK assassination and Watergate should consult the documentation found on the Mary Ferrell Foundation web site or this 1996 piece on Woodward by Lisa Pease published in Probe magazine

    I disagree with Bill that “Watergate, at its root, was about the abuse of executive branch powers.” It was that but it was also much, much more. As Hougan demonstrates in “Secret Agenda,” an account based upon thousands of pages of classified CIA and FBI documents mistakenly released to Hougan under the Freedom of Information Act, Nixon was considered a “traitor” by his own intelligence apparat!

    That famous trip to China? Nixon’s own Pentagon and intelligence bureaucracy considered it an act of treason, a sell-out to the Communists. Detente with the Soviet Union, the same and worse!

    In fact, the core crimes of Watergate were successful moves by the CIA to conceal their own illegal domestic operations, including Kennedy’s murder and Nixon’s ouster.

    Operation CHAOS was one, MKULTRA was another, but not these were not the only domestic programs stood-up by the Agency (can you say Operation MOCKINGBIRD, the CIA’s subversion of the media, exposed by Carl Bernstein in 1977?).

    This is not a defense of Nixon. He was a criminal with extensive ties to organized crime, drug trafficking and war crimes (Cambodia bombing, Allende coup, etc.) at the behest of his Military-Industrial Complex buddies. His own illegal domestic operations also made him complicit in helping turn the country into the police state it is today. But that was for the American people to decide, not a coterie of crooked insiders!

    That key players in the Watergate affair, James McCord, E. Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis/Fiorini, Bernard Barker, Richard Helms and James Angleton were also up to their eyeballs in the Kennedy assassination, and Nixon was well-aware of this fact, fearing that Watergate would open up the “whole Bay of Pigs thing,” code for JFK’s murder, according to Nixon aide Bob Halderman, doesn’t even enter Holland’s frame. How could it since Holland is one of the biggest proponents covering-up JFK’s ouster by CIA-Pentagon “executive action”! That the Agency still refuses to release some 1,171 top secret CIA JFK files (see Jefferson Morley’s Salon piece), should tell us something’s seriously amiss here.

    As Hougan wrote when Mark Felt was pegged as Woodward and Bernstein’s “deep throat”:

    “Historically, Deep Throat has been cast as an American hero, the Nixon Administration official who came forward, however secretively, to blow the whistle on the Administration’s improprieties and crimes. By helping the Post unravel the White House cover-up, Throat and his cub-reporter buddies almost single-handedly destroyed the Wicked Warlock of the West Wing. The rest is history.

    “And myth.

    “One of the most lasting consequences of the Watergate affair has been its corrosive effect upon investigative reporting. Through its unquestioning embrace of Deep Throat, Hollywood and the press have romanticized the anonymous source and, in so doing, legitimized him. The results are there to be seen in your daily newspaper: story after story, attributed to no one in particular. ‘Speaking on condition of anonymity…’ ‘White House sources denied…’ ‘A Pentagon official said…’

    “As sources disappear, the news becomes more propagandistic. Ambitious and calculating pols drop innuendos and send up trial-balloons, without ever having to take responsibility for what they’ve said. Or not said.”

    Which takes us to the present. The deleterious effects of secrecy on the body politic, the cover-up of high crimes and misdemeanors by the powerful, as revealed by Sibel Edmonds and others such as Tom Drake, has metastasized and now “involves issues shared across the three main branches of our government,” as Bill forcefully asserts.

    But it represents more; it brings us face to face with the inescapable reality that the old Republic is no more. From top to bottom, the system is corrupt and has been for decades. The question is: when will the American people wake up and do something about it?

  10. Bill Bergman says:

    Thanks for the thoughts/information, Antifascist. I’ll check it out.

  11. Hal 9000 says:


    Thanks for the reply. For what it’s worth, I agree with antifascist. The more one digs into the evidence and the “players” of Watergate, the less credible the “official” narrative becomes. As in the JFK assassination, RFK assassination, MLK assassination, OK City, 9/11, etc., there are so many points of the official narrative that don’t make sense, or contradict the known facts and evidence. Obviously, I can’t cover the details in a post like this. But just let me add this to what antifascist said. One should also look into Bob Woodward. This guy came out of Naval Intelligence. If you’re familiar with the history of the ONI, Office of Naval Intelligence, then you understand the significance. There is abundant information on Woodward available these days, here is one link This article is by Lisa Pease, whom I have found to be thorough and even-handed in her research.

  12. Bill Bergman says:

    Thanks, Hal.

    Here’s a new article by Russ Baker on the matter.

  13. Two comments. First, Bill’s article was well-written and informative; I failed to mention that and should have. Most certainly, I agree with the thrust of his piece that things have grown immeasurably worse in the years since Watergate as our “watchdog press” (more a myth then a reality) was transformed into today’s lapdog media.

    As the Russians were fond of saying during the Soviet period: “There’s no Izvestia (news) in Pravda (truth), and no Pravda in Izvestia!

    While Russ Baker has provided us with a wealth of information, and I found “Family of Secrets” to be a rip-roaring read, JFK researchers, including former Probe magazine co-publisher Jim DiEugenio have raised critical questions about Baker’s methodology. DiEugenio’s review of “Family of Secrets” can be read here:

    A more enlightening exploration of Bush Dynasty machinations can be found in former Houston Post investigative journalist Pete Brewton’s 1992 suppressed classic, “The Mafia, CIA & George Bush.”

  14. gogetem says:

    Hi Antifascist.

    Thanks for your link to DiEugenio’s review. Its always good to get other respected researchers’ takes. Relying on one source or author is never a good idea.
    I was curious if anyone has read Lamar Waldron’s new book on Nixon and Watergate. It seems its getting quite a bit of Mainstream Press which in itself gives me reason to pause.

  15. Bill Bergman says:

    Brewton’s book is on my living room bookshelf, Antifascist, drawing occasional stares from my wife. A real journalist, that guy. Just noting for now the bipartisan nature of his story, lest we focus too closely on Republicans. The introduction to “The Mafia, the CIA, and George Bush” includes “If the Democrats had won in 1988, this book would be entitled “The Mafia, the CIA, and Lloyd Bentsen” …”)

  16. Absolutely correct, Bill. As you’ve consistently documented, financial chicanery and corruption are fully bipartisan affairs. Lest we forget, the despicable role played by Democrats in the Savings & Loan crisis (Lloyd Bentsen, as Bill notes); BCCI (Clark Clifford); current USAG Eric Holder (Marc Rich pardon; Jim Hougan did yeoman’s work on Rich in this 1994 Playboy piece; Clinton Treasury Secretary and former Citigroup chairman Robert Rubin (Enron); Rubin’s return appearance in the 2008 financial collapse as former CEO at Goldman Sachs; Larry Summers (Glass-Steagall repeal); Lee Hamilton’s cover-up of Iran-Contra and 9/11; on and on it goes…

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