Yes, Virginia, There Is a Deep Throat

Let's not overdo cynicism about the media.

A surprising number of people believe that Deep Throat, the anonymous source who guided Bob Woodward's Watergate reporting, is a fabrication. Chatterbox recently heard from so many of these skeptics (after writing about Deep Throat here and here) that he feels it necessary to explain why Deep Throat almost certainly did exist.


The most commonly stated version of the hoax theory is that Woodward and Carl Bernstein invented Deep Throat in order to liven up All the President's Men, their 1974 book about how they got the Watergate story. The most authoritative source is David Obst, who was Woodward and Bernstein's literary agent for the book, in his 1998 book, Too Good To Be Forgotten. Obst discussed his findings with Brit Hume of Fox News in October 1998:

Obst:I was their literary agent, and I sold the book to Simon & Schuster at the beginning of October of 1972, and the boys kind of got stuck on how to write it. In fact, they turned in a draft, and the publisher kind of hinted that they'd like their money back. And they were really kind of stuck.

And then Bob had dinner one evening with Robert Redford and William Goldman, a screenwriter, and shortly thereafter, he came up with this brilliant idea of doing the book as his own personal story. And suddenly ...

Hume: His and Carl's, right?

Obst: Yes, his and Carl's, of course. And suddenly, this character of "Deep Throat" showed up, and ...

Hume: Had you ever heard of this "Deep Throat" figure before that time?

Obst: No. There was no "Deep Throat" character.

Obst deduces that there was no Deep Throat from the fact that he, David Obst, never heard of Deep Throat until he read All the President's Men. The main problem with Obst's theory is that there's no shortage of other people who had heard of Deep Throat. Barry Sussman, who was the Post's Watergate editor, wrote this in an essay posted online in 1997:

One day about three months after the break-in—and after the Post had printed some of its most important articles—Woodward came to me with a relatively minor story, and with an unusual request. He said he would tell me who the source was if I really wanted to know, but that in this instance he would rather not. I had no problem in acceding.

To my recollection, that was the start of the Deep Throat Watergate involvement.


Sussman told Chatterbox that Howard Simons, the Post managing editor credited with nicknaming Woodward's secret source "Deep Throat," discussed Deep Throat with him back in 1972 and 1973. (Simons is now deceased.) Another person who says he heard about Deep Throat well before David Obst is the Post's former executive editor, Ben Bradlee. In his memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee admits that he didn't learn Deep Throat's precise identity until after Woodward and Bernstein published The Final Days in the spring of 1976. But Bradlee makes clear that he knew, from Woodward, while the Watergate story was unfolding, not only of Deep Throat's existence, but also something about Deep Throat's general profile—his "job, experience, access and expertise." In all likelihood, Woodward had told Bradlee that Deep Throat was a high-ranking lifer at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (In a definitive 1992 Atlantic piece, James Mann established that Deep Throat was almost certainly a G-man, probably W. Mark Felt, though Felt has denied this to Chatterbox and others.)

It is, of course, still possible that there was no Deep Throat—that Woodward conned Sussman, Simons, and Bradlee during 1972 and 1973. But this would seem an unnecessarily high-risk strategy, particularly given Sussman's plausible contention that Deep Throat wasn't all that central to Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage. (To say that Deep Throat existed is not to say he was Woodward and Bernstein's best source.) It would have been especially risky for Woodward to lie to Bradlee when he told him (in 1976 or after) who Deep Throat was. Woodward was a celebrity by then, but Bradlee was still Woodward's boss, and such a lie would have remained a firing offense. Or did Bradlee know there was no Deep Throat and participate in a conspiracy to pretend that there was? Chatterbox doesn't believe Bradlee would want to engage in such a deception, and even if he did, Chatterbox doesn't believe Bradlee, Woodward, and Bernstein, collectively, would be able to pull it off.

Edward Jay Epstein, no mean investigative reporter himself, believes that Deep Throat doesn't exist. Among other things, he points out that no "Deep Throat" was alluded to in Woodward and Bernstein's original Watergate stories for the Washington Post:

[T]hese stories are attributed to multiple sources who worked in different part of the government—not a single person in the White House. For example, in the Washington Post ( October 10, 1972, p A1), he reports that at least "50 people" who worked for the White House and Nixon campaign were involved in spying and sabotage [which] is attributed to "FBI reports" but in his subsequent book, All the President's Men (p.134) he attributes precisely the same information to verbal information from Deep Throat. Similarly, he attributes his report on the so-called "Canuck letter" [Chatterbox interjects: This was a White House aide's letter to the editor of the Manchester Union Leader falsely alleging that Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie harbored prejudice against Americans of Canadian descent] to "law enforcement sources" in the Washington Post (October 10, 1972, p A1) but in the book, he attributes it to Deep Throat (P.134).


This argument is just silly. Quite obviously, the Post's house style did not allow for Woodward and Bernstein to refer to "an anonymous government official we like to call Deep Throat." If Deep Throat was indeed Felt or someone else at the FBI, that would be entirely consistent with the citations "FBI reports" and "law enforcement sources." Felt could have tipped off Woodward and Bernstein to something they confirmed in documents or through interviews with others at the FBI. Or, alternatively, Felt could have verified what the Post found in leaked documents or learned in interviews with less authoritative FBI sources.

Is Chatterbox saying that every detail Woodward and Bernstein have supplied about Deep Throat is accurate? He is not. If Deep Throat is Mark Felt, for example, Woodward and Bernstein are guilty of supplying inaccurate or deliberately misleading detail in All the President's Men, where Deep Throat is described as a heavy smoker; Felt gave up smoking decades earlier. (This inconsistency persuaded CBS News that Deep Throat was not Felt but FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, which is certainly possible.) Chatterbox has noted previously that in June and September 1974 the Washingtonian (in two articles by editor Jack Limpert that are now available online) said Deep Throat was probably Felt. Limpert addressed the smoking difficulty this way:

An editor at the Post told us: "Woodward disguised Deep Throat. Woodward tried not to lie, but he tried to keep people off the track as much as possible. For instance, Woodward made a lot of Deep Throat smoking cigarettes, but I had the feeling that Deep Throat doesn't smoke."

If the heavy-smoker business was deliberate misdirection, or a phony bit of color aimed at making the book more "novelistic," Woodward and Bernstein obviously deserve a mild scolding. But such an offense would be nowhere near as great as inventing Deep Throat out of whole cloth, which Chatterbox feels fairly certain they did not do.