L. Patrick Gray has long been a footnote in the annals of the Watergate scandals, a status that kept him in relative obscurity until recently. He had the misfortune of succeeding J. Edgar Hoover as the interim Director of the FBI, but rapidly lost the confidence of the Nixon White House when the President suspected that some of the Watergate leaks came from his top-level staff. That led to the notorious order to “let him twist slowly in the wind” that signaled the end of his aspirations to make his appointment official.
In an extraordinary interview with George Stephanopolous yesterday, Gray talked about his betrayal by both Richard Nixon and his FBI assistant whom he admired until the moment, this year, when Gray discovered he had been stabbing him in the back all along:
Former acting FBI chief L. Patrick Gray III said in a television interview broadcast yesterday that his former deputy, W. Mark Felt, became the mysterious Watergate source known as Deep Throat out of personal revenge and “a desire to get rid of me.”
Ending 32 years of silence about his role in the Watergate scandal, Gray told ABC’s “This Week” that he had reacted with “total shock, total disbelief” to the revelation that Felt had held a series of secret meetings with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. He said he felt betrayed by Felt, who had repeatedly assured him that he was not Deep Throat.
“He fooled me,” said Gray, 88, who was forced to step down as acting FBI chief in April 1973 because of suspicions that he had facilitated the Watergate coverup. “It was like I was hit with a tremendous sledgehammer.”
Gray had worked for several years with Nixon on his political staff before coming to the FBI — an appointment that created tremendous resentment within the Bureau, and especially with Mark Felt. Felt thought that an insider should have been promoted to succeed Hoover, but Nixon and most of Capitol Hill knew how dangerous Hoover had become and that his deputies most likely had just as much access to the secret files that had provided Hoover so much political cover. Promoting one of Hoover’s inner circle had as much chance of passing muster with the Senate Judiciary Committee as picking G. Gordon Liddy as a special prosecutor for Watergate itself.
Much has been written about Mark Felt over the past few weeks since he (or really, his family) revealed his status as Deep Throat, most of it nonsense. Felt didn’t betray his country and he didn’t act heroically, either. To the extent he acted in the public good, he did so only in half-measures. Gray made it clear, for instance, that he would have supported Felt had the deputy decided to come clean about what he knew of Watergate and the surrounding scandals, although his own actions of the time certainly would have given Felt some reason to doubt that:
During the interview, Gray acknowledged providing raw FBI investigative files to White House counsel John Dean and destroying several files found in the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, the organizer of the Watergate break-in. But he denied complicity in the coverup, and said he had opposed White House efforts to stop the investigation on the grounds of a CIA connection.
Felt described Gray as a political hack to Woodward and Bernstein in their series of clandestine meetings, but during the day worked on apple-polishing to put Gray at ease. The ruse worked so well that Gray refused to fire Felt even after the White House requested his termination on several occasions. Gray didn’t even consider giving Felt a polygraph to determine if the leaks came from him, because he felt it would be too degrading for such an upstanding agent to have to endure such a test of loyalty.
At the heart of Gray’s disillusionment was his belief in Mark Felt as the ultimate FBI agent — daring, competent, erudite, and most of all loyal. While the Post review of the interview tries to make this point, it doesn’t quite come across as well as it did during the interview, part of which I happened to see yesterday. It matched his earlier admiration for Richard Nixon, a man to whom he became so embittered that he refused all contact from the former president, even when Nixon sent him books and personal notes. Gray never responded to Nixon, but clearly felt differently about his former deputy until last month.
Gray’s fate was to be betrayed by two people whom he trusted far more than either deserved. That final revelation appears to have embittered Gray even further as he now understands that he may have to live in Watergate history as one of the scandal’s biggest patsies, played by both sides against the middle. Small wonder that he has chosen to speak out now, more than 30 years after being chased out of the FBI, in an effort to balance the heroic portrait of Mark Felt that the media has painted these past few weeks. Gray’s story should remind us that no one came out of Watergate clean, and that this is one story where heroes unfortunately cannot be found.