Bamidbar 5765 — Deep Throat

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 Thirty two years ago, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had clandestine meetings in a Washington DC parking garage with a highly placed source known as “Deep Throat.” Real cloak and dagger stuff—they arranged meetings with signals like leaving a flowerpot in a particular window, or circling the page number of a particular page of a newspaper. Following tips from Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered what has come to be known as the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

This week, after over thirty years of secrecy and much speculation over who he was, Deep Throat identified himself as W. Mark Felt, number two man at the FBI during those troubled times.

The press this week has been full of debates about whether Felt is a scoundrel, a hero, or someone who did the right thing, but maybe not in just quite the right way.

If you want to see an interesting example in the bias in news reporting, take a look at the coverage of Felt’s revelation by CNN vs. the coverage by Fox. In the Fox report you will find four or five quotes from people saying he is a scoundrel, and one, from his family, saying he is a hero. On CNN you’ll find several quotes saying he’s a hero, or at least that he did the right thing, and one saying he’s a scoundrel.

Charles Colson told Fox News “The position Felt held in the FBI at the time is “one of the most trusted positions in government.” He said even though Felt likely thought he was acting in the country’s best interest, “the last thing you’d ever expect is for that man to go to the press so ‘hero’ is not the word I’d use” to describe him.”

Of course, despite being a born-again Christian Minister, “hero” is not a word I would use to describe Colson either. He served seven months in prison in 1974 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate-related Daniel Ellsberg case, and he was indicted for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

G. Gordon Liddy, another Nixon pal and Watergate conspirator told FOX News that if Felt had concerns, he should not have taken them to reporters.

Liddy said “What you are ethically bound to do is go to a grand jury and seek an indictment and not go to a single news source.” Liddy is of course a great person to talk about what one is ethically bound to do: he served nearly five years in prison for his role in Watergate.

Patrick J. Buchanan, Nixon’s speechwriter said “I think Mark Felt behaved treacherously. I’m unable to see the nobility of the enterprise, sneaking around in garages, moving pots around, handing over material he got in the course of the investigation.”

On the other hand, over at CNN, former President Bill Clinton said “Ordinarily, I think a law enforcement official shouldn’t leak to the press because you should let criminal action take its course. But there was some reason to believe he was right. He always felt ambivalent about it apparently, and I think that’s good,” the former president said. “Under these circumstances he did the right thing.”

In an article in the NY Times, Floyd Abrams, a lawyer in a high-profile case defending reporters’ use of confidential sources, said Mr. Felt had behaved honorably. “Sometimes, adherence to pre-existing rules asks too much of people,” Mr. Abrams said. “In this case, Mark Felt served the public enormously by breaking ranks and assisting in the exposure of ongoing repeated governmental misconduct. I think he’ll be remembered well when the history of this period is written.”

In an interview with the press Nick Jones said “The family believes my grandfather, Mark Felt Sr., is a great American hero who went well and above the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”

So who’s right? Patrick Buchanan who said Felt acted “treacherously?” Or Nick Jones who said he is a “great American hero?” What does Torah and the Jewish ethical traditional have to say about whether Felt acted properly?

I was 18 years old and serving in the US Army (President Richard Nixon was my Commander-in-Chief) in 1973 when the Watergate story was breaking. So anyone much younger than me probably doesn’t have much personal recollection of Watergate and what it was about. So before addressing whether Felt did the right thing, I hope those older than me will pardon a slight digression to explain what Watergate was all about.

Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States in 1968. He was running for re-election in 1972.

The heart of the story starts early in the morning on June 17, 1972. Washington DC police discovered five intruders inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The burglars were busy adjusting bugging equipment they had installed during an earlier illegal visit, and photographing Democrats’ documents.

Two days later, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the 1976 movie) reported that one of the five men arrested, James McCord, Jr., was on the payroll of the Nixon re-election organization as a “security coordinator.”

At first it was not known whether these five guys were working on their own initiative, or if others in Nixon’s organization knew about what they were doing or authorized their activities.

In October, 1972—a month before the election—Bernstein and Woodward reported that “During their Watergate investigation, federal agents established that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nixon campaign contributions had been set aside to pay for an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting individual Democratic presidential candidates and disrupting their campaigns.” If you learned about Watergate in a history class, what you might remember is some guys broke into the Democrat’s office to spy on them, the President knew about it, but lied about it. Nixon and his associates’ activities were far worse than just some simple phone taps, which would have been bad enough. According to the October 10 article, some of the things the Nixon campaign had been doing included “following members of Democratic candidates’ families and assembling dossiers on their personal lives; forging letters and distributing them under the candidates’ letterheads; leaking false and manufactured items to the press; throwing campaign schedules into disarray; seizing confidential campaign files; and investigating the lives of dozens of Democratic campaign workers.” Nixon’s Committee for the Re-election of the President said the Post story was fiction and filled with absurdities. The Post story contained specific, verified examples.

I find it somewhat amazing that despite the breaking of the scandal, Nixon went on to win a landslide victory over Senator George McGovern in the Presidential election in November. His popularity was widely boosted by the announcement two weeks before the election by his then National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State), Henry Kissinger, that “peace was at hand” in the war in Vietnam. Apparently peace in Vietnam, and a distrust of McGovern, who the Nixon campaign painted as a very radical liberal, were more important to voters than the improprieties being reported in the paper. Nixon distanced himself personally from the charges against people working for him.

A few months later, in January, the first Watergate convictions came down as two former Nixon aides were found guilty on charges of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping. Another couple of months later, on April 30, 1973, Nixon accepted the resignations of three of his top White House advisers, including the Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and he fired his counsel, John W. Dean III—the same counsel who the President had charged with investigating the scandal. Talk of impeachment proceedings against the President started to circulate.

In June, John Dean admitted that he spoke with Nixon about a cover-up relating to the Watergate scandal at least 35 times. A month later it was revealed that Nixon secretly recorded all of his phone conversations and Oval office meetings. Nixon refused to turn any tapes over to investigators.

In October 1973, Nixon fired Cox and abolished the office of the special prosecutor. Attorney General Eliot Richardson resigned because he refused to fire Cox. Talk of impeachment gained more momentum. A month later Nixon gave his famous “I am not a crook” speech. In December the subpoenaed tapes were shown to contain an 18 ½ minute gap. Nixon’s chief of staff Alexander Haig said the gap might have been caused by some “sinister force.”

In July of 1974 the Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s claim of Presidential privilege, and insisted that he turn over all the tapes. The first of three articles of impeachment was passed against him. In August, 1974, Nixon resigned and Vice-President Gerald Ford took over.

It’s an amazing story of abuse of power, and hubris and lack of respect for the law on the part of people entrusted with leading our country. An ongoing legacy of Watergate has been a loss of trust in the government and a certain tarnishing of the office of the President. Homage is paid to Watergate by the fact that any White House scandal since then is called “something-gate,” like the “Irangate” scandal of the Reagan Administration, or the “Travelgate” scandal in the Clinton Administration.

In the middle of all this, W. Mark Felt was the number two man at the FBI: intimately involved in the investigation, and very aware of efforts by the Administration to cover up the truth. Felt could have resigned from his job and gone public with what he knew. Felt could have kept his mouth shut and done nothing. Instead, Felt contacted his friend Bob Woodward, a young reporter at the Washington Post, and shared information from the FBI investigation that was being kept quiet. The information Felt shared let Woodward and Bernstein know where to go digging for more information. They broke the story that the corruption went all the way to the top—and brought down the President.

From a Jewish perspective, did Felt do the right thing?

There are those who say what Felt should have done is confront his boss, L. Patrick Gray, the head of the FBI. This would be in keeping with teachings in the Torah about rebuking your neighbor. Leviticus 19:17 commands us “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin on his account.” The Talmud tells us that the repetition of the word hochiach, rebuke, tells us that we should even rebuke our teacher – or by extension our boss—if we see him doing something wrong. So shouldn’t have Felt gone to his boss?

The problem here is Gray was appointed by Nixon—which was something which disturbed Felt, because he felt he should have gotten the top job. But more importantly, since Gray was a political appointee, Felt had good reason to believe that Gray would feel beholden to Nixon, and would protect him. It is very likely that Gray would not have listened to any kind of rebuke from Felt—in fact Felt may reasonably have felt he would be punished he if tried to rebuke Gray for the way the investigation was being conducted. The Talmud also tells us that just as we are charged with rebuking someone, we are also told NOT to rebuke someone if we know they will not listen. In this case, it was reasonable for Felt to assume rebuke would be pointless, and not to go to his boss.

Another option for Felt would have been to keep his mouth shut. Why did he have to do anything about it all?

There are several principles in the Torah that say it would have been wrong for Felt to do nothing. In Leviticus 19:16 we are told lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha, do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood. When a great wrong is being perpetrated we are not allowed to just sit around and let it happen. The rabbis have expanded this verse to not only a concern about a case where a life is threatened, but even to situations where a person’s financial well-being are threatened. Clearly, at a minimum, livelihoods, reputations, and careers were at stake in the Watergate situation. Given the high level political implications, the future of the nation was at stake. It would have been wrong for Felt to just keep quiet.

There is also a teaching in the Torah which says midvar sheker tirchak, stay far from a false matter. Whether he wanted it or not, Mark Felt found himself in the middle of a very false matter. If he did not do something to stop it, he would have been complicit as a participant in a grand-scale deception of the American people.

If we agree that Felt was obligated to do SOMETHING the question still remains exactly what. Should Felt have resigned his position and publicly gone to the press with his information, instead of leaking the information to the press? Wouldn’t that have been the more “honorable” thing to do?

One question that is impossible to know is whether Felt would have been able to accomplish what he did if he had simply resigned and gone public. A resignation like that is the sort of thing that might have garnered headlines for a couple of days and then been forgotten; he certainly would have been cut off from access to any further information about the ongoing cover-up.

The principle of lo ta’amod al dam rei’acha, not to stand idly by your brother’s blood, does not require that you sacrifice yourself to save him. If someone is drowning and you can’t swim, you don’t go out and drown yourself trying to save him. You do what you can, throw a life preserver or a rope, without endangering yourself. Felt was in his late 50s at the time of Watergate. If he resigned, his career and livelihood would have been over. He would have been a little old to start over in something new. It is not unreasonable for him to protect his livelihood under the circumstances.

Most of the public figures who have spoken out against the way Felt did things in recent days are people who did jail time because of their Watergate-related actions. As a viewer from CNN put it, “Saying he was somehow dishonorable is like a bank robber attempting to get his case thrown out by claiming the arresting officer had to jaywalk to cuff him.”

I looked at a lot of articles on the internet in preparing this talk. Interestingly, I didn’t find any quotes, other than from his family, that said outright, plain and simple, W. Mark Felt is a hero. Most were like the Clinton quote I mentioned earlier: “well, I guess he did the right thing.”

The Salt Lake Tribune said “He was a hero, though like others, not a perfect one.”

Many articles point to his being passed over for the top job at the FBI as being a big motivator—as if that somehow detracts from the fact, that at great personal risk, he spoke up about a great wrong that was being perpetrated by the highest levels of the US government.

Maybe we don’t like putting people on pedestals. Maybe we’re uncomfortable with heroes. Pretty much all heroes have some kind of flaw. Abraham didn’t stick up for Hagar and Ishmael when Sarah was bullying them. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, seemingly for financial gain. King David had a general sent to the front so he’d be killed and he could marry the widow. Yet we don’t make a big deal about their imperfections—they were heroes.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, there is a verse which says “these are the generations of Aaron and Moses.” Yet the following section only talks about Aaron’s descendants—it doesn’t say anything about Moses.’ Rashi picks up on this in his commentary, and explains that Moses is counted as a father to Aaron’s children because he was a teacher to them. This shows how exalted a teacher is.

And W. Mark Felt is a teacher to all of us. Forget what his motives were. At the end of the day, he told the truth. He remembered that his real loyalties were not to his job—not to his boss and not to Richard Nixon—but to the people of the United States and our Constitution. He had the courage to let the public know the truth at considerable risk to himself, just as the prophet Jeremiah spoke the truth even when it got him in trouble with the king.

Mark Felt IS a hero—he did the right thing. As the Salt Lake Tribune put it, “The political dirty tricks of the Nixon campaign in 1972 were bad enough, but the president’s attempt to cover up the wiretaps, burglaries and other misdeeds approached the tactics of a police state.” Those misdeeds might never have come to light if Mark Felt had simply kept his mouth shut.

May God protect the whistleblowers—those who have the courage to speak up in the face of evil.

Amen.

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