Mark Felt's life in the FBI was shrouded in secrecy until last year when he came forward and admitted that he was "Deep Throat," the man behind President Nixon's demise. Felt leaked the details of the Watergate scandal to Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, but kept his identity hidden. He provides more details of his life in a new book co-written with John O'Connor. Read excerpt below.
In the spring of 1954 I received the invitation I had awaited for a dozen years. I was shown into an imposing conference room in the heart of the U.S. Justice Department headquarters in Washington. Portraits and other artwork adorned the fifty-foot walls. The center of the room was occupied by a massive table and beyond it stood a ceremonial executive desk. My destination was a spartan private office in the rear, dominated by a well-worn desk piled high with papers and files. As my host rose to greet me, I sensed his great power. After a long apprenticeship in the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- all of it spent preparing for this moment -- I was about to have my first private meeting with J. Edgar Hoover.
I had seen Hoover face-to-face once before and experienced his intimidating presence. During the final week of my basic FBI training in 1942, a reception was held for the young agents of Class 15 at the Mayflower Hotel inWashington. Before the director arrived, we were carefully instructed how to handle ourselves. We must not crowd around him.We were to form a line and march by to shake his hand, with no unnecessary conversation. Our handshake had to be firm but not too firm. Hoover disliked a "bone crusher" as well as a limp grip. He detested moist palms, and we were told to have a dry handkerchief ready to wipe off any sweat before the crucial handclasp.
Hoover arrived at precisely 6:30 P.M. He strode into the room briskly with Clyde Tolson, associate director, trailing, as always, a few steps behind. Hoover was vigorous and alert, dignified but friendly, and in complete control. He was forty-seven years old and at the peak of his physical capacities. Perhaps more than anything else, I noticed his immaculate appearance. He looked as if he had shaved, showered, and put on a freshly pressed suit for the occasion. Through the years, I never saw him looking otherwise.
The handshaking ceremony took less than fifteen minutes. Each of us received a quick, tight smile from the director. As the last member of the class passed by, Tolson, who had scrutinized each new agent, approached the director and whispered in his ear. A few seconds later, they were on their way out of the room, Tolson again a few steps behind.
Now, in 1954, I was one-on-one with the director, trying to keep my palms warm and dry. Hoover held out his hand and said, "It's nice to see you, Mr. Felt." His square face was accentuated by a jutting jaw. His piercing eyes bore into mine, sizing me up. He was stocky but not fat. He carried himself with a military bearing that made him appear taller than his 5 feet 10. His voice was strong and cultivated, with a trace of southern accent. His clothes were as immaculate as ever. I particularly remember his bright necktie.
Hoover was cordial and gracious as he took a seat behind the desk he had used from his first day as director (and would use until the day he died). I did not feel intimidated or uncomfortable as I launched into my presentation. I had a message to get across. It was common knowledge that Hoover promoted only those who had a demonstrated commitment to the Bureau and a "burning desire" to rise in its hierarchy. I wanted to convey those qualities to him.
"Mr. Hoover," I said, "I feel ready for more responsibility. My ambition is to be a special agent in charge. I feel confident I can handle the job whenever you feel I am ready for it."
Hoover looked pleased. "Mr. Felt, I am glad to hear that," he said. "We need ambitious, hardworking young men. You can be sure I will give you consideration when promotions are being made."
He began to discuss problems facing the FBI. In his forceful, staccato style, he spoke of the demands that Congress and the Atomic Energy Commission were making on the Bureau, requiring timeconsuming background clearances for AEC employees. I took copious notes, but after ten minutes I wondered if I was being tested. It was not easy to interrupt J. Edgar Hoover, but when he paused for breath, I pointed out that this was a very real problem in the Seattle office, where I was stationed. "We conduct thousands of these investigations," I said. "Most of them are routine and could be handled by the Civil Service Commission. The FBI has more important things to do and we should be responsible for only the top positions."
Hoover thought for a minute and then agreed. "You are probably right. We'll have to take a long, hard look at this problem." He did, and my career may have turned on this exchange. From that point on, I injected myself into the conversation whenever possible. We talked for about thirty minutes and then he rose, holding out his hand. "Mr. Felt, I enjoyed this conversation," he said. "You can be sure you will be kept in mind for a promotion."Six days later, back in Seattle, I received a letter from Hoover transferring me to Washington -- the "seat of government" (SOG) as he called it. I was now an inspector's aide, the next step up on the promotion ladder.
Washington was the center of the world in those postwar years, and Hoover's FBI was one of the capital's most respected institutions. As I rose to the top ranks of the FBI hierarchy under Hoover, I had the FBI career kids dreamed of in those days: a counterspy against the Nazis, a crime buster arresting dangerous felons, and finally a top official in Washington taking on domestic terrorists and political corruption.
Toward the end of my three decades in the Bureau, however, this service was turned against me. Critics in the Nixon administration and the Justice Department denounced me as a "Hooverite," someone overly attached to the director's secretive leadership style. Yes, I was a Hoover loyalist and remained so. Hoover was a political operative par excellence, a genius at manipulating Congress and the press. But he used these skills to protect the standing of the FBI as an incorruptible institution, as the paragon of science and criminology that "always gets its man." After his passing, our first challenge was to maintain those standards against an administration determined to make the FBI into a political tool for its own use.
Unquestionably, Hoover put his stamp on the men who served him. His ideal agent was tall, slim, and rock-jawed, like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. on television's The F.B.I., an actor approved by Hoover personally. His agents were expected to handle a prodigious number of cases, and they prospered by solving high-profile crimes, making the bureau look invincible in the public eye. Hoover's G-men always comported themselves with an aura of professionalism in public. Maintaining appearances was key to winning Hoover's good graces. Working within his strict organizational scheme and thinking clearly were just as important.
After being transferred to SOG, I had to learn the tricks of the trade. I quickly found out, for example, that Hoover would not accept a long memorandum. Getting his favorable response depended on a succinct presentation. I also learned the importance of the abstract -- a three-by-five typed slip with the title of the document, the date, to whom addressed, the name of the writer, and a one- or two-sentence description of the content of the document. Hoover went through a tremendous volume of reports and letters each day, and he usually read only the abstract. If that piqued his interest, he read the document itself. Unlike many agents, I took special care to write a good abstract. Careful wording was often enough to point Hoover in the desired direction.
Under no circumstances would Hoover tolerate a lapse of discipline. His seat of government was the nerve center of a tightly controlled and responsive organization. SOG occupied 40 percent of the imposing Justice Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and from there it directed all field operations. The special agent in charge (SAC) of every field office across the country conducted his own local operations, but he was kept under constant supervision through correspondence, carefully reviewed reports, and a system of annual inspections. In turn, SOG was scrutinized by Hoover, who kept his finger on everything and made all the decisions from the apex of the pyramid.
Headquarters operations at the time consisted of eight divisions.* They competed with each other to extract the maximum amount of work from the field. The SACs had to juggle operations in a way that kept the power centers happy. Politics permeated everything in Washington, and sound political skills were required to climb the FBI pyramid. Every field agent had a chance to learn the ropes at SOG during in-service training, a two-week session held at regular intervals in Washington and at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Some disagreed, but I thought this training was valuable for passing on the benefit of other agents' experience and sharing new investigative techniques. The first week in Washington consisted entirely of lectures by Bureau supervisors, each an expert in his field. For example, we would hear from someone on the bank robbery desk, where eight or ten supervisors divided up responsibility for investigating crimes in various regions of the country. In addition to these lectures, there were two full days of firearms training at Quantico, and hours devoted to solving hypothetical arrest problems. Making it in Hoover's FBI meant staying on top of the latest techniques in criminal justice -- and looking professional while doing it. J. Edgar Hoover always insisted that his agents dress like the lawyers and accountants most of them were and avoid any hint of slacking off -- not even taking a public coffee break. Agents who were short in stature had to work extra hard to prove themselves, and agents who were noted as overweight on their annual physical soon found "fat" letters in their mailboxes.
Hoover was obsessed with fighting the battle of the bulge. He had studied life insurance charts that suggested "minimum," "desirable," and "maximum" weights for each height and frame. He arbitrarily decided that each agent must fall into the "desirable" category. This standard made sense for most agents, and in my case they meant bringing down my weight from 181 pounds to a healthier 171. Hoover himself gained weight over the years, eventually reaching over 200 pounds. But, full of enthusiasm for his new program, he plunged into a four-month regimen of diet and exercise, losing thirty-three pounds. He achieved the desirable bracket but couldn't maintain it. At death he was sixteen pounds over the standard he demanded of others.
Most agents adjusted to the weight standards without much difficulty, but some could not. The penalty was "limited duty" status, which excluded them from dangerous assignments or strenuous physical exertion, with an added forfeiture of overtime pay. Here agent ingenuity came into play. A sympathetic physician could be talked into listing an agent with a medium frame as having a heavy frame, a difference of fourteen pounds in allowable weight. Or he might add an inch to an agent's height, which added five pounds to the allowable weight. I did nothing to stop these practices in my jurisdictions. But as pressure from SOG increased, the Bureau instructed each office to obtain scales and measuring tapes. Agents who had a weight problem were to be weighed and measured every thirty days until they achieved the desired bracket. One of my agents spent hours in the steam room and took no liquids for days before the weigh-in. An agent with an unusually heavy bone structure took on a skeletal appearance, and I ordered him to gain ten pounds.
Despite the excessive aspects, we appreciated Hoover's goal: to fashion the FBI into a model of public service in action and appearance, an organization that criminals would fear and good citizens would adulate. This was the vision that drew children to become "Junior G-men" and persuaded qualified young men to join the Bureau in spite of the modest pay, long hours, and family disruptions that characterized an FBI career. I personally felt privileged to join this indispensable American institution. I could not foresee the social and political forces that would assault the FBI while I served it, and the anguish that would mark the end of my career.