Watergate “Deep Throat” Gravely Ill

John Dean, easily the slimiest of the figures involved in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, revealed the following in a column in yesterday’s LAT:

I have little doubt that one of my former Nixon White House colleagues is history’s best-known anonymous source — Deep Throat. But I’ll be damned if I can figure out exactly which one.

We’ll all know one day very soon, however. Bob Woodward, a reporter on the team that covered the Watergate story, has advised his executive editor at the Washington Post that Throat is ill. And Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Post and one of the few people to whom Woodward confided his source’s identity, has publicly acknowledged that he has written Throat’s obituary.

Quite interesting. People have been speculating for over thirty years as to Deep Throat’s identity, or whether there ever was such a person.

The intriguing title of the piece is, “Should We Jail Deep Throats?” Dean never actually answers that question, but argues that perhaps we should jail Woodwards and Bernsteins:

Without confidential sources, much of what people need to know in a democracy would never be reported, so unless there is a higher reason, journalists must be able to protect such sources who are willing to impart such information. That said, no news person should agree to provide confidentiality unless it is essential to obtain information that the public should be told and there is no other way to obtain the information. A scoop per se does not justify a pledge of confidentiality.

A source may be using the reporter, while the reporter is using the source. Motives range from the noble whistle-blower who is morally offended by misconduct to the staffer who is floating a trial balloon to the low-end leaker who is seeking to gain advantage by sabotaging a competitor or foe.

Reporters and their sources (and the public) must remember that when journalists agree to keep a source confidential, they have entered into a contract. Indeed, reporters have been successfully sued for damages when they have breached their agreement. However, in most states, every contract has an implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing — meaning that neither a reporter nor a source can take unfair advantage of the other. This is important because insiders leak for an array of reasons, not always honorable, and may be using the reporter’s confidentiality to protect themselves if, say, they are releasing information obtained improperly. If the source tried to enforce confidentiality, or collect damages from the reporter, the attempt would fail because of implied warranty.


No reporter can enter into an agreement that violates that law. Rather, an agreement of confidentiality is subject to it. The so-called news person’s privilege, just like the attorney-client privilege or a president’s executive privilege, is a qualified privilege. When a judge holds a reporter in contempt for violating the law, that judge is merely upholding the law of the land.

No doubt. The reporter’s ability to report interesting information to the public doesn’t trump the law. When a leaker is in violation of the law, a journalist has an obligation to cooperate.

As to the titular question, I would give a qualified Yes. I last read All the President’s Men nearly twenty years ago and don’t recall the specifics of what Deep Throat revealed. Certainly, though, those who leak classified information to journalists should be tracked down and prosecuted. Those people obtain the information on the explicit grounds that they not disclose it to unauthorized personnel. The price for violating that trust should be high.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Media, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    James, you are calling John Dean a slimey figure when he was the only one in the Nixon White House with enough charactor and integrity to testify against the crimes going on within that white house.

    You are the one doing the sliming, which makes you a slimey figure.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The Watergate scandal was an abomination and those involved deserved to be prosecuted for their crimes. I call Dean “slimey,” though because he participated and then turned against his co-conspirators to save his own hide and has since made a living impugning those with whom he worked. I much prefer the model of G. Gordon Liddy, who took responsibility for his actions, refused to betray his comrades for personal gain, and served his sentence like a man.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I wonder why Bill Gertz’s sources haven’t been put in jail yet for all the classified materials that’s been leaked to the man.

  4. ken says:

    James, you are wrong about Dean. He did not participate in the crimes being committed at the white house and when he found out about them he first warned the president and then testified against him.

    Being privy to crimes as the presidents legal council does not mean that he participated in them and deserved to go to jail like Libby. If that was the case then every corporate lawyer in America would probably deserve some jail time as well.

    BTW, if you think Liddy is a model worthy of emulation and respect then your values are way out of line. The way you describe him makes him sound like a gang member who proves his manhood by taking his jail time without ratting out on his fellow criminals.

  5. Mark says:

    There was an article last week claiming George H.W. Bush was Deep Throat. Well, he looked just fine yesterday at the Super Bowl, so we can count him out as being the guy.

    As for Dean, he did serve 4 months in prison for obstruction of justice, but now is just a has-been former insider who rants to anyone who will listen that Bush should be impeached.

    Perhaps Dean is just jealous of Ramsey Clark…

  6. Zed says:

    I have always entertained the thought that Bill Safire was deep throat, not likely, but amusing.

  7. Roger says:

    How about the ailing 91 year-old Former President Gerald Ford? Ford was notably absent from President Clinton’s library grand opening and President Bush’s inauguration.

    It would have been in Ford’s best interest to be an unnamed source. He figured that Nixon was not above firing people who didn’t see things his way and given that he was vice president, people would have dismissed his information as a means of ascending to the presidency.

    Then again, Woodward and Bradlee could be throwing us a red herring to keep us off the path.

  8. Jeff says:

    How can Gerald Ford be accused of being Deep throat? He didn’t become Vice President until late 1973 which was obviously long after the scandal had broken. B and W have said that Throat was a man linked to the executive branch of government, which Ford was…but not until after the majority of the scandal had already surfaced. Take Ford out of the equation.

  9. Bob says:

    If you think John Dean was the “slimiest ” figure regarding Watergate then you should do your homework. If you lived during that time you have either had a slight stroke or forgotten most of what was made public regarding the people around Nixon. Dean was one of the most spotless!!!