By: Greg Mitchell
I’ll never know for sure, but it’s possible that I was once on, ahem, fairly intimate terms with W. Mark Felt, the leak artist formerly known as Deep Throat.
Journalists and many others lionizing the former FBI official — rightly — for his contribution in helping to bring down Richard Nixon, should not overlook the fact that Felt was one of the architects of the bureau’s notorious COINTELPRO domestic spying-and-burglary campaign. He was convicted in 1980 of authorizing nine illegal entries in New Jersey in 1972 and 1973 — the very period during which he was famously meeting Bob Woodward in a parking garage. Only a pardon, courtesy of Ronald Reagan, kept him out of jail for a long term.
So the man knew a thing or two about illegal break-ins. COINTELPRO was the Patriot Act on steroids. And that’s where I come in.
Back in the bad old/good old days of the early 1970s, a fellow I’ll call “Stew” used to write, off and on, for a rather legendary magazine that I helped edit in New York City, before I went straight, called Crawdaddy. (We had plenty of other contributors, including Joseph Heller, P.J. O’Rourke, Tom Waits, Richard Price, William Burroughs, and Tony Kornheiser, to name a few.) Stew was a proudly left-wing guy, but from the fun-loving ex-Yippie side of the antiwar spectrum, as opposed to the violent Weatherman sector. By 1973, he had a bad ticker, and was pretty much retired from any organized political activity.
Stew had both the good and bad fortune to live in an isolated area of the Catskills, sharing a humble cabin on a hilltop near Hurley, N.Y., with his wife Judy (also a politico). Occasionally I spent a weekend with them there, or stopped by on the way to somewhere else.
In those days, at least one famous left-wing fugitive seemed to be on the loose at all times, ranging from Patty Hearst to Abbie Hoffman. Given their location, and backgrounds, Stew and Judy were, at least on paper — or in the fertile minds of Mark Felt’s FBI agents — plausible candidates to, perhaps, shelter at least one of the runaways. So they’d joke about their phone being tapped, or spotting spooks hiding behind trees in the woods, or expecting to find a listening device installed somewhere in their house.
Well, as we used to say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you. Turns out all of those fears were justified, and then some, thanks to Mr. Deep Throat and the program he helped organize.
Our fears first spiked when someone broke into the Crawdaddy office on lower Fifth Avenue one night. The intruder busted the gate protecting our rear entrance, and opened a few drawers, but nothing of true value or embarrassment was missing. You might say, in the parlance of the time, that we were only “Felt up.” Unfortunately, we had very little to hide, beyond Bruce Springsteen’s home phone number.
Then, I got a call from Stew on a Sunday morning, Dec. 11, 1975. He had come out to his old car, parked in front of a friend’s house in Greenwich Village, and noticed the band of grime on his rear bumper was brushed away in one spot. Investigating, he reached under the bumper — and found a crude homing device, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with a cute little antenna sticking out. He had no idea how long it had been there or who, exactly, had been following them.
Naturally, Crawdaddy’s editor, Peter Knobler, called a photographer, and we published a story about the episode the following month, which drew national attention. Pardon my French, but I recall that we called the story, “Bug Up My Ass!” (Remember: I was still a boy.)
With this rather firm evidence in hand, the couple launched a lawsuit against the government. During the course of it, FBI documents were released, and we all learned that, indeed, G-men had hidden in the woods watching them — and worse, had broken into their cabin at least half a dozen times. The feds also monitored all their mail at the local post office, and opened some of it. Of course, in my editorial duties, I had sent them many letters: Remember snail mail? They also perused the couple’s bank records. What incriminating evidence did they find? Zip. Nada.
One of the agents, according to the documents, had the wonderful name of George T. Twaddle.
Oh, one more thing: A listening device had been planted in their bedroom. I used that bedroom at least once while I visited them — with a girlfriend, no less.
This was all standard fare for many FBI agents at the time, when they weren’t infiltrating, or even starting, lefty political groups. “There was no instruction to me,” Felt later told Congress, “nor do I believe there is any instruction in the Inspector’s manuals, that inspectors should be on the alert to see that constitutional values are being protected.”
Stew and Judy managed to win a cash settlement from the government, though I forget the figure and the details. Still, I doubt if they are joining in the chorus of hero worship today for W. Mark Felt, who has good reason to prefer going down in the history books as Deep Throat, not Deep Doodoo.
Some of my fellow geezers may recall that the chief probe of COINTELPRO and similar lawless intelligence operations was carried out by the so-called Church Committee (headed by Senator Frank Church). It issued a chilling report in 1976 that briefly had tremendous impact. Here is one section that deals with Felt:
“Internal inspection at the FBI has traditionally not encompassed legal or ethical questions at all. According to W. Mark Felt, the Assistant FBI Director in charge of the Inspection Division from 1964 to 1971, his job was to ensure that Bureau programs were being operated efficiently…He could not recall any program which was terminated because it might have been violating someone’s civil rights.
“A number of questionable FBI programs were apparently never inspected. Felt could recall no inspection, for instance, of either the FBI mail opening programs or the Bureau’s participation in the CIA’s New York mail opening project. Even when improper programs were inspected, the Inspection Division did not attempt to exercise oversight in the sense of looking for wrongdoing. Its responsibility was simply to ensure that FBI policy, as defined by J. Edgar Hoover was effectively implemented and not to question the propriety of the policy. Thus, Felt testified that if, in the course of an inspection of a field office, he discovered a microphone surveillance on Martin Luther King, Jr., the only questions he would ask were whether it had been approved by the Director and whether the procedures had been properly followed.
“When Felt was asked whether the Inspection Division conducted any investigation into the propriety of COINTELPRO, the following exchange ensued:
“Mr. FELT. Not into the propriety.
“Q. So in the case of COINTELPRO, as in the case of NSA interceptions, your job as Inspector was to determine whether the program was being pursued effectively as opposed to whether it was proper?
“Mr. FELT. Right, with this exception, that in any of these situations, Counterintelligence Program or whatever, it very frequently happened that the inspectors, in reviewing the files, would direct that a certain investigation be discontinued, that it was not productive, or that there was some reason that it be discontinued.
“But I don’t recall any cases being discontinued in the Counterintelligence program.”