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'Deep Throat' disclosure sparks a national debate

Views differ on actions of informant

WASHINGTON -- Hero or villain? For those who would judge former deputy FBI director W. Mark Felt, it's in the eye of the beholder.

Felt helped bring down a corrupt presidency, but he may have violated federal law in leaking government information.

His disclosure that he was The Washington Post's ''Deep Throat" Watergate source more than 30 years ago comes against a background of anonymous sources who are under fire today. His story may well have increased their numbers over the years.

Now his disclosure has touched off a debate over whether Felt served the national good or did a disservice to his country.

''It's hard for me to judge," President Bush said. ''I'm learning more about the situation." He later said in an interview with broadcasters that he was ''taken aback" by the disclosure, but that he viewed it as ''the end of a chapter, and I probably won't comment. It's not appropriate for the president to get drawn into the debate."

Bush's father, the former president, defended Nixon during the Watergate scandals as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a sharp critic of news leaks and a member of the Nixon and Ford administrations, was asked during a Pentagon press conference how he viewed Felt's behavior. ''I think any time any wrongdoing occurs, I think it's important that wrongdoing be reported," Rumsfeld said.

''Now who one reports that to -- the authorities is one thing, or somebody else is another," Rumsfeld added. ''I'm not in any judgmental mood."

Felt had firsthand information on a coverup that reached to the Oval Office. His defenders said it would have been hard for him to go to his superiors since both FBI Director L. Patrick Gray III and Attorney General John Mitchell were implicated in Watergate abuses themselves.

''Normally, as a government employee, you've got to work within the process that's in place. But he clearly witnessed how the government was tampering with investigations," said Mike McCurry, who was a White House spokesman during the Clinton administration. ''He believed there were crimes being committed . . . and that his interest in getting out the truth overrode an obligation to work within the system."

Former Iran-Contra prosecutor John Barrett agreed. ''At a minimum, this is employee misconduct. Felt is a wrongdoer who performed for history, for the country, a function that turned out to be extremely useful," Barrett said.

Patrick Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter turned conservative commentator, sees it differently.

''We've always conceded that the 'old man' handled it badly. But he was not brought down by a band of angels. He was brought down by a band of Nixon-haters . . . and whom we now learn used a snake in the FBI," Buchanan said in an interview. ''This is basically a battle over history and a battle over truth."

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess, who also worked in the Nixon White House, said that in an ideal world, ''of course government employees should work through channels. We pay them to be responsible. But whistleblowers are appropriate when it's clear the chain of command is not going to work."

Those who served prison time after Watergate convictions offered some of the strongest views. Felt was ''sneaking in dark alleys leaving messages under flower pots and violating his oath to keep this nation's secrets," said former Nixon aide Charles W. Colson. G. Gordon Liddy, a Nixon operative who engineered the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Campaign headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, said Felt ''violated the ethics of the law enforcement profession."

Nixon defenders say that Felt's motives were not pure and that he was disgruntled at being passed over for the top FBI job when Nixon named Gray to the post.

''It was a personal vendetta," said GOP consultant Greg Mueller. ''He was a trusted individual high up in the FBI. He had access to confidential and classified information. And he was shopping a lot of that information out to The Washington Post. I don't know that we should be making him out as a superhero. He played a role in bringing down a president who was fighting the Cold War."

Meanwhile, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings and now the panel's senior Democrat, said he will introduce a congressional resolution praising Felt's ''extraordinary service" to the nation. ''Mr. Felt helped bring our country back from the brink of a constitutional crisis and an out-of-control White House," Conyers said.

Debates will continue for years about whether Felt is a hero or villain, said Larry Sabato, who teaches political science at the University of Virginia. ''Nixon deserved to be brought down. But did the means justify the end? It's a good question for which there is no answer."

At the Bush White House, , spokesman Scott McClellan said, ''There's going to be plenty of analysis on this, and we'll leave it to others." .

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