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Felt, Colson & Bremer

In the wake of the disclosure that Mark Felt was Deep Throat, few figures appeared on television to question his motives more often than former Nixon aide Chuck Colson.  Again and again, he told MSNBC he was "shocked...because I worked with him closely."  He told CNN that his leaks to Woodward were "demeaning, terribly disappointing.  It's not the image of the professional FBI that you would expect."  In another CNN interview he said: 

He could have walked into Pat Gray's office, the director of the FBI, and said, here are things that are going in the White House that need to be exposed. The president needs to know about this.

This disappointment coming from Chuck Colson is more than a bit ironic, since in at least one instance, it was Colson's activities that cried out for exposure.  Most know that Colson served time in prison in connection with the Watergate scandal, but few know of his role in the White House reaction to the shooting of George Wallace.  The story provides some important context in understanding the motivations of Mark Felt as Deep Throat. 

J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI, died on May 2, 1972.  Days later, President Nixon passed over Mark Felt and other career FBI agents and nominated Patrick Gray, a Nixon loyalist, as Hoover's successor. 

Less than two weeks later, on May 15, 1972, only a month before the arrests at the Watergate, a lone gunman named Arthur Bremer shot and badly wounded George Wallace, then a Democratic presidential candidate who was then second to eventual nominee George McGovern in delegates.  The wounds paralyzed Wallace and effectively ended his campaign.   

In his book, Arrogance of Power, Anthony Summers reconstructed the White House reaction from several sources including the Nixon tapes (p. 405): 

Nixon was "agitated" when informed of the shooting, and "voiced immediate concern that the assassin might have ties to the Republican party or, even worse, to the President's Re-election Committee." Were that to have been the case, Colson was to note, "it could have cost the President the election."

Within three hours, before any details about the assassin were clear, a White House aide announced to the press that papers found in Bremer's Milwaukee apartment linked him to "leftist" causes, perhaps to the campaign of Senator McGovern. "What matters for the next 24-48 hours is the story," Nixon would tell colleagues the next morning, according to Haldeman's diary. "Don't worry about doing it all by the book. The problem is who wins the public opinion on it. It's all P.R. at this point."

His real view was in fact even blunter. The president recalled that day that he had recently told the new attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, that there were "times when it's best that the Justice Department not know ... we'll tell you what we think you need to know." Now was one of those times, and the president urged aides to use the acting FBI director, Pat Gray, as "an accomplice." Meanwhile he exhorted them: "Use Colson's outfit, you know, to sneak out things. I mean, he'll do anything. I mean, anything!"

Colson himself, in a National Archives oral history interview excerpted in Fred Emery's "Watergate," picks up the story from there (p. 119):

Nixon expressed a fear that this guy [Bremer] might be a right-wing zealot or a Nixon supporter and that the blame would then come upon Nixon. We sat there for a couple of hours talking. Early in the conversation Nixon said, "Get over to the FBI and find out what they know."

I picked up a phone from the president's office, so it's on the tapes, and got hold of Mark Felt and said, "What do we know?" and Felt said, "We know nothing; we've got the name and address of the fellow. We're sending agents out to his apartment right now. . .

Nixon's having a cocktail, he's sitting there with his feet back, we're waiting for the FBI to call. As happened hundreds of times under those circumstances, he would say, "Wouldn't it be great if ... oh, wouldn't it be great if they had left-wing propaganda in that apartment?" And in the course of conversation back and forth he said, "Too bad we couldn't get somebody there to plant it. Maybe could find out what was behind this." I excused myself, went out, called Howard Hunt ...

Emery adds that Colson "sought to make light of it, saying that it was simply an example of Nixon's political fantasies, 'the sort of thing he was always doing.'" 

However, the evidence now available in the National Archives tells a different story.  According to Emery, Colson's handwritten notes in the Archives describe the scenario involving "left wing literature" in Bremer's apartment as "our story." 

The tapes of the conversations between Nixon, Colson and Felt -- released several years after Colson's oral history interview -- show more detail.  At 7:42 p.m. on May 15, Felt called Nixon and the President.  Nixon -- already on the phone with Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman -- passed the call to Colson (my transcription of the mp3 audio).  After a quick briefing, Colson made a few suggestions:

COLSON:  One of my assistant's was just saying to me that he'd heard a couple of rumors.  One was that some Kennedy people were involved and that this fellow [Bremer] and some of his associates were Kennedy friends, and the second report we've had is that the fellow was an anti-war protester.

FELT:  I think the latter would be more likely...

COLSON: Yea, well, I'm sure...

FELT: ...Um, I've heard absolutely nothing of that Kennedy angle, [but] I'll be sure and pass that along. 

COLSON:  Be sure that you push that, Mark, just to be certain they ask those kinds of questions, you know, to get that kind of information.

FELT: Yes sir, I will.  What I'll do is get back in 30 minutes and give my report.

Colson breaks away.  Nixon can be overheard in the background telling Colson to tell Felt to "disregard [John] Ehrlichman's call."  Colson continues with Felt:

COLSON:  Mark, you can disregard Ehrlichman's call because we're taking it up with you right now directly.  He was going to discuss two rumors we had heard, one that an anti-war revolutionary from the University of Wisconsin, the second is that, uh, that he had been involved in some political activities with Ted Kennedy and some of Ted Kennedy's people.  So I think both of these ought to be checked, because as I'm told by my assistant here, they've been running rampant, these rumors.

But the president wants to be absolutely certain, Mark, that we don't delay in questioning.  That's the most important thing. 

At 8:15 p.m. Mark Felt called Nixon.  The transcript of that conversation was posted online (transcript and audio) on Wednesday by the George Washington University's "National Security Archive." It was also summarized in a story today by AP's Pete Yost. 

Felt: Hello.

Nixon: Yeah. What is the latest?

Felt: Well, we we're getting to shape up a little bit.

Nixon: Yeah.

Felt: This man, [ Arthur H.] Bremer, the assailant, is in good physical shape.

Nixon: Yes?

Felt: He's got some cuts and bruises, and-

Nixon: Good! I hope they worked him over a little more than that.

Felt: [ laughes] Ha. I think they did pretty well.

Nixon: Good.

According to Woodward's account last week, "Felt was offended that the president would make such a remark." 

The conversation continues:

Felt: Since I last talked to you-or Mr. Colson-

Nixon: Yeah, yeah, yeah?

Felt: --the Secret Service has gone into his apartment out in Milwaukee...

Nixon: Yeah?

Felt: ...and they found a bunch of rambling papers, and rambling writings.

Nixon: Right.

Felt: One of them was entitled, "How to Become Notable."

Nixon: Yeah?

Felt: Another one was entitled, "What To Do While Confined For a Long Period"--

Nixon: Good God.

Felt: This, this is a pretty clear picture to me that we've got a mental problem here with this guy--

Nixon: Right. Right.

Later, Felt spoke with Colson again, according to a memo now in the National Archives that Colson wrote to "The File" (published in Oudes, From the President: Richard Nixon's Secret Files, p. 445):   

At 9:30 P.m., Felt phoned me to say that he had obtained a further report from the Milwaukee police...Felt said that Bremer has refused to talk without his attorney and has been taken to a local magistrate and will be formally arraigned and confined in the Baltimore county jail. Felt cautioned that no information should leak out with respect to the psychiatrist's diagnosis or the documents found for fear a defense counsel could use it in pleading insanity. Felt said that the Bureau would not go into the apartment until they had obtained a search warrant. I suggested to Felt that he consider the use of informants in the jail in order to engage Bremer in conversation to try to determine motives. I explained that it was terribly important in a case of this kind to know what was behind the attempted assassination because it might have other implications but that obviously nothing should be done that would prejudice an ultimate prosecution. I suggested that his men be instructed to obtain information as soon as possible and under whatever circumstances they could [emphasis added].

At 9:23 p.m., Colson and Nixon speak by telephone.  The transcript, published in Stanley Kutler's Abuse of Power (p. 38), shows that Colson himself suggested the possibility of "planting" literature:

PRESIDENT NIXON: Is he a left winger, right winger?

COLSON: Well, he's going to be a left winger by the time we get through, I think.

PRESIDENT NIXON: Good. Keep at that, keep at that.

COLSON: Yeah. I just wish that, God, that I'd thought sooner about planting a little literature out there [in Bremer's Milwaukee apartment].


COLSON: It may be a little late, although I've got one source that maybe--


COLSON: --you could think about that. I mean, if they found it near his apartment that would be helpful [emphasis added].

Anthony Summers account continues (p. 406):

That evening, Colson later told the FBI, he placed a call to the man he had in mind for the task, Howard Hunt. Hunt was to fly to Milwaukee, where the would-be assassin had lived, and penetrate Bremer's apartment. To obtain entry, Colson suggested, Hunt could "bribe the janitor or pick the lock." According to Hunt, he pointed out that it was too late, that the apartment would now be sealed and virtually impenetrable. Colson called off the mission the following day.

Colson's CYA memo in the Archives -- written before the Watergate arrests -- adds one more detail:

Pat Gray called at 10:45 to say that he was now in charge of the case...Gray said he had instructed agents to engage in conversation. Gray further said the record revealed that he was a dues-paying member of the Young Democrats, politically active but that his brother, Theodore, reported that he, Bremer, was a Wallace supporter. Gray told me of his education and his part-time employment. I advised Gray that he should be aware of the need to determine the political motives as quickly as possible. He said he understood fully and was pursuing that avenue very aggressively [emphasis added].

So we have the complete picture: Colson and Nixon discussed planting evidence that would link an assassination attempt to a political rival.  Although nothing here shows that Felt knew of the talk of "planting" evidence, Colson had dealt directly with Felt and Gray and pressured both to pursue Bremer's political motives.  He pushed Felt hard on "rumors" of connections between Bremer and Ted Kennedy.  Felt expressed skepticism, but Gray, who took charge several hours later, reported that he was pursuing the motive angle "very aggressively."

Meanwhile, the editors at the Washington Post assigned rookie Metro reporter Bob Woodward to cover the Wallace shooting.  His colleague James Mann, in his well-known article on Deep Throat, recalled that Woodward "was clearly making considerable and frequent use of a source at the FBI." 

Woodward's own account published last week completes the story:

I called Felt several times and he very carefully gave me leads as we tried to find out more about Bremer. It turned out that he had stalked some of the other candidates, and I went to New York to pick up the trail. This led to several front-page stories about Bremer's travels, completing a portrait of a madman not singling out Wallace but rather looking for any presidential candidate to shoot. On May 18, I did a Page One article that said, among other things, "High federal officials who have reviewed investigative reports on the Wallace shooting said yesterday that there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Bremer was a hired killer."

Woodward's May 18 story makes no reference to the diagnosis of Bremer by psychiatrists. 

Presumably, Woodward's soon-to-be-released book will shed more light on this episode, but the facts suggest that Felt's motivation for leaking about Bremer may have been just as complex as during Watergate.  He saw Nixon's men, possibly including Pat Gray, pushing a criminal investigation to achieve a political end.  To be sure, Felt leaked in part to promote and protect the image of the FBI, but he may have wanted to put out the real facts on Bremer to deter Colson and his "outfit" from attempting anything genuinely crazy.  Remember, as Felt made clear in his own book (as summarised in the Vanity Fair article) he was by this time familiar with Howard Hunt and the "plumbers." 

As for Colson, his "shock" at Felt's leaking after all these is a truly astonishing bit of hypocrisy, to put it mildly.  One would think, after all these years, that he would have learned...

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on June 10, 2005 at 06:11 PM | Permalink


Why do you find hypocrisy astonishing?

Posted by: beth | Jun 11, 2005 1:06:16 PM

A fantastic post, and an ideal illustration of the blogosphere's potential. No MSM or academic source would run so many quotations with so little interpretation, and yet that's just what we need.

Posted by: MatthewGarth | Jun 11, 2005 8:39:58 PM

Thanks especially for the mp3 links to Nixon. I didn't know they existed.

Posted by: Bill Peschel | Jun 11, 2005 10:33:38 PM

Your contextualization of Colson's current statements with his Watergate-era actions is a straw man. Colson has been pretty regular in his admission that his actions as a member of the Nixon Administration were less than honorable. His criticism of felt is based not on a comparison to his own actions (which he loudly proclaims were deplorable), but by appealing to a universal standard of right and wrong. From a recent Colson column:

"So knowing what was right, I did what was wrong, and justified myself in the process. I employed wrong means for what I perceived to be good ends, and I was sentenced to prison, ironically for giving an FBI report to a reporter, another point at which I can identify with Mark Felt."

Judge for yourself:

Posted by: Ross | Jun 16, 2005 12:02:51 PM

Its interesting to see in some of the Watergate era FBI memo written by Mark Felt that he was essentially in charge of finding the Deep Throat leak.


Posted by: Jerry Spicer | Jul 29, 2005 2:12:57 AM

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