I’ve seen some horseshit in my time, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like last week’s
Newsweek cover story on Deep Throat, by Evan Thomas.
The Thomas piece is remarkable on a number of levels, not the least
being its frank and undisguised hypocrisy: Evan Thomas was one of the figures involved in the Koran-toilet-unnamed-sources
fuck-up, and so an article written by him that denounces as unpatriotic the “legacy” of America’s
most famous unnamed source is humorous from the outset.
Thomas halfheartedly attempts a revisionist history of Watergate,
arguing that the scandal was just an ordinary power struggle in which Nixon’s part was that of a Capra-esque
outsider president trying, quite reasonably, to assert his independence from an entrenched Democratic
Party bureaucracy that was the Washington legacy of FDR. Thomas makes it sound like all Nixon was
trying to do was break big-government gridlock. This is hilarious stuff, but it pales in comparison
to the meat of the article.
Having titled his piece “The Meaning of Deep Throat,” Thomas actually
delivers his conclusionthe “meaning”in the middle of the article:
Watergate did not just spell the end of the Nixon presidency. It started
a chain reaction of investigations and prosecutions that eventually exposed all manner of secret
wrongdoing by the FBI and the CIA… the effect of these investigations by the press, the courts,
and congressional committees was profound. Battered by failure in Vietnam and the exposure of
the CIA’s “crown jewels” (its most hidden and deniable covert operations), the military and intelligence
community became deeply demoralized in the late 1970s. From the highest levels to the lowliest
commands, the watchword was caution.
As soon as I saw the bit about the intelligence community being “deeply
demoralized,” I thought I knew where Thomas was headed. But I could never have predicted the passage
that came next:
When unarmed Islamic militants poured into the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
in November, 1979, the Marine guards fired a few cans of tear gasbut otherwise held back
and let the “students” seize the embassy. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and national security
advisor Zbignew Brzenzinski wanted to avoid military action. A 444-day hostage crisis ensued…
Thomas is saying exactly what you think he’s saying. Having set up the
idea that in the postDeep Throat era”caution was the watchword” from the “highest
levels to the lowliest commands”Thomas brings us to one of those “lowly commands”the
Marine guard in Tehran. What he is saying is that seven years after Watergate, Marines in Iran used
tear gas instead of bullets because they were afraid of… Deep Throat!
For Thomas, the lesson of Watergate was not that elected officials should
take care not to commit electoral fraud, burglary, perjury, or other low-rent domestic felonies
that might be construed as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the election process. Apparently,
the lesson is not to fire back when fired upon; wave bin Laden through customs. Deep Throat might
be watching! How Thomas moves from Nixon getting caught stonewalling a criminal investigation
to Marines not defending themselves against Iranian students is beyond me, but he does it, and God
From the Carter years he moves on to Reagan, whose presidency he describes
as a valiant attempt to countermand the unfortunate legacy of Watergate and Deep Throat. Among
The Reagan presidency saw a renewed buildup of the military and an
‘unleashing’ of the CIA, as well as stirring rhetoric about renewed American pride.
In the parallel structure of this sentence, the buildup of the military,
the ‘unleashing’ of the CIA and the renewal of American pride all go together. The implication of
this passage, of course, is that American pride had taken a hit not only because of Watergate,
but specifically because of Deep Throat. Remember, the article is entitled, “The
Meaning of Deep Throat,” not “The Meaning of Watergate.” When Thomas talks about the unfortunate
legacy of Watergate, he’s pinning something on Felt, not Nixon.
When I read this the first time, I thought, Thomas is kidding. After all,
what was Watergate? A situation in which five grown (and in some cases, balding) men, acting as agents
of the president of the United States, had been caught kneeling on the floor in a darkened hotel suite
like a bunch of glory-hole closet casestrained ex-CIA professionals who were caught,
not by seasoned detectives, but by hotel rent-a-cops. These clowns were so stupid that they voluntarily
admitted that they were CIA veterans at their own very public, press-attended burglary arraignment.
Dick Nixon made people like this the face of the American government. And Deep Throat was
the one responsible for the loss of American “pride”?
Thomas goes on to blame Deep Throat for Colin Powell’s “overwhelming
force doctrine” and his opposition to the first Gulf War (“overwhelming force” being an idea borne
of postDeep Throat “caution”); for our failure to intervene militarily in the Balkans
in the early 90s; and finally, for the relaxed vigilance in intelligence in the spring and summer
of 2001. Only now, Thomas writes, is George Bush helping to “overturn the legacy” of Watergate.
“The sleeping giant is starting to stir,” he writes.
Still, Thomas warns, the specter of Deep Throat yet hangs heavy on the
frail neck of the War on Terrorism:
At the same time, investigators who have examined the national security
establishment’s performance since 9/11 have seen signs of the same inertia, the fear that a wrong
move could land an unlucky bureaucrat on the hot seat of a congressional investigating committee.
A few observations:
1) If Thomas is so concerned about secret unnamed sources, why doesn’t
he tell us which “investigators” opined, to him, that the national security establishment is weighed
down by fear of being outed by the next Deep Throat and dragged before Congress?
Because they don’t exist, that’s why. I’ll take a secret, unnamed source
over a complete bullshit, pulled-out-of-my-ass, made-up source any day. Even if Thomas is only
crediting “investigators” with seeing “inertia,” and is inferring the “fear” on his own, this
is still a transparently lazy and rhetorically dishonest piece of journalismin an autopsy
of the greatest and most diligently researched scoop of all time.
2) Unless I’m missing something, Thomas’s argument seems to be that
unless the president of the United States is allowed to commit all the domestic electoral crimes
he wants, the country will always be squeamish about using military force and vulnerable to foreign
invaders. Are you laughing yet?
3) If you’re going to blame Deep Throat for the Powell Doctrine, why not
blame Oliver North for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Donna Rice for the Faith-Based Initiative,
and Led Zeppelin IV for the war in Eritrea?
Watergate was not about the president bending the rules to protect American
citizens, or ignoring normal legal procedures to pursue an aggressive military strategy. (That’s
more George Bush territory, which makes one wonder about Newsweek‘s motives in pursuing
this particular line of rhetoric.) Watergate was about a drunken paranoiac flouting the law to
rig an election and secure his own personal political survivalnot ours.