December 2008 Ethics Dunces

“Deep Throat”

As when he was finally identified as the shadowy whistle-blower who fueled the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of Watergate, former F.B.I official Mark Felt, who recently died, is being lionized in the press (especially by the Washington Post, which was the biggest beneficiary of his leaks) as a patriotic hero. The Scoreboard has already examined this issue [See , and ] but the accolades being heaped on Felt are still coming and still misguided. Lest a false ethical standard (perhaps it is more accurate to say another false ethical standard) get too much of a foothold, some repetition is in order.

Felt did not “do the right thing.” The right thing, as a high-ranking FBI official, was for him to use the information he had gleaned about Watergate to prompt a full F.B.I. investigation, inform his superiors, and let the law enforcement system, rather than the press, enforce the law. Felt’s end-around his own organization created the false impression, alive to this day, that the F.B.I was in league with Nixon and not willing or able to bring the White House conspiracy to justice. That was not the case. Whether Felt, as some suspect, was motivated by a desire to undermine F.B.I Director L. Patrick Gray, who had just been appointed to the job Felt coveted, or whether he simply used poor judgement, we cannot know. But either way, his obligation was to do everything in his power to ensure a full investigation of the matter through regular channels. If, and only if, he saw that the cover-up efforts and corruption extended into the Bureau was going to the press a legitimate option.

Felt’s explanation for why he didn’t do this seems to be that he was afraid: he didn’t know who to trust, and feared that if his superiors at the F.B.I were in league with Nixon’s men, then his life was at risk. Again, we cannot know if this is true, a rationalization, paranoia, or a lie. But while fear, reasonable or not, may explain unethical conduct, it doesn’t make it ethical. It is not unreasonable to expect an F.B.I agent to accept some personal risk as a consequence of doing his duty. Felt was afraid? Tell it to Elliot Ness.

The fact that Nixon’s machinations were a Constitutional affront, and that he was rightfully exposed and forced to resign did not retroactively cleanse what was for Felt a betrayal of his duty. Woodward and Bernstein owe their place in history, and their book and movie profits, to his actions, and it is hard to blame them for portraying Felt in a rosy light. But Mark Felt was in fact an Ethics Dunce for the ages. He not only didn’t recognize the ethical path, he obscured it for others.




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