In February 2017 a meme began circulating that attributed a quote about leaks and Watergate to President Richard Nixon:
As is often the case with similar memes, the quote began popping up with frequency on Facebook in seeming response to current events. One version appeared in a comment thread on California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s Facebook wall:
The meme picked up steam directly after President Donald Trump made widely reported statements describing intelligence community leaks as illegal:
The White House has said that Mr. Trump demanded Mr. Flynn’s resignation on Monday night, after it was revealed that Mr. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat.
But on Wednesday, the president said that Mr. Flynn had “been treated very, very unfairly by the media,” undercut by “documents and papers that were illegally — I’d stress that, illegally — leaked.”
Earlier, he had posted on Twitter, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia”
The quote attributed to Nixon was similar, stating that “Deep Throat” (FBI whistleblower Mark Felt’s alter ego) was solely responsible for the administration’s Watergate-related downfall. When Felt’s identity was confirmed in 2005, the Washington Post summarized the scandal thusly:
Deep Throat, the secret source whose insider guidance was vital to The Washington Post’s groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, was a pillar of the FBI named W. Mark Felt, The Post confirmed yesterday.
As the bureau’s second- and third-ranking official during a period when the FBI was battling for its independence against the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, Felt had the means and the motive to help uncover the web of internal spies, secret surveillance, dirty tricks and coverups that led to Nixon’s unprecedented resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, and to prison sentences for some of Nixon’s highest-ranking aides.
Felt’s identity as Washington’s most celebrated secret source had been an object of speculation for more than 30 years until yesterday, when his role was revealed by his family in a Vanity Fair magazine article.
Damning information to provided by Felt to Post reporters in the early 1970s led to the eventual resignation of President Nixon, but more than 40 years after those events familiarity with them was increasingly uncommon. A Post series on the Watergate timeline (and the newspaper’s role in it through investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) described the Nixon White House’s reaction to initial coverage:
But while other newspapers ignored the story and voters gave Nixon a huge majority in November 1972, the White House continued to denounce The Post’s coverage as biased and misleading. Post publisher Katharine Graham worried about the administration’s “unveiled threats and harassment.”
That report suggested that President Nixon dismissed the coverage (as a politician in 2017 might decry “fake news”), but it did not indicate he dismissed Deep Throat as an “illegal” leaker. In their retrospective, the Post quoted Nixon’s final resignation speech, which came after years of mounting allegations:
On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced his resignation.
“By taking this action,” he said in a subdued yet dramatic television address from the Oval Office, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
In a rare admission of error, Nixon said: “I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.” In a final speech to the White House staff, a teary-eyed Nixon told his audience, “Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Nixon did not lash out at Deep Throat during that address. In the paper’s 2005 coverage of the unmasking of Deep Throat, Nixon’s distaste for “leakers” was mentioned, but Woodward and Bernstein emphasized Felt’s role had become “overstated” and “mythical” over the decades:
Felt also knew, by firsthand experience, that Nixon’s administration was willing to use wiretaps and break-ins to hunt down leakers, so no amount of caution was too great in his mind. Woodward rode multiple taxis, sometimes in the wrong direction, and often walked long distances to reach the middle-of-the-night meetings.
For once, real life was as rich as the Hollywood imagination. But yesterday Woodward and Bernstein expressed a concern that the Deep Throat story has, over the years, come to obscure the many other elements that went into exposing the Watergate story: other sources, other investigators, high-impact Senate hearings, a shocking trove of secret White House tape recordings and the decisive intervention of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.
By tethering the myth to a real and imperfect human being, Americans may be able to get a clearer picture of Watergate in the future, they said. “Felt’s role in all this can be overstated,” said Bernstein, who went on after Watergate to a career of books, magazine articles and television investigations. “When we wrote the book, we didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions. You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources.”
During the Watergate scandal, the eventual release of extensive White House recordings provided large record of remarks made by Nixon or his aides during his presidency, many of which were unflattering or invited reproach; none targeted Felt. A lengthy 22 May 1973 statement made by Nixon about various scandals mentioned leaks and leakers, but use of the word “illegal” largely referenced accusations refuted by Nixon about himself. The only leaker mentioned by name in that statement was Daniel Ellsberg:
News accounts appeared in 1969, which were obviously based on leaks — some of them extensive and detailed — by people having access to the most highly classified security materials.
There was no way to carry forward these diplomatic initiatives unless further leaks could be prevented. This required finding the source of the leaks.
In order to do this, a special program of wiretaps was instituted in mid-1969 and terminated in February 1971. Fewer than 20 taps, of varying duration, were involved. They produced important leads that made it possible to tighten the security of highly sensitive materials. I authorized this entire program. Each individual tap was undertaken in accordance with procedures legal at the time and in accord with long-standing precedent.
THE SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
On Sunday, June 13, 1971, the New York Times published the first installment of what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers.” Not until a few hours before publication did any responsible Government official know that they had been stolen. Most officials did not know they existed. No senior official of the Government had read them or knew with certainty what they contained.
All the Government knew, at first, was that the papers comprised 47 volumes and some 7,000 pages, which had been taken from the most sensitive files of the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA, covering military and diplomatic moves in a war that was still going on.
Moreover, a majority of the documents published with the first three installments in the Times had not been included in the 47-volume study–raising serious questions about what and how much else might have been taken.
There was every reason to believe this was a security leak of unprecedented proportions … At about the time the unit was created, Daniel Ellsberg was identified as the person who had given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. I told Mr. Krogh that as a matter of first priority, the unit should find out all it could about Mr. Ellsberg’s associates and his motives. Because of the extreme gravity of the situation, and not then knowing what additional national secrets Mr. Ellsberg might disclose, I did impress upon Mr. Krogh the vital importance to the national security of his assignment. I did not authorize and had no knowledge of any illegal means to be used to achieve this goal.
We found no statements that resembled the quote attributed to Nixon in the meme. Although President Nixon described leaks as a threat to national security, for the most part he directly addressed allegations against his administration and did not claim “leakers” were to blame for the controversies.