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Friday, 19 December 2008

The Life, Death and Legacy of Deep Throat

Possibly the most famous informant since Judas, the man known until just three years ago only as "Deep Throat", has died, aged 95. There are a few reasons for mentioning this here.

Firstly, he is an interesting figure for sceptics - he contributed one of the greatest amounts of fuel to the fire of the conspiracy theory culture that any one person has managed. It finally proved, in the eyes of many, that the government cannot be trusted; that there really are conspiracies and cover-ups at the highest levels of government.

Despite this being a perfectly valid point, however, what is rarely if ever taken into account by conspiracy nuts theorists is that not only do conspiracies and cover-ups happen, but so does whistleblowing. Compared to some conspiracy theories, the Watergate scandal was relatively small in terms of how many people knew the truth; and yet someone spoke up. This is a perfect demonstration of one of the mainstays of arguing against conspiracies - the whistleblower argument. So not only did Deep Throat provide conspiracy theorists with the perfect proof, he also provided the perfect counter-argument.

The second thing I find interesting about Mark Felt is his expressed misgivings about what he did; apparently he felt guilty about "betraying his FBI badge". Some critics agree with this assessment and brand him a traitor for turning on the Commander in Chief - a strange assessment considering the FBI is not a military organisation but a civilian one. Either way, I disagree with his critics and argue rather that he upheld his oath as a federal employee; the oath he took bound him to uphold the constitution, not to defend the president.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. As associate director of the FBI, he was also supposed to protect the information relating to the investigation, and send it through the correct channels. This is the obligation he violated, and surely the source of his moral discomfort. What he did, though, fulfilled the spirit of his role rather than the by-the-letter procedure thereof.

Here comes the quick ethical philosophy section, because me being me I find it hard to resist. Mark Felt suffered a moral dilemma, which is what happens when one or more roles in which you sees yourself oblige you to take two conflicting courses of action. In this case, he was obliged to follow procedure, and also to see that justice was done. Normally these two obligations would not conflict - and indeed the theory is that they are more or less synonymous. However, with regards to the Watergate scandal, the procedure was blocked, hindered, and/or corrupt - giving rise to the dilemma.

I say he did the right thing. He chose principle over procedure, and in exposing the Nixon administration's misdeeds, he carried out the most important role of his position. It was, after all, an important founding tenet of the constitution that nobody would be above the law; his obligation to defend and enact this principle overrode his obligation to follow Bureau procedure. What's more interesting than the whole Watergate d├ębacle is his later conviction (and pardon) for approving illegal raids. That has echoes in recent legislation, and involves arguments about the right to privacy and the measures necessary to combat terrorism.

That will have to wait for another day and another blog entry. For now, it is enough to remember the man known for over thirty years only as Deep Throat, and what he did. I only hope that his Alzheimer's provided him some degree of moral peace in his final years, and he died free of torment.

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