Throat Job

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 conclusion—the "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 gas—but 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 post–Deep 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 bless him.

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 Reagan's accomplishments:
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 cases—trained 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 post–Deep 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 journalism—in 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 survival—not ours.

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