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Watergate anniversary sparks new interest in a deep mystery

John Dean, Richard Nixon's White House counsel, called it a "great mental game to figure out who in the hell this person is. It replaced crossword puzzles." William Gaines, a University of Illinois professor and former reporter, said he relishes a chance to solve "the great journalism mystery of the 20th century."

And so, with the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in on June 17, Gaines and Dean have launched fresh ventures in an effort to reveal, once and for all, the identity of the most famous confidential source, most noteworthy leaker, and most enduring political riddle in American history - Deep Throat.

Dean's e-mail book, trying to finger the person who helped bring down a president, will be published on Salon.com on June 17. Gaines's report, narrowing the candidates to about a half-dozen, tentatively called "A Finder's Guide to Deep Throat," will be released next month.

And a new book on the FBI by a former Washington Post reporter, Ronald Kessler, contains reporting that points the finger at a possible suspect in the FBI.

None of this is virgin territory. Deciphering the identity of Deep Throat has been an ongoing exercise - one that ebbs and flows - for decades. Everyone from Dean to the former Nixon chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, to the former Nixon press aide turned ABC news star, Diane Sawyer, have been the subject of speculation. And through the years that speculation, predictably, has generated heated denials.

But with this Watergate landmark looming, what one observer calls Washington's favorite parlor game is heating to a boil, with an eruption of media attention certain to follow.

Of course, the people who don't have to guess at the identity aren't talking. Speaking at a Shorenstein Center seminar in Cambridge on March 13, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post would say only that Deep Throat is a man who is still alive. Woodward also restated his position that he would not reveal the identity until his source died or gave him permission to do so. (Woodward did not return calls for this story.)

Woodward's old boss, Ben Bradlee, the Post's former executive editor, , seemed to view the new speculation with seasoned bemusement. "All of these guys are making their second or third try at this," he said. "Sooner or later, someone will come up with this. They haven't yet."

In his book "Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI," Kessler said that in 1999, Woodward traveled to California to pay what appeared to be a social visit to a former deputy associate FBI director, Mark Felt, who was by then aged and infirm. That visit would have occurred shortly after The Hartford Courant reported that Jacob Bernstein, son of Woodward's colleague in the Watergate stories, Carl Bernstein, once told a summer camp friend that he was certain that Felt was Deep Throat.

Felt has frequently been mentioned as a possible suspect over the years, and he has issued denials. Still, in a Globe interview, Kessler said: "To me, what happened with Woodward when he met with Mark Felt cannot be explained any other way" than that "they were celebrating the fact that they were . . . keeping a secret for so long."

Gaines, a former Chicago Tribune journalist who teaches investigative reporting at the University of Illinois, said his pursuit of Deep Throat "started out as a simple classroom project" three years ago.

His students amassed 16,000 pages of FBI reports, read every Watergate-figure autobiography, searched addresses in Washington, and crunched the data. "We've got it down to a handful of pretty solid suspects," Gaines said. "There are seven candidates we can't eliminate."

Gaines added that even though "a lot of people at the FBI thought Mark Felt was Deep Throat, I know he's not."

For Dean, the White House aide who turned out to be a critical Nixon whistleblower, the leaker's identity seems something of an obsession. Over the years he has taken several stabs at solving the mystery, most notably pointing the finger at Haig in his 1982 book "Lost Honor."

"It's obvious I've been on the Deep Throat issue for some time," Dean said. "It's a road I've never gotten off." In his soon-to-be-published e-book, Dean vowed to "be very specific. I couldn't be more confident."

But he isn't revealing his secret yet, no doubt hoping to attract publicity when his work - estimated to run 40,000 words - is made available on the Salon.com site. A Salon contributor, he approached the online magazine with the project, saying, "I want them to survive and be viable."

Salon is looking for distribution partners to help provide added media bounce. And although the magazine had no comment, Dean said his material will be excerpted in Time magazine.

Kessler, whose book on the FBI deals with much more than just Deep Throat speculation, has embarked on a media tour that has already landed him on "Good Morning America," "The O'Reilly Factor," and two tours of duty on CNN. Gaines has also begun to attract attention, most notably through an article in the American Journalism Review. NBC's "Dateline" has also interviewed him for a possible segment.

"I hope it's not too hysterical," Gaines said when asked what kind of reaction he expected to his reports. "I'm surprised at the reaction at this point." And not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a media frenzy surrounding the renewed competiton to out Deep Throat.

"Journalism does a crummy job of looking back, but do we want to look back at this to find out who somebody's source was?" said Tom Rosenstiel, director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Is there a buzz factor to this subject? Yes. Is there journalistic value to this subject? No."

There's also the issue of whether it's ethical to try to pierce a confidentiality agreement between a reporter and a source, a cornerstone of journalistic practice.

"I think there is a right, if you will, of anonymity," Dean said. But he accused Woodward of "commercializing" his source, and of "teasing everybody" by writing the book "All the President's Men," which was made into the popular movie. "When you dangle something like that, I don't think I'm fooling with someone's relationship," he added.

For his part, Bradlee, who plans to maintain his long silence on Deep Throat, said there's no way to avoid a 30th-anniversary guessing game "as long as the First Amendment exists."

"Who the hell are we to call them off?" he said. 

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