WASHINGTON - How ironic it is that just when the use of anonymous news sources was the hot journalistic topic over Newsweek's story about alleged Quran desecration, the most famous such source in American history has now blown his own cover?
The revelation by retired FBI official W. Mark Felt that he was the storied "Deep Throat" who helped Washington Post sleuths Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein trigger the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon is a timely reminder of the value of such sources in unearthing government misconduct.
The disclosure has ignited a predictable debate between Nixon defenders casting Mr. Felt as a disloyal public servant and others who see him as a public hero who blew the whistle on a president who ran roughshod over the Constitution to preserve his political power.
Some Nixon diehards, such as former speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan, White House enforcer Charles W. Colson and convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, have been quick to cast Mr. Felt as a turncoat. They say he betrayed his FBI oath by guiding the intrepid young reporters as they peeled back the White House cover-up of the 1972 Watergate break-in.
But the exhaustive and conclusive evidence of criminal behavior in the burglarizing of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and in the paying off of the burglars to take the fall puts history squarely on Mr. Felt's side.
The rationale offered by Mr. Felt's grandson, Nick Jones, for persuading him to come clean is a justifiable one. The family, Mr. Jones said, believes Mr. Felt should be regarded as "a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from horrible injustice."
Mr. Felt's daughter, Joan, argued that her father, at 91 and in failing health, would be comforted to learn by confessing now that other Americans believed he had acted in the public interest in bringing a corrupt president and administration to heel. From Mr. Felt's post-disclosure smiles on television, that seems to be so.
Mr. Woodward, along with Mr. Bernstein and former Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, had consistently said over the nearly 33 years since the break-in that they would not reveal Deep Throat's identity until he had died. Mr. Felt, through an article in Vanity Fair, scooped the Post on its own story and thus ended politics' favorite guessing game. But Mr. Woodward looked good in keeping his word.
In suspicious, political Washington, the Woodward promise to Mr. Felt led over the years to speculation that Deep Throat really was a composite of several informers, or that there was no Deep Throat. Such musings held that once someone who was a subject of the speculation died, Mr. Woodward could say that person had indeed been Deep Throat, and he would not be around to deny it.
As Mr. Woodward, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Bradlee kept silent, others offered treatises on the identity of the mystery source. Convicted Nixon White House counsel John Dean and White House lawyer Leonard Garment wrote books fingering the wrong person by name.
Mr. Woodward had struck up a friendship with Mr. Felt a couple of years before Watergate. After a chance encounter when Mr. Woodward was a Navy lieutenant in 1970, he cultivated the friendship with the persistence that made him a great reporter.
As for the use of anonymous sources, the confession of Deep Throat is a gift as well to the journalistic argument that there are circumstances in which their willingness to reveal critical official skullduggery does indeed serve the public interest.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.