Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Bureaucratic Axes

Professor Stephen Bainbridge quotes pieces on the Watergate/Mark Felt background and goes on to say:
"DC turf wars make the story a lot less romantic, don't they? But it also speaks to my point about anonymous sources: Might we not have evaluated Woodward and Bernstein's work with a more informed eye if we knew they were being fed stories by somebody with a bureaucratic axe to grind?"
I think his vision is a bit blurred. Almost every story relating to a bureaucracy is sharpening someone's axe. If the story is an official press release, it's on behalf of the head of the bureaucracy. If it's a leak from within the bureaucracy, the person has his or her own motives. But as a bureaucrat, it's very likely that the motive is partly or wholly bureaucratic in some sense. In Felt's case, there were several possible motives: pique at being passed over for the Director's position; concern that L. Patrick Gray was in the pocket of the White House, unlike J. Edgar; desire to torpedo any rival "black bag" shops authorized to operate domestically; "big shot-itis"--the desire to show oneself as having knowledge no one else had; general discomfort with Gray as a "new broom" (recall the problems at CIA when their new director took over) and a desire to get rid of Gray (see Edward Jay Epstein's 1974 piece, thanks to Powerline) and finally idealism. Somehow a 35 year veteran of Hoover's FBI isn't a likely idealist.

On the other hand, most people have mixed motives for many things they do. It's possible that all of the above motives had a place in Felt's mind, but without the possibility of applying an idealistic veneer he wouldn't have chosen to leak. And, one has to remember that this is a dyadic relationship--why was Woodward willing to receive the leak? Ambition, obviously. But as a young reporter he may have needed the whiff of idealism.

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