Prosecutors: Felt Broke the Law

W. Mark Felt (search) violated FBI and Justice Department policies by sharing with reporters information about the Watergate (search) scandal, but it's not clear whether he broke any laws, several former federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Not that anyone at the Justice Department is expressing a desire to prosecute the 91-year-old old Santa Rosa, Calif., resident. Even if it were determined that the former No. 2 official at the FBI violated laws by providing tips as "Deep Throat (search)," more than 30 years have passed and the statute of limitations on prosecution has expired.

The former prosecutors said that if they were to look into Felt's conversations with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward they would examine whether he violated federal rules that keep grand jury matters secret, whether he disclosed other confidential material that was part of the Watergate investigation or broke privacy rules by revealing the names of people who had yet to be charged with a crime.

"The administrative penalties for some of these things could be severe, including dismissal," said Joseph di Genova, who served as U.S. attorney in Washington during the Reagan administration.

John Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University in New York, said that among the many ironies in the Deep Throat story is that Felt, as the official who ran the FBI on a day-to-day basis, almost certainly had to deal with the sort of employee misconduct that he apparently engaged in.

Determining whether Felt broke any laws would require analyzing each piece of information he either provided or corroborated, said E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., who was a young prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington at the time of the Watergate break-in.

The idea that Felt broke any laws is misplaced, said Stephen Kohn, chairman of the board of the National Whistleblower Center. "FBI agents have a First Amendment right to go to the press," Kohn said, citing a 1968 Supreme Court decision that he said protects people who expose government misconduct.

One unanswered question raised both by Barrett, a prosecutor in the Iran-Contra (search) investigation, and di Genova is why Felt chose to work with a reporter instead of taking his concerns about White House interference with the FBI to Congress.

"If the head of the FBI and the Justice Department criminal division are both pipelines to the White House, perhaps you go across the branches of government to Congress, if you're a responsible government official," Barrett said.

Felt's decision to keep quiet, however, made possible another moment that linked him to Nixon, Barrett said. When Felt was on trial for authorizing illegal break-ins during the 1970s at homes of people associated with the radical Weather Underground (search), Nixon testified on his behalf.

And after Reagan pardoned Felt in 1981, he received a bottle of champagne and this brief note from the disgraced former president: "Justice ultimately prevails."