Mark Felt was Deputy Associate Director of the FBI during the Watergate scandal. When five men associated with Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, Felt was among the first officials to begin investigating the matter. As he learned of Nixon’s ties to the break-in, he leaked information about the FBI proceedings to the legendary Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting eventually forced Nixon to resign.
Under Nixon and the late J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s former director, the FBI had acquired a reputation for being a largely political operation that served the president’s interests. This political stance extended from Operation COINTELPRO, which spied on prominent civil rights leaders in the ‘60s, to Hoover’s personal files on prominent Washington politicians, which he used to stiff-arm leaders into carrying out his personal agenda. When Hoover died, Nixon passed over Felt to nominate L. Patrick Gray as director of the FBI, hoping to strengthen his hold over a department that was currently investigating his own affairs. Felt’s act of pragmatic disobedience- leaking department secrets to the Post- forced a reckoning in American politics that pushed Nixon out of office and helped the public regain trust in the nation’s institutions.
Felt’s actions highlight the importance of particularism in evaluating disobedience in two ways. First, disobedience was out of character for a career law-enforcement official. Throughout his life, Felt was taught to obey orders, and did so for the most part. Leaking to Woodward and Bernstein was a response to the unprecedented circumstances of Watergate. Second, Felt’s career demonstrates the difference between just and unjust disobedience. After Watergate, Felt was indicted for violating the civil rights of suspected “subversives” in Operation COINTELPRO. This was also a type of disobedience, but a decidedly negative one. The two episodes show that disobedience, while a valuable part of a democracy, is not an end in itself.