Charles Colson has sharply criticized Mark Felt, the former No. 2 official at the FBI, for leaking classified material to The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal. Colson was special counsel to President Nixon and served a prison term for leaking FBI files. Colson became a committed Christian during the scandal and later founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry to prisoners and their families. Stan Guthrie, Christianity Today's senior associate news editor, interviewed Colson, a CT columnist, about his comments about Felt, as well as his new book, with Harold Fickett, The Good Life.
On CNN and the Today Show and elsewhere you've said that Mark Felt's actions as "Deep Throat" were not honorable. Why?
Because he was basically leaking FBI files, which ironically is what I went to prison for. He was handing out FBI files, which are held in the greatest secrecy, in a clandestine operation with Woodward and Bernstein. That's the most secure thing in the United States government, because the FBI, for goodness sakes, has files on half of the American people. And if they indiscriminately pass this out, for whatever they deem to be a worthy purpose, you've broken down the whole system.
I gave one FBI file on Daniel Ellsberg to a newspaper reporter. So I don't think it's honorable to do what Felt did. I think he had an honorable solution, which he chose not to use.
You basically believe he should have just gone to the President and then, if necessary, held a press conference.
What he could have done is gone first to the director of the FBI and say, "There's criminal activity going on in the White House, and these guys are obstructing justice." If the director of the FBI wouldn't go with him to the President, then if Mark Felt had called me, I could tell you, guarantee you, I would have gotten him in to see the President because, I would have been afraid that if [we] didn't, the FBI would bring down the President. And the President would have done something immediately, not out of moral compunction but out of self-interest, because you can't have the No. 2 official in the FBI believing there is obstruction of justice in the White House.
Many others have voiced disagreement with you about this, saying Felt brought down a corrupt White House and should be applauded. Doesn't that argument have some merit?
That's the curse of relativism. That's the era we live in that is so dangerous. That is saying, "I could sit there and make a judgment about what is right even when the law says something else." This is not a case of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail, in which he appeals to a higher law saying that the law at the time was unjust and therefore he couldn't obey it. That was a principled position. He was correct. But that's not the case of Mark Felt. Mark Felt had an obligation to report obstruction of justice to the officials and to a grand jury, if necessarynot to leak it to reporters.
What do you think about the role of journalists in our society in uncovering government corruption?
I think it's what the press has always done and does well. And I, in this case, don't fault the press. If Mark Felt was willing to give them this kind of information, they were justified in printing it. I do think we have to be careful with anonymous sources. That's another question, because anonymous sources can be trying to settle a score, which may or may not have been the case with Mark Felt. That part is unknown at the moment. What really motivated him was his belief that the Nixon presidency was corrupt.
Using illegal means to achieve a just objective can sometimes be ethically justifiedthe classic standard being somebody's drowning in a pond and there's a no-trespassing sign, but you violate the law and jump over the no-trespassing sign and go rescue the person. But Felt had legal means available to him. I know people say it was a paranoid era and he would have gotten transferred to Alaska, and as a whistleblower we'd have ruined him. That's nonsense, because all he had to do was try to see the President. If the President wouldn't see him, then he's totally within his rights to resign publicly and to say why. And if he did that, it probably would have ended the issue right there. And I dare say he would be a hero.
What would have happened differently if he'd taken the route that you suggest?
I think it would have precipitated an immediate crisis. If the No. 2 guy in the FBI says, "There's wrongdoing out in the White House and they won't listen to me, I'm resigning," the President would clean house in a hurry, or the impeachment would have taken place within two weeks, instead of nine more months.
You have roles not only as a former Nixon administration figure but also as a Christian statesman. From which role does this perspective come?
It's interesting, and that's a good question. It's interesting because I can identify with Mark Felt. In my political heyday I used a lot unethical means to justify what I considered very noble goals: getting our prisoners home, ending the war, and not leaking documents that could undermine it. So I learned in the Nixon days after my conversion that human beings have the infinite capacity for self-justification.
What I've learned as a Christian, and how I've reflected this on my own experiences, [should] moderate us from deifying or beatifying Mark Felt. I watched some high-school kids on TV last night who knew nothing about Watergate. They all said he was a hero. I'm thinking, "Oh, wait a minute. They are being taught Machiavellian ethics. This is terrible." Woodward said in a piece in The Washington Post today that Felt "believed he was protecting the bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public to help build public and political pressure to make Nixon and his people answerable. He had nothing but contempt for the Nixon White House and their effort to manipulate the bureau for political reasons."
Do you realize what's in FBI files? I would hate to think mine could be dropped out if somebody wants to put pressure on me. That's illegal. When I was in the White House, I thought this was a pretty good thing. I put out an FBI file. I thought it was justified. Now it horrifies me. So I think I'm speaking as a Christian.
How did Watergate change you?
Well, I've written books about that. Watergate changed me in the sense that I realize that the power that you think is so awesome when you're in government is very shallow. It changed me in the sense that my life has been totally redirected because, being in the middle of the Watergate crisis, I came to Christ. I now have a passion for serving "the least of these" in society. I see the world differently.
In my new book, The Good Life, I write about how Watergate has changed my perspective. But also I talk about integrity being the ultimate quality that you're looking for. And integrity means embracing the truth. It means finding what is true and just and good and doing it. You'll never live the good life apart from the pursuit of truth. To be the second-ranking official in the FBI sneaking around at night looking for flower pots on ledges and marking in The New York Times to take super-classified FBI interview forms and give them to a reporter, that is not pursuit of truth. That's not a life of integrity.
Let him live the rest of his life out peacefully. I'm not trying to hurt him at all, and I'm not motivated by anger. I'm glad we got knocked down. Because of Watergate, I'm doing things that are much more meaningful in my life. I've been forgiven, for which I have much to be forgiven. But I'm just saying, "Don't teach this example." That's my passion. That's my greatest concern.
Your new book, The Good Life, is something of a departure for you. Why did you write it?
It's a departure for me for a couple of reasons. One is I have written primarily to the church up until now. Now I'm writing, I hope, to seekers. You won't find references to Scripture until you get to the very end of the book. I'm writing for seekers who are looking for answers to the meaning and purpose of life. And I'm explaining the things I experienced in my life, which turned out to be dead ends, and then taking the reader on a journey through rational, reasoned arguments which you pursue in order to find what is true in life.
It's kind of a natural order approach. It's a, I hope, kind of apologetic defense or apologetic presentation that seekers will find helpful. I've written the book primarily for seekers. Now, a lot of Christians are seekers. A lot of Christians have a nominal faith, and they don't really understand it. But what I argue in the book is that only the biblical worldview makes sense of life. But I don't get to that point until the end.
A lot of people have said that we're living in a postmodern era and rational arguments don't seem to work with those kinds of people anymore. Do you think this book will scratch people where they itch?
Young people are looking for answers to what life's about, and they're not rejecting religious answers. In fact, they're looking for religious answers. They are simply, woefully, ill-informed. I don't think reason is out the window. I think it needs to be resurrected to lead people through intelligent arguments about reality. In my opinion, you have to challenge the postmodern generation. This book does that. It challenges postmodernism as being a bankrupt way of seeing life. So I'd love to have a postmodernist read it. I don't believe the way you deal with postmodernism is to embrace it and build on it. I think you refute it.
What do you think most people are looking for?
I think people want to know what life is all about. Rick Warren exposed a raw nerve in the world. And that is, people want to know why on Earth they're here, as he put it so well. I started writing this book before The Purpose-Driven Life, but I was greatly inspired by Warren's example, because he's taking the Scripture and showing people how life has a purpose, which is terrific. I'm doing it by reason and by what I hope are thoughtful arguments that get you to the same place.
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The Good Life is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Charles Colson's columns for CT are available from our website.
Prison Fellowship has a statement from Colson about "Deep Throat."
Colson was interviewed by NPR for his reaction to the uncovering of "Deep Throat."
Colson was also a major figure in this Naples Daily News article about the revelation.