Deep Throat Tradecraft

The politics is certainly interesting, but I am impressed with Felt’s tradecraft. Read Bob Woodward’s description of how he would arrange secret meetings with Felt.

I tried to call Felt, but he wouldn’t take the call. I tried his home in Virginia and had no better luck. So one night I showed up at his Fairfax home. It was a plain-vanilla, perfectly kept, everything-in-its-place suburban house. His manner made me nervous. He said no more phone calls, no more visits to his home, nothing in the open.

I did not know then that in Felt’s earliest days in the FBI, during World War II, he had been assigned to work on the general desk of the Espionage Section. Felt learned a great deal about German spying in the job, and after the war he spent time keeping suspected Soviet agents under surveillance.

So at his home in Virginia that summer, Felt said that if we were to talk it would have to be face to face where no one could observe us.

I said anything would be fine with me.

We would need a preplanned notification system—a change in the environment that no one else would notice or attach any meaning to. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

If you keep the drapes in your apartment closed, open them and that could signal me, he said. I could check each day or have them checked, and if they were open we could meet that night at a designated place. I liked to let the light in at times, I explained.

We needed another signal, he said, indicating that he could check my apartment regularly. He never explained how he could do this.

Feeling under some pressure, I said that I had a red cloth flag, less than a foot square—the kind used as warnings on long truck loads—that a girlfriend had found on the street. She had stuck it in an empty flowerpot on my apartment balcony.

Felt and I agreed that I would move the flowerpot with the flag, which usually was in the front near the railing, to the rear of the balcony if I urgently needed a meeting. This would have to be important and rare, he said sternly. The signal, he said, would mean we would meet that same night about 2 a.m. on the bottom level of an underground garage just over the Key Bridge in Rosslyn.

Felt said I would have to follow strict countersurveillance techniques. How did I get out of my apartment?

I walked out, down the hall, and took the elevator.

Which takes you to the lobby? he asked.


Did I have back stairs to my apartment house?


Use them when you are heading for a meeting. Do they open into an alley?


Take the alley. Don’t use your own car. Take a taxi to several blocks from a hotel where there are cabs after midnight, get dropped off and then walk to get a second cab to Rosslyn. Don’t get dropped off directly at the parking garage. Walk the last several blocks. If you are being followed, don’t go down to the garage. I’ll understand if you don’t show. All this was like a lecture. The key was taking the necessary time—one to two hours to get there. Be patient, serene. Trust the prearrangements. There was no fallback meeting place or time. If we both didn’t show, there would be no meeting.

Felt said that if he had something for me, he could get me a message. He quizzed me about my daily routine, what came to my apartment, the mailbox, etc. The Post was delivered outside my apartment door. I did have a subscription to the New York Times. A number of people in my apartment building near Dupont Circle got the Times. The copies were left in the lobby with the apartment number. Mine was No. 617, and it was written clearly on the outside of each paper in marker pen. Felt said if there was something important he could get to my New York Times—how, I never knew. Page 20 would be circled, and the hands of a clock in the lower part of the page would be drawn to indicate the time of the meeting that night, probably 2 a.m., in the same Rosslyn parking garage.

The relationship was a compact of trust; nothing about it was to be discussed or shared with anyone, he said.

How he could have made a daily observation of my balcony is still a mystery to me. At the time, before the era of intensive security, the back of the building was not enclosed, so anyone could have driven in the back alley to observe my balcony. In addition, my balcony and the back of the apartment complex faced onto a courtyard or back area that was shared with a number of other apartment or office buildings in the area. My balcony could have been seen from dozens of apartments or offices, as best I can tell.

A number of embassies were located in the area. The Iraqi Embassy was down the street, and I thought it possible that the FBI had surveillance or listening posts nearby. Could Felt have had the counterintelligence agents regularly report on the status of my flag and flowerpot? That seems highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Posted on June 2, 2005 at 4:31 PM27 Comments


Israel Torres June 2, 2005 4:58 PM

Even with this being the digital-age a lot of these countersurveillance techniques are still taught and used today. Basically if you want to keep it secret :

  1. you don’t tell anyone
  2. you don’t tell anyone over technologically enabled connections.
  3. you kill those you do tell.
  4. Nothing ever happened.

Israel Torres

Francois Kashy June 2, 2005 6:49 PM

It’s before my time, but it sounds like Felt had a lot of experience running agents who wouldn’t have had any formal training (e.g. foreign agents) . At any rate, certainly there will always be a place for low-tech operations. You can’t master any skill without mastering basic principles.

Dylan June 2, 2005 9:59 PM

Reminds me of a quote from somewhere:
“It is possible for two men to keep a secret, provided at least one of them is dead.”

dave June 3, 2005 2:55 AM

Well, I’m glad Felt did not follow the old rule of thumb about killing the person one tells the secret to.

Anonymous June 3, 2005 4:22 AM

Using the back stairs only when going to a secret meeting – is that a good security measure?

If your building is not being watched, then it doesn’t matter whether you do it. If only the front of your building is being watched, then the observer never realises you left, and you win big.

But if the back is also being watched, then the observer knows that you’re going to a secret meeting. So you lose big, because he can concentrate his resources on following your taxis only when you’re doing something interesting.

It’s probably more expensive to watch both sides of the building, but if the attacker ever figures out what you’re doing, he doesn’t have to watch both sides – only the back.

I would be uncomfortable with relying on the attacker believing that you the front door is the only way you ever leave the building, especially if you think (as Woodward did) there might be an FBI surveillance post overlooking the back!

T. June 3, 2005 5:08 AM

Killing anyone knowing the secret is not necessarily the ‘best’ choice, as in most countries homicides are investigated quite thoroughly and with perseverance (murder doesn’t prescribe). Even more so if the victim is a public figure, such as a journalist who just uncovered a huge scandal.

You might eliminate a person who could possibly leak the secret, but you draw a lot more attention and scrutiny to your affairs. Maybe blackmail or threats would be an option.

// tinfoil hat on
JFK might be a proof that the real reasons for a homicide might never surface, though.
// tinfoil hat off

Bruce Schneier June 3, 2005 7:48 AM

“Using the back stairs only when going to a secret meeting – is that a good security measure?”

I had the same reaction you did.

But if you assume that these meetings are very rare, there won’t be time for the observer to understand the pattern. And given that it’s more likely for the spies to watch the main door only, then it may be a good trade-off.

Toby June 3, 2005 8:13 AM

“Could Felt have had the counterintelligence agents regularly report on the status of my flag and flowerpot? That seems highly unlikely, if not impossible.”

I don’t see why that’s so unlikely. I assume that there are many contacts managed using signals such as this. All it takes is a few people doing shifts to tour round all the observation points once or twice each day; if there are enough signal points, then it’s a full-time job for an agent (and the observations can easily be disguised as a daily journey such as to/from an office – or perhaps a newspaper or mail round). The agent doesn’t have to know the meaning of any of the signals, and dummies can be added to mislead (e.g. the agent is also watching whether some entirely arbitrary persons’ flowerpots are moved, or their windows are open or shut, or whatever, but doesn’t know which ones are significant). This last point is basically a defence against traffic analysis similar to that used in other forms of communication – keep data flowing, even if it’s meaningless, to confuse the enemy and hide the presence of the valuable information.

Kevin McGrath June 3, 2005 8:30 AM

On a related topic:

Did anyone see those old photos of Felt from his days as the director of the FBI office in Salt Lake City? He looked like a total Jr. G-man geek with that baggy suit & hat on and posing with his snub nosed .38 caliber crime fighter special. I initially thought it was some kind of a joke.

A total hoot!

John Pritchard June 3, 2005 10:24 AM

The abstract analyses may have a relatively rare place in considering the particular actions of a master (in fact if not fancy) in one case. It’s a very special case, Felt and Woodward. Felt was on his home turf (D.C. counter- espionage) with significant and important powers and resources, operating against opponents about whom he would have known a great deal, in an environment (DC) about which he knew a great deal. Of course that’s the story, how much he knew.

JohnJ June 3, 2005 11:32 AM

“Using the back stairs only when going to a secret meeting – is that a good security measure?”

It wasn’t mentioned, but this could work OK if combined it with another activity like taking out a bag of trash, verifying a bike is locked to the post, taking something to a storage shed, etc. Then it’d look like you were simply going for a walk after taking out the trash (or whatever); not an uncommon thing at all.

Or simply change habits to leave from the back 30-50% of the time normally. The goal should be to make it part of the routine vs. an exception.

Bruce Schneier June 3, 2005 11:59 AM

“Or simply change habits to leave from the back 30-50% of the time normally. The goal should be to make it part of the routine vs. an exception.”

It depends. If you leave from the back half the time, any organization tailing you will definitely have to watch both exits. But if you never leave from the back, then sneaking out for a secret meeting that way is more likely to go unnoticed.

You can go around in circles forever second guessing this sort of stuff.

Anonymous June 3, 2005 11:59 AM

“Using the back stairs only when going to a secret meeting – is that a good security measure?”

It’d be a good measure if the surveillance was divvied up into two periods. The first to assemble a list of subject paths, and a second to place resources along those paths. You’d want to maximize return on investment, no point in placing resources in areas the subject never went to.

Since Felt was in a position to know exactly what surveillance procedures were likely, I’d be inclined to trust him on designing countermeasures to those procedures.

Bruce Schneier June 3, 2005 12:04 PM

“Since Felt was in a position to know exactly what surveillance procedures were likely, I’d be inclined to trust him on designing countermeasures to those procedures.”

Hear hear.

John Kelsey June 3, 2005 12:04 PM

About the back stairs thing. The question is all in how many resources are being devoted to keeping an eye on you, right? If there’s one guy whose job it is to keep track of where you go, he probably can’t just sit in the lobby of your building all day. So if you always go out the front door, he probably watches the front door from some reasonably inconspicuous place, right?

And as others pointed out, Felt had some serious knowledge of what else was going on around there. Maybe he knew the kind of surveilance Woodward was likely to be under. Maybe he knew that the person likely to be trailing Woodward would be more afraid of being detected (and thus ending up as part of the story) than of missing some of Woodward’s meetings.


Matthew Wharton June 3, 2005 12:35 PM

Just to correct Dylan’s misquote from above.

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
Benjamin Franklin

Assuming Felt knew what surveillance Woodward would be under and designed the security procedures to take accordingly, how effective would they be in general outside of this particular situation?

Francois Kashy June 3, 2005 1:02 PM

“Since Felt was in a position to know exactly what surveillance procedures were likely, I’d be inclined to trust him on designing countermeasures to those procedures.”

I’m no spook by any stretch, but here’s my 2 cents. I would assume there’s a lot we still don’t know. Woodward was probably under surveillance by others, maybe within his own organization, or Felt’s, and it’s possible Felt fed some red herrings to other parties. It seems to me if Woodward normally used the elevator, and never moved the flower pot, changes in those routines would become fairly obvious signals.

It seems like the business with the taxis and the walking was intended to make it 1. more difficult for a tail to predict where the target’s going (e.g. which taxi) and 2. easier for Woodward to spot a tail (e.g. if a car trailed the first taxi, and then slowed down to pace him for two blocks, it would be an easy mark).

Ron June 3, 2005 3:56 PM

Wikipedia cites Adrian Havill (from “Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein”) as having investigated the details of this meeting protocol and “found them to be factually impossible”…

On the other hand, the article seems to indicate that Havill concludes that “Deep Throat” didn’t exist at all, which also doesn’t seem to be realistic.


Nomen Nescio June 3, 2005 4:18 PM

Woodward seems unduly mystified over how Felt could have watched his balcony. i’m not sure what seems so mysterious to him. he admits himself there were several different possibilities; if i were Felt, i would have used as many of them as i could get access to without drawing attention to my efforts, and varied them from day to day so as to not establish a routine.

frankly, i’m more impressed with how Felt could get to Woodward’s newspaper without it being noticed. watching a balcony seems like a simple thing by comparison.

Jan Goyvaerts June 3, 2005 8:19 PM

As for going out the back instead of the front, while reading the article, I thought that was as a security measure against ordinary people becoming curious.

How often did Mr. Woodward go out at midnight and not return until early morning? I assume almost never. Going out front, neighbors might notice the odd behavior, and information might reach the wrong people through the grapevine.

If the apartment was being watched front and back, going out back at night wouldn’t be more suspicious than going out front at night. (Again, assuming Mr. Woodward rarely goes out late at night.)

Vespasian June 3, 2005 10:53 PM

Regarding leaving by the back stairs, let me suggest another possibility: if Felt had an FBI team reporting on the position of the red-flag-flower-pot, he may have wanted to prevent clueing them in on it’s significance. The balcony sounds like it’s visible from the street, where an FBI car would pass by or park, and the team may also have watched the house (through initiative or even just out of casual curiousity) at other times–no sense letting them see Woodward leave by the front door on the same day the pot moved and put two and two together, you never know where that info might wind up. As I understand it, the FBI is a highly competitive agency, Felt may have had enemies there, people who might want to curry favor with the new director…

Roger June 6, 2005 11:05 AM

Why was Felt confident about the degree of surveillance on Woodward? Well, he had only two opponents here: Nixon’s Plumbers, and the FBI agents loyal to Director Gray. The FBI can certainly mount an effective surveillance, but Associate Director Felt was in exactly the position to know if they were doing so. He couldn’t be sure what Nixon’s Plumbers were up to, but they were all of about 5 guys, and if I’ve got the timing right half of them were in jail at thsi point; it was barely possible for them to mount 24 hr surveillance on one face of a suspect building, impossible to do two. One other possibility might be a rival journalist, but once again, a 24 hr, front-and-back stakeout would be unlikely.

How did Felt get at the newspaper? One easy method would be to pay the paperboy. Sure, if someone tumbled to the signalling method, they could follow the paperboy around; but 5 guys are going to have a lot of trouble following a paperboy’s entire route every day. Even if you did, marking the page could be made to look like buying a paper.

Roger June 6, 2005 12:18 PM

Thanks for the link, very interesting. For those who haven’t read it, then–if Dean is right–the purpose of the tradecraft may have been to give Woodward the false impression that he was under surveillance.

Koray Can June 6, 2005 4:12 PM

The back-exit routine is to minimize the chances that Woodward is going to be tailed. The tail will know that it’s quicker to take the elevator and focus on the lobby. If they ever catch him getting into his taxicab theatrics via the back exit, then he’s toast (utterly unusual pattern) but until then this works the best. The cab switching is to extend and complicate the route to detect a tail and hope that once they find out about the back exit Woodward can abandon the routine alltogether.

The flower pot is safe. We do move stuff around and as long as it’s not isolated (i.e. move a big box some other day for no purpose, etc.) it’s hard to give a meaning to. What I am slightly disappointed by is the newspaper trick. They established a secret key and made it too easy to guess (time of day = hands of the clock). I suppose Felt decided after hearing what other stuff Woodward receives daily that it was too much to go through and there was no reason to complicate the procedure for this possibly rare occasion.

Curt Sampson June 8, 2005 12:38 AM

The traditional way to deal with meeting times is to have it at an offset from the given time: say, 2 hours and 20 minutes earlier than the time in the message. Perhaps Felt thought that the risk of confusion when using that was not worth the extra secrecy. And that extra secrecy could be quite minimal, given that the attacker probably would not know the meeting place.

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