''Silent Coup: The Removal of a President'' -- Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin's new book targets Watergate reporter Bob Woodward

In the history of conspiracies, this one — call it MediaGate — probably will be remembered as a bizarre footnote to Watergate. It began with the publication last May of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, a book that outlines a complex conspiracy theory questioning the role of several Watergate principals — particularly Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Recently, charges that Silent Coup‘s ”damaging” findings had been covered up by the Post, CBS’ 60 Minutes, and Time magazine surfaced in both the liberal Nation and the ultraconservative Accuracy in Media. Even more recently the authors of Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, themselves have been accused of fueling such ”cover-up” charges to sell books.

Coup weaves its elaborate premise around the old rumor that Alexander Haig was really Deep Throat, Woodward’s mysterious Watergate source. According to Coup, Haig was among a handful of military officials who disagreed with the President’s foreign policies and wanted to oust Nixon from office. Why would Haig leak information to Woodward? From 1969 to 1970, says Coup, ”Woodward had been a briefer [with the Navy] and his duties included briefing Haig” — a connection Woodward has denied.

This provocative thesis — that America’s top investigative reporter advanced a military conspiracy against a U.S. President — stems, say Coup’s authors, from taped interviews with Admiral Thomas Moorer and former secretary of defense Melvin Laird. Moorer now says, ”The idea that Woodward did high-level briefings is absurd. He was a messenger boy carrying papers.” (Laird could not be reached for comment.)

”I don’t know what they claim to have on tape,” says Woodward, who has said he didn’t meet Haig until 1973. ”The book is a new low in investigative journalism. They built a whole house of cards on one ‘fact’ — that I allegedly briefed Haig. It’s got a kind of surface plausibility to it, but it’s just flawed.”

The authors of Coup, which reached No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list, now see yet another plot — an alleged media effort to destroy their book’s credibility. Colodny claims The Washington Post distorted an article to ”protect Bob Woodward and the Watergate myth.”

Howard Kurtz, who wrote the Post story in question, calls any suggestion that the paper is protecting Woodward, now an assistant managing editor at the paper, ”totally ludicrous. Anyone who criticizes any aspect of the book is deemed by the authors to be part of some grand conspiracy theory.”

The authors and their supporters also implicate Time magazine and 60 Minutes. Time (a sister publication of Entertainment Weekly) purchased serial rights to Coup but never ran the excerpt. A spokesman for Time ”categorically denies” speculation that the magazine dumped the excerpt in order to placate Carl Bernstein, who is currently a Time contributor. ”The book proved too difficult to excerpt,” says the spokesman. 60 Minutes taped the authors for a news segment but never ran the piece. The idea that the Post pressured producers into killing the piece, says a 60 Minutes spokesman, is ”categorically untrue. We could not corroborate independently allegations in the book, though we’re not questioning its integrity.”

Now countercharges are being leveled at Silent Coup‘s authors. ”These guys have gotten a big free ride beating a publicity drum by yelling conspiracy in a very crowded theater,” says Bernstein. ”What they’re interested in is selling books.”

Quite apart from its conspiracy charges, some feel Coup does raise questions about the type of investigative reporting practiced by Woodward. Lack of conventional documentation itself can give rise to farfetched conspiracy theories. ”Woodward is a great journalist, but he practices journalism very differently than some of the rest of us would,” says Steve Weinberg, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. ”Why won’t he be more adamant about getting things on the record, and telling us about some of the paper trails he followed, to give us a better sense of where he got what he got?” On the other hand, Weinberg admits, ”If Woodward didn’t work that way, it’s quite possible there would be major stories, like Watergate, that the public would never know about.”