Story of FBI war on dissent
"The Burglary," insightful and thorough, starts with the '71 theft of files at a Media office.
The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI
By Betty Medsger
Reviewed by Mark Wagenveld
One morning in March 1971, FBI agents arrived at their satellite office in Media to find that burglars had broken in and stolen all their files.
Over the next two months, the burglars would parcel out those files to newspapers and members of groups the FBI had targeted for political surveillance. The revelations caused a firestorm for the bureau and its long-entrenched director, J. Edgar Hoover, because the files showed the bureau was not investigating crimes, but was suppressing political dissent.
Hoover threw 200 agents into the search for the burglars, hoping to apprehend them before the files became public, but no one was ever arrested. Instead, disclosure of the Media documents led to even more sensational disclosures that reverberated long after Hoover's death in 1972.
For years, the mystery has lingered: Who were these burglars, and why and how did they do it? In The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, we have the answers - and who better to tell the story than Betty Medsger, who had covered Vietnam War-era protests in Philadelphia for the Evening Bulletin and then moved on to the Washington Post. The burglars anonymously sent their first batch of documents to her at the Post, and her story the next day famously reported on a memo telling agents to step up their interviewing of student activists. Doing that, the memo said, would "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."
It may seem quaint in these days of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, but publishing a story based on stolen documents in 1971 - the Pentagon Papers were still a few months away - was not done lightly. Attorney General John Mitchell warned other newspapers away from the story. Post publisher Katharine Graham was presented "with an unprecedented challenge," Medsger writes. "It was the first time a journalist had been given secret government documents by sources from outside government who had stolen the documents."
Medsger did not learn the identities of the burglars until many years later, when it turned out she had met some of them as a reporter. In The Burglary, she has told the life stories of five of the eight who agreed to be identified, how they became convinced the FBI was waging a war on dissent, and how they carefully planned the burglary.
The organizer was the late William C. Davidon, a physics teacher at Haverford College. His recruits included John Raines, a civil rights veteran teaching religion at Temple University, and his wife, Bonnie, a day-care director. Two others, Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson, had dropped out of college to become full-time war resisters. (Medsger will appear with John and Bonnie Raines and Forsyth at the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, according to Knopf.)
There were many close calls as the FBI pursued them, and portions of this book read like a detective thriller. Medsger used the FBI's now-public 33,698-page "MEDBURG" file to reconstruct how the investigation unfolded. All but one of the eight burglars were listed as among 400 possible suspects at one time or another.
The investigation veered off track when Hoover's men mistakenly decided the burglars must have been led by John Peter Grady, a high-profile Catholic activist known for leading raids on draft boards. An informant helped them set a trap for the "Camden 28," as they came to be called, but a federal jury acquitted Grady and the others after the FBI's informant turned against the prosecution.
Ranging far beyond the burglary and its aftermath, the book looks at how Hoover's FBI became what the Media files revealed. There were two FBIs, Medsger writes. One was the FBI revered by Americans. The other, "known until the Media burglary only to people inside the bureau, usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation, and violence as tools to harass, damage and - most important - silence people whose political opinions the director opposed."
Medsger closely examines how Hoover became a law unto himself. Congressional oversight was nonexistent. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina had probed domestic spying by the Army, and he later became a national hero when he led the investigation into the 1972 Watergate burglary and cover-up. But when his Senate colleagues urged him to investigate the FBI's spying, Ervin chose not to. He admired Hoover.
Sixteen attorneys general headed the Justice Department during Hoover's 48-year reign, and he came to regard them as his protectors, not his bosses. Indeed, when the first batch of Media files began arriving in Washington newsrooms, Hoover had yet to tell his superiors in the Justice Department about the burglary nearly three weeks before.
That is just one of many fascinating and insightful anecdotes related in this thoroughly researched and highly readable story of a tumultuous time in U.S. history. It took a burglary to show how abjectly Congress and the executive branch had failed to oversee Hoover's FBI.
Betty Medsger, "The Burglary"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Admission is free.
Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.
Mark Wagenveld is a former Inquirer reporter and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.