Seth Rosenfeld / The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review – 2014-01-15 01:18:33
The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI
By Betty Medsger
Reviewed by Seth Rosenfeld / The San Francisco Chronicle
(January 10, 2014) — On the night of March 8, 1971, while much of the world was focused on the championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, persons unknown broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa. During the following weeks, the burglars photocopied and mailed stolen documents to journalists and public officials. This brazen act was a turning point not only for the FBI but also for the nation.
It set in motion a series of events that revealed the FBI’s extensive unlawful political spying and harassment of citizens engaged in dissent, destroyed the myth Hoover had created for himself, and reshaped the nation’s intelligence apparatus, setting the stage for the current scandal over the NSA’s widespread surveillance of Americans.
Historians have long acknowledged the importance of the break-in, but despite an intensive FBI investigation, the burglars never were identified. Now Betty Medsger, the first journalist to report on the stolen files after she received an anonymous package nearly 43 years ago, has written the first full account of this watershed event, revealing the identities of five burglars and examining why they risked their lives to do it, how they pulled it off, and the impact. “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” is an outstanding account that solves one of the greatest crimes in FBI history in more ways than one.
As it turns out, the burglary was not staged by wide-eyed radicals but by eight rather ordinary, middle-class people who had become deeply involved in the nonviolent, loosely structured Catholic peace movement based in Philadelphia and identified with Philip and Daniel Berrigan. What made them extraordinary was their commitment to the right to dissent and their trust in each other — and in an informed public.
The plan was conceived by William C. Davidon, whom Medsger describes as “a mild-mannered physics professor” at Haverford College. A Navy veteran, he was horrified by the use of nuclear bombs against Japan and feared their use in Vietnam.
He gradually shifted from simple protest to civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, participating in some of the dozens of draft board burglaries by Catholic activists to destroy draft records. He decided to adapt the technique to the FBI after persistent rumors that the bureau was suppressing the antiwar movement through the use of informers and intimidation.
Davidon recruited a team: three women and five men of various religious backgrounds, ages 20 to 44. Four had young children.
John Raines was a religion professor at Temple University, former Methodist pastor and son of the prominent bishop in Indianapolis;
Bonnie Raines, his wife, a graduate student and day care center director;
Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson, college dropouts; Ron Durst, a graduate student in health; and
Susan Smith, a veteran of the civil rights movement.
(Durst and Smith spoke to Medsger on the condition she identify them only by these pseudonyms. The eighth burglar was not found. The ninth member of the team quit just before the burglary and later threatened to turn in the others.)
Medsger, a former chairwoman of the department of journalism at San Francisco State University, provides a cinematic account of the burglars’ meticulous planning for the break-in, made all the more risky by the inhabited apartments above the FBI office and the 24-hour guard at the courthouse across the street. They chose the date for the burglary, hoping potential witnesses would be distracted by the Ali-Frazier fight, and Medsger builds tension by juxtaposing the unfolding events.
Delayed by an unexpected second lock, the burglars eventually made off with all the office files and a framed portrait of Hoover. They spirited the documents to a farmhouse at a Quaker conference center, where they quickly discovered evidence of what they had suspected: memos discussing surveillance of protesters, college students and every black student union, including one that bluntly instructed agents to step up interviews with dissenters “for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
A single routing slip bore the acronym COINTELPRO — the first hint of the enormous counterintelligence program to unlawfully disrupt and neutralize people of whose views FBI officials disapproved.
As Hoover pressed more than 200 agents to identify and arrest them before they distributed the records, the burglars went on with their day jobs and met nights at the farmhouse, carefully selecting records to avoid compromising any criminal cases and anonymously mailing them to selected recipients.
They called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI and used a return address of “Liberty Publications, Media, Pennsylvania.” An enclosed statement declared, “We believe that the FBI has betrayed its democratic trust and we wish to present evidence for this claim to the open and public judgment of our fellow citizens.”
This was the first disclosure — in the form of the FBI’s own documents — of the bureau’s systematic violation of constitutional rights and its monitoring of people on the basis of opinions, lifestyle and race. It was a direct blow to Hoover’s carefully cultivated image as impartial law enforcement leader and folk hero.
The initial impact, however, was muted. Hoover used blackmail to stifle a Justice Department call for congressional inquiry. Sen. George McGovern received the documents but condemned the burglary and took no action. And the first batch of records sent to the Los Angeles Times was mysteriously intercepted.
A set of 14 documents reached Medsger, then a religion reporter at the Washington Post who had covered the Catholic peace movement. Attorney General John Mitchell pressured the Post to kill her story, claiming it would harm national security.
The Post‘s lawyer warned against publishing an article based on stolen records. But National Editor Ben Bagdikian and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee convinced Publisher Katherine Graham that it was in the public interest, and the story ran on Page One.
More documents were mailed and more stories followed in the Post, the New York Times and elsewhere. There were editorials, and some members of Congress demanded an investigation, but to no avail.
Yet the Media disclosures had lit a fuse. In 1972, NBC legal affairs reporter Carl Stern became the first journalist to file suit under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained records on that intriguing acronym COINTELPRO, showing that the FBI had used techniques developed for foreign adversaries against citizens engaged in dissent.
Based on Stern’s disclosures, the Socialist Workers Party sued the FBI in 1973 and discovered the bureau had illegally burglarized its offices scores of times. The Watergate scandal revealed Nixon’s misuse of intelligence agencies, and, meanwhile, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh in 1974 exposed the CIA’s unlawful domestic surveillance.
All this precipitated the nation’s first — and to date only — extensive public hearings on intelligence abuses and the rights of Americans, which were led in 1975 and 1976 by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
Medsger deftly summarizes the Church committee’s shocking disclosures of official misconduct (such as FBI efforts to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide) and the ensuing reforms: the establishment of congressional committees to oversee intelligence agencies, and creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to review requests for national security wiretaps.
But as Medsger shows, Congress and the FISA court failed to provide adequate oversight of the FBI and other intelligence agencies, through the post-9/11 expansion of surveillance and secrecy and the current NSA scandal.
The FBI’s investigation of the break-in — MEDBURG in bureau parlance — was bungled and closed in March 1976, when the statute of limitations on the burglary expired.
The latter part of the book examines how the burglary affected the lives of the burglars. The Raineses lived for years in fear of being caught. Davidon continued his brazen acts of resistance, sabotaging bombs bound for Vietnam. Williamson joined EST for a while and became a Republican. All remained proud of the burglary.
Medsger discovered the identity of two burglars accidentally years after the break-in when John Raines inadvertently let slip that he and his wife had sent her stolen FBI records. She eventually interviewed seven burglars, as well as former FBI agents. She also draws on the FBI’s 33,698-page MEDBURG file as released under the FOIA.
By turns narrative and expository, “The Burglary” provides ample historical context, makes telling connections and brings out surprising coincidences, for example, that just two days before the break-in, Davidon met with Henry Kissinger at the White House.
The Media break-in, Medsger concludes, was “perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American history.” It is difficult to measure the many extraordinary acts of civil disobedience that have defined our nation, but there is no doubt this bold crime had immense impact. “The Burglary” makes a powerful argument for moral acts of whistle-blowing in the absence of government action.
Seth Rosenfeld, a former reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), winner of the 2013 American Book Award. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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