February 6, 2014 11:34:05 AM
In a strange and distant time, the era of the protests against the Vietnam War, the New Left tried to convince the country not just that the war was misdirected, but that America was turning into a corrupt police state. Such accusations were regarded as exaggerated by the Americans who were fans of, say, Nixon and of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. Everyone knows what happened to Nixon, but perhaps it is time to be reminded of just how corrupt the FBI was under Hoover's administration. Here is the perfect history lesson on such a theme: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (Knopf) by Betty Medsger. This is the story of what Medsger says was "perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American History." In 1971, activists broke into an FBI office, and made off with files that showed how the organization was bent on dirty tricks, intimidation, entrapment, wrongful arrests and imprisonments, and more, worse than even the protesters at the time knew. Medsger was one of the first journalists to cover the story; the burglars picked her as one one of the reporters who would get copies of the files. The exposure done, the burglars disbanded, swearing not to contact one another, as that might give investigators clues to arrest them. It all worked, but they didn't, as they thought, take the secret to their graves. Long after the statute of limitations for the crime was over, a couple of the burglars had Medsger over for dinner, and quietly revealed themselves. Thus she was the first in the media to know about the crime and then about the burglars' identities. This exciting, revealing book tells about why the burglary was planned, how it was carried out, how the burglars escaped detection by an angry FBI, and what political effects resulted.
The burglars called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. They were war protesters who had invaded draft boards to destroy records within, campaigned against nuclear weapons, and marched for civil rights in the South. Four student protestors had been killed at Kent State University, Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, and the FBI was increasing its efforts to stop the protests. The future burglars felt that marching with signs was proving futile, especially when they were convinced that the FBI was secretly infiltrating and undermining the efforts of those legally protesting the war. They did not have hard evidence of such infiltration, so the burglary was planned to get it. For months, the carefully-picked group met in the attic of the house belonging to two of them, coordinating their research into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They watched traffic patterns, police patrol schedules, and neighborhood activity. One of them in order to get into the office put her hippie hair under a winter cap, put on glasses, and posed as a college student who was researching the FBI. The agent in charge seemed flattered, but during the visit she was there to eye the floor plan and check for security systems. When it came time for the burglary, they made a brilliant choice of going in on 8 March 1971, the night of the first championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, counting that anyone connected to the office's security would be more interested in the fight. There was a real scare when they showed up at the office that night and found a more secure lock had been put on the door; they were able to get in another way, and not knowing what they might find, they simply packed up all the files and put them into suitcases. They took them to a farmhouse where they started reading and sorting them.
The meticulous planning had paid off. They wore gloves and left not a single fingerprint. Even their locksmith made his own lock-picking tools for the job, rather than buying them and leaving a paper trail. The next morning, the FBI agents of that office had nothing to go on, and could only inform FBI Headquarters in Washington about the break-in and the loss of important secret files. All the FBI could do was look through their records of thousands of suspects that protested the war in different ways, and though they claimed to have leads, the top investigative organization in the country came up with nothing to solve the burglary against itself.
Hoover was livid when he learned of the burglary, and he should have been. The FBI the documents showed was completely different from the crime-crusaders he liked to see depicted on TV. The papers from the Media office showed, or were the basis for future discoveries that showed, disgustingly criminal activity. Injecting laxatives into oranges that were to go to protesters was one technique. Another was hiring prostitutes with known venereal disease to seduce antiwar leaders. If you wrote a letter to your paper opposing the war, you were a subversive just by that act and got your own FBI file. The FBI was paying stoolies to infiltrate anti-war organizations, and turning congregations of black churches against each other. Dr. Martin Luther King was targeted. One of the memos stated that such tactics were used "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."
It was clear from the documents that this was all being done at Hoover's instigation and approval. Hoover had used his power and his insider knowledge of what others in power were doing to make the FBI his private army to fight his battles against his bogeys of communism and racial civil rights. No one questioned his decisions before the break in, he was treated reverentially in his appearances before Congress, and he was popular among Americans. When the FBI was involved in its early days with busting criminals, rather than intimidating the New Left, Hoover played a needed role, but Medsger provides a brief history of even those days that shows he enjoyed intimidation and keeping secret dossiers on those he wanted to control. He died a year after the burglary, and before all the lessons were learned from it, so he got a grand funeral from Nixon, who had feared him, and he didn't have to answer for his decades of un-American activities. The FBI's attempts to catch the burglars would involve over 200 agents and last for five years, and would yield nothing.
The revelations led to the Church Committee in Congress, which looked into the FBI's actions, and eventually laws were passed that forbade the FBI from intimidating citizens because of political beliefs (imagine that). The surprising thing about the burglars is that they were not firebrands or extremists, but relatively middle-class citizens who knew (and they were right) that Hoover's excesses would never be exposed without the sort of action they had planned. They had made a commitment to what they knew was right, even if it did involve civil disobedience in the form of a burglary. Some of the most meaningful pages here are the ones that show just how much the married couple in the group were risking, since they could both have been taken away to prison and would have had to abandon their children. It is also a delight to read about how their children reacted when the couple informed them about the burglary years later. Medsger's book, big, rich in period detail, and exciting in its pages on the heist, is a brilliant illustration of how a few individuals can make a difference. One of the burglars, now a prosperous investor, said, "It's something that I'm really proud of. It's not something that I can put on my resume, but to me it's one of the most significant things I've done in my life."