The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI

The BurglaryOn the night of Monday, March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali challenged Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight championship in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in New York City. While the whole world was distracted by the fight, the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania.

They took every file in the office, sight unseen, and carted them off to a secluded farmhouse for review. The Committee’s purpose was to determine whether the FBI was illegally – unconstitutionally – suppressing citizens’ right to dissent. For all the group members knew, they risked everything for what may have been worthless paperwork.

Frazier beat Ali. The eight burglars were never caught. Ever. What they and, subsequently, the nation, learned was shocking.

Betty Medsger’s book is a gripping account of what inspired the burglary, how the team was recruited, how they rehearsed the caper, how they pulled it off, and the results. All set against the background of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Medsger sheds light on an important part of our history.

The burglary itself makes up roughly the first fourth of the book’s nearly 600 pages. The remainder details how the burglary affected the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, journalists, our nation, the burglars themselves, and provides historical background.

A diverse group

The Committee’s leader, William Davidon, was a physics professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, a few miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia. Davidon, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, recruited a diverse group ranging in age from 20 to 44, and “included three women and five men – a religion professor, a daycare center worker, a graduate student in a health profession, another professor, a social worker, and two people who had dropped out of college to work full-time opposing the war.” Davidon and two other members had participated in the civil rights movement’s freedom summers, and experienced life-threatening situations.

Faith-based peace initiative

The group members knew each other from antiwar activities of the Catholic peace movement, but were not close friends. The Catholic Church’s American peace movement grew out of a 1963 encyclical by Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris. Pope John advocated the radical notion (for U.S. Catholics) of pacifism. His successor, Pope Paul VI, during a first-ever visit to America by a pope, called on the U.S. to end the Vietnam War.

Two brothers, Phillip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, and Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit, helped found the Catholic antiwar movement. They helped pioneer the use of burglary to disrupt the draft, thereby hindering the war effort. Nonviolence was the movement’s hallmark. At first, protesters would break into a draft board office and peacefully wait for police to arrest them. Eventually, they decided they could be more effective if they broke in, stole draft records, and didn’t wait around to get caught.

This “aggressive nonviolence” appealed to Davidon. The Committee members maintained nonviolent principles, and carried no guns or weapons during the burglary.

Although Medsger mentions the Catholic peace movement in context to show how it influenced Davidon, it reminds us that the Catholic Church at one time had a social conscience that stood for something besides refusing to provide birth control for nonreligious employees.

An FBI aagent behind every mailbox

Medsger, at the time a Washington Post reporter, was not an uninvolved observer. Because Davidon and others of the team were familiar with her reporting on the antiwar movement, they trusted her. She was among the first to receive copies of the Media FBI files. Astounded and surprised, she and her colleagues weren’t sure if the documents were real, let alone something the Post should publish.

One of the first things she received was an internal FBI memo encouraging agents interviewing dissenters to “enhance paranoia . . . to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

A culture of lawlessness

Ultimately, the Media files revealed that J. Edgar Hoover had, from the very beginning of his tenure in 1924, twisted and perverted the mission of the FBI to function as the his own version of the Russian KGB. What publicly purported to be the crime-fighting defender of our liberties used “blackmail and burglary” as its favorite tools.

One of the most important discoveries of the burglary was COINTELPRO, counterintelligence program, which remained a mystery until NBC reporter Carl Stern unraveled it in December 1973, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. It didn’t mean simply spying. “Tools usually reserved for clandestine use against foreign enemies were employed under Hoover against a wide swath of Americans . . . to stop dissent.” FBI methods “inflicted pain, anxiety, and humiliation – forms of torture.”

Even so, “no crime was stopped by information gained during COINTELPRO and [similar] operations. . . . It was harass and destroy rather than investigate, prosecute and convict. . . . Hoover moved the FBI away from law enforcement [and] . . . created a culture of lawlessness.”

After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same

As Medsger was finishing her book, Edward Snowden released NSA files he stole, and she includes a chapter on the event. These electronic files show the NSA far surpassed the FBI in reach, putting in place “sophisticated equipment and software programs that allowed it to monitor and absorb the world.” This included “massive private information from Americans’ communications.” Again, this shotgun approach “has led to minimal benefit regarding the discovery of terrorists’ plans.”

Snowden faced demands for surrender, hanging and the firing squad, figuratively if not literally. But his action provided the nation – and the world – with information not otherwise available.

That was the dilemma of the Media burglars. They committed a crime, but if not for that crime, we would never have found out about Hoover’s secret FBI.

The real patriots

In a larger sense, Medsger questions what it means to be a patriot, a term that lately has been hijacked by a certain ideology. Are citizens being patriotic when they resort theft to expose their government’s illegal activities?

If we all just sit down and shut up, aren’t we tacitly agreeing with Richard Nixon when he responded to David Frost, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”?

The Media burglars had no intention of destroying American democracy, nor did Snowden. They didn’t sell the information for money, and, as far as we know, neither has Snowden. This stands in stark contrast to Jonathan Pollard, who sold U.S. secrets to Israel (a country with the chutzpah to demand we turn Pollard over to them), or Aldrich Ames, convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia.

The Media burglars and Edward Snowden embody Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that we have a “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

It’s not a stretch to say the Media burglars, and even Snowden, are patriots who felt the need to call our country to account, to reconcile its actions with its values. They did more for our constitutional integrity than those who carry guns in self-serving, reflexive actions to validate the Second Amendment.

Medsger sums it up at the end of the first chapter: “It is a story about the potential power of nonviolent resistance, even when used against the most powerful law enforcement agency in the nation. It also is a story about courage and patriotism.”

– Frank C. Siraguso