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Interview With Betty Medsger, Author Of The Burglary

03/26/2014 08:19 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote an extensive book review of former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger's The Burglary (2014, Alfred A. Knopf). This book chronicles a break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania, branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1971, and the subsequent release to the public of files proving the F.B.I. was spending something like 40 percent of its time spying on and harassing political groups and individuals that J. Edgar Hoover didn't approve of. The burglars, who operated under the name "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.," were never caught, despite a five-year F.B.I. manhunt involving more than 200 agents. None of the burglars had ever even been publicly identified before Medsger's book was published.

This was a historic burglary, to put it mildly. It was also the first time modern newspapers were faced with the ethical question of whether to publish news stories which had as their sole source stolen government documents that arrived anonymously in the mail. The Washington Post broke the story 43 years ago this Monday, while both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (the other two newspapers who received the files) missed the scoop.

Betty Medsger was the reporter at the Post to whom the stories were addressed. She recently decided that the history of the Media burglary was worth telling in more detail, so she tracked down seven of the eight people behind the burglary -- even though they had remained anonymous for four decades. Five of the burglars agreed to have their names and stories published, while two allowed interviews using pseudonyms (Medsger reports that one of the latter may eventually agree to being publicly named, "at some point"). As for the last burglar (who also appears in The Burglary under a pseudonym), Medsger reported: "I simply was not able to find her. I don't know where she is, even if she is alive."

The entire story is a fascinating one, which is why my book review was so long it had to be presented in two parts, and why I used what is quite possibly the longest headline I've ever written: "Before Snowden, Before WikiLeaks, Before The Church Committee, Before Deep Throat, Before The Pentagon Papers... There Was The Burglary." My headline points out that this story is not only historic, but also very relevant to today's political discussion over Edward Snowden and the N.S.A. -- especially as President Obama and Congress are now being forced to act to rein in surveillance programs, precisely because of stolen government documents leaked to the public through the media. This is also why the following interview is so extensive, because I felt it was important enough to present unedited and in full.

What did it personally feel like to be a part of what could be called the biggest burr ever to be placed under J. Edgar Hoover's saddle? It must have been a little satisfying to know how incensed he must have been.

It was satisfying at the time I reported on the files in 1971 to know that I was playing a role in making available to the public documentary evidence about very serious wrongdoing by one of the nation's most powerful institutions -- an institution that used its power to destroy lives and to prevent people from working for their basic civil rights. I felt an even deeper satisfaction years later as I did the research that revealed the depth of the F.B.I. corruption the Media burglars had revealed, the enormous impact they had in opening the nation's eyes and their role in reforming a major institution, however rocky and lasting that reform has been.

What do you think would have happened to the Media burglars if they had been caught while J. Edgar Hoover was still in charge of the F.B.I.? Do you think the Justice Department would have prosecuted them by bringing charges over and above simple burglary of a federal office? What do you think the outcome of such a trial would have been for them, had they been caught within the statute of limitations?

The answer to your first questions comes, in part, from knowing that Hoover was described by insiders as "apoplectic" about the burglary. He followed and directed the investigation until the day he died, May 2, 1972. It's not hard to imagine that, given the fact that the Media files revealed him to the public as being the opposite of how he had presented himself for half a century, he felt a nearly desperate desire to have them arrested. Until then, he thought his illegal, vicious operations -- such as the efforts to destroy Martin Luther King and black movements for basic rights -- would be secret forever. Nothing less than his carefully constructed legacy was at stake.

Consequently, I think that if the burglars had been arrested while he was alive, the Department of Justice probably would have charged them with the highest crime possible. Hoover wanted to charge them with espionage, though that would have been a stretch -- but it's being used today on whistleblowers, so it might have been used then.

It's impossible to know what the outcome of a trial of the burglars would have been. It would have depended on when it took place. The five-year search for them was an amazing period. During that time, many revelations were made about intelligence agencies conducting domestic intelligence operations that were extreme and illegal. The Pentagon Papers were released by Dan Ellsberg, setting off a showdown that resulted in a victory for the newspapers at the Supreme Court. Notably, the period also included the "next" burglary -- the Watergate burglary. The unfolding stories, trials and Senate hearings and House impeachment hearings against Nixon revealed a succession of revelations that caused public opinion to change in regard to intelligence operations in general.

As the public learned more during that period about lawlessness at the top of the federal government, the Media burglars might have been acquitted. Jurors might have seen them as people who acted heroically when they risked many years in prison to find and release the first documentary evidence about the cruel and even criminal nature of many of Hoover's operations -- ones designed to suppress dissent by neutralizing people and organizations whose ideas and goals he did not like.

Media burglar John Raines liked to fantasize during those years that if arrested they would have a trial in which they would use the files they had stolen as evidence of why the burglary was necessary. He thought that if they could use the files in their defense a jury might be convinced that they should be acquitted because they had committed their crime, the burglary, in order to reveal the very powerful crimes of the F.B.I. against the American people -- the official suppression of dissent and much more. In case that day ever came, Raine prepared to make a good appearance in court by becoming a thin man. He stuck to a year-long diet of fruit and cottage cheese. Then he a bought a fine dark blue suit in case they ever went to trial. He was, of course, happy that they never did.

You are an integral part of this story, although you remain mostly in the background in The Burglary. Other than the bizarre encounter at the Washington Post with the man who said he "worked in the mailroom" (described on p. 180), did you ever suspect that the F.B.I. was either investigating you or otherwise keeping tabs on you? It seems like a reasonable fear for you to have had after writing the articles you did for the Post.

A few strange things happened that seemed to indicate I was being watched. Inasmuch as I had written the story that revealed the F.B.I. goal to "enhance the paranoia" and make people think there was "an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox," it seemed like a strange technique to use on me.

The morning the first story was published I picked up the phone in my kitchen and tried to dial a friend in Philadelphia. Instead of a dial tone, a man asked me what I was trying to do. Definitely an odd experience. He asked me who I was trying to call. Talk about ham-handed. Did he really expect me to talk to him about who I was calling? I remember that after a few seconds of being shocked at finding a live voice when I lifted the receiver, I shouted at him to get off the line.

At another time, I was driving alone on an interstate highway in Delaware, and a car kept alternating between tailgating me and coming along side me was too close. I never knew what either of those incidents were, but it seemed likely they were not unrelated to what I was reporting.

I remember telling myself to remain calm and not become paranoid. At that time, I became increasingly aware of such things happening to activists, especially during the F.B.I.'s intense search for the burglars. So what happened to me felt pretty mild compared to the few things I knew were happening to activists.

Something that happened two years later was disturbing. I had left the Washington Post and was freelancing. I got a call one day from Larry Stern, a great reporter and editor at the Post. He had assigned Bill Greider, another great journalist on the national staff, to review the Media files, and called to ask if I would give them a copy. I said there was no need for that because there was a set of the Media files I received in a safe across the hall from publisher Katharine Graham's office.

After I received the files over a period of two months in spring 1971, executive editor Ben Bradlee asked me for the files. He said he thought the paper should retain them. I didn't like this idea at first. I felt it was my responsibility to hold the papers. I was concerned that they might have the burglars' fingerprints on them and thought I should make sure that there was no chance they would fall into law enforcement hands. I didn't know who the burglars were, but I thought the information they had provided was so important -- and would have been available no other way -- that I had an obligation to protect my sources and not do anything that could lead to their arrest. I felt that was primarily my obligation, and that I should not entrust it to someone else. (I didn't realize until many years later when I read the Bureau's investigation of the burglary that other newspapers, plus the two members of Congress who received the same files -- Senator George McGovern and Rep. Parren Mitchell -- had immediately given the files they received from the burglars to the F.B.I.).

As I considered Bradlee's request, I realized that the top editor of the paper ultimately was responsible for what had been published and that I should give him copies of the files. Bradlee told me I could be confident they never would fall into the wrong hands. To assure me, he said he would put the files in a big envelope and write his signature across the sealed flap, and indicated that he would have to give permission for it to be removed from the safe.

We did that, but not until after I, after some research, made about 20 copies of each page, retaining the last generation of each page for the Bradlee package and destroying the other copies. I had been told, perhaps not reliably, that fingerprints could be detected on copies, but that the prints faded away on later generations of a copy. I witnessed his sealing the large envelope, writing his name across it and placing it in the safe.

A short time after I confidently told Larry (after that 1973 call) where he could get a set of the Media files, he called back. He had gone to Bradlee. Together they had gone to the safe, and the package was not there. Bradlee had no idea what had happened. He recalled that no one had asked him for it.

 

Have you ever filed a Freedom Of Information Act request to view your own F.B.I. file?

A few years after the burglary, I requested my file. What came back was a joke. I received a small cluster of stories I had written at the Post. As though my stories on the Media F.B.I. files had been classified, they were not included. I meant to appeal the decision but never did.

But I did use the F.O.I.A. to request another file: the 33,698-page Bureau investigation of the burglary. I read every word. Strangely, it arrived not in chronological order. I created a chronological record of the investigation by arranging my computer notes of the files in chronological order. Not fun with that many pages. But, it was so valuable to be able to be inside the investigation and relate that to how the burglars and others described happening as 200 F.B.I. agents searched frantically for the burglars during the five-year investigation.

 

You must have had to add in the information about Edward Snowden (in your penultimate chapter, "The NSA Files") very late in the editing process. While everyone is now talking about Snowden's revelations, it is tough today for younger Americans to realize what life was like during Hoover's reign at the F.B.I. How would you describe the differences and/or similarities between the current fears of the National Security Agency's activities and the fears which existed while Hoover was in charge of the F.B.I.?

There are differences and similarities.

At both times there was deep secrecy about intelligence practices widely considered out of control when they were revealed. At both times it took citizens -- rather than officials -- to reveal the secrets. They did so as people of conscience willing to risk many years in prison in order to make the revelations public. At both times, the people who took such great risks -- the Media burglars then, Edward Snowden now -- did so because of deep personal commitments to protect the right to dissent and the right to privacy. At both times, the government expected to keep the practices secret forever and was outraged when they were revealed.

Then, the public was astonished at what they were learning. So were members of Congress. I think that was the case because what was revealed was so diametrically opposite, in many ways, to how Hoover had presented himself to the public. Only deeply engaged political activists had suspected that individuals and organizations were being spied on or harassed because of their political beliefs.

Now, with Snowden's revelations, I think the public was, at least at first, less surprised at what was revealed, especially the first revelations -- the collection of metadata about hundreds of millions of Americans' phone messages. I think people reacted that way because since 9/11 there have been explicit official statements that the main responsibility of the intelligence agencies was to prevent the next terrorist attack. For many people, that probably implied the use of rather invasive techniques.

However, as more revelations have become known, the polls show, Americans have become less accepting of the need for invasive surveillance and more concerned about invasion of their privacy and the wider meaning of blanket surveillance.

At the same time, I think the fact that Hoover was revealed to be such a mean-spirited person who enjoyed designing vicious plots against his perceived enemies on completely unjustified grounds, made it easier for Americans to move in the early 1970s toward demanding that the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies be investigated.

Now, by contrast, the heads of intelligence agencies are faceless bureaucrats -- not iconic superstars like Hoover was prior to the Media burglary. The lack of a strong personality to see as responsible for the villainous behavior may contribute to the lack of shock last summer when Snowden's first revelations were made. But there have been many revelations since then, some of them quite shocking. That probably accounts for the deeper concern being expressed now about Snowden revelations. Some of the more shocking recent ones: N.S.A.'s plan to be able to listen to any phone any time anywhere. And the report that N.S.A.'s British counterpart, G.C.H.Q., which shares all with N.S.A., has been viewing and storing video webcam images from millions of Yahoo users, regardless of whether they are suspected of illegal activity.

A common criticism of Edward Snowden these days is that he should have "gone through channels" (in some unspecified manner) and worked within the system to change any abuses at the National Security Agency. For the Media burglars, would that have even been a viable or realistic option?

I don't think there is any chance that Snowden could have been successful at going through channels. When he testified last week to the European Parliament, at their invitation, he said he tried to report his concerns to more than 10 people at the National Security Agency, including some high officials, but none were willing to deal with his reports.

Can you see any way (other than leaking the stolen files to the media) which would have had any effect on Hoover's F.B.I. in the early 1970s?

Given the atmosphere at that time, there is no way that the F.B.I. could have been exposed by means other than those used by the Media burglars. There was no official oversight of the Bureau by Congress; by the superiors of the director, successive attorneys general, most of whom saw Hoover as their boss rather than vice versa, or by presidents. They all gave Hoover a pass.

So did journalists. There had been no reporting on the F.B.I. by journalists, except by journalists Hoover thought he controlled -- what he called "friendly journalists," people who wrote stories he asked them to write. That's true with one exception: Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. He had written a few articles that raised critical questions about F.B.I. methods. For that, at the time of the Media burglary the F.B.I., Hoover was fiercely trying to have him fired. In fact, the burglars sent the first set of files to him at the same time they sent them to me. He never received them because someone at the Times Washington bureau, where Nelson worked, intercepted them and gave them to the F.B.I.

There really was a total absence of oversight. Even after the revelations by the burglars and the Senate investigation of the F.B.I. by what was known as the Church Committee, after the committee's chair, Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, the Hoover supporters in the Bureau fought mightily to maintain the status quo in the Bureau.

You tell the story of the reform of the federal intelligence agencies after the Church Committee hearings, but after 9/11 you note that many of these reforms have been either weakened, abandoned, or completely reversed. Do you ever think the country will again reach the point where a future Church Committee is seen as necessary?

It's true that the Media burglars' revelations were the first step in a series of steps that led to the historic first congressional investigation of the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies in 1975. Though the call for an investigation was made immediately after the files became known, it took four years for Congress to decide to investigate.

Congress took that extraordinary step after so much critical evidence was made public that members thought they had no choice. Once Hoover's COINTELPRO operation -- a series of harassment programs that ranged from mundane to murderous actions against individuals and organizations he opposed -- were revealed, something had to be done. So far, despite the many invasive surveillance programs the Snowden files have revealed, Congress has not felt compelled to investigate NSA or other intelligence agencies.

Various bills being considered by Congress would either establish statutory approval of the current programs or greatly curtail them and increase oversight of them. It may be that, as more information becomes known, the public will once again support thorough investigation of these agencies by Congress. Otherwise, it may not be possible to know the motivation and extent of current intelligence operations or how the oversight mechanisms established in Congress in the mid-1970s became largely dysfunctional after 9/11. I tend to think such an investigation is needed in order to fulfill the national consensus that evolved after the burglary: that never again would intelligence agencies not be held accountable to Americans.

And, finally, if a dramatic movie is ever made about the Media burglary (in the style of All The President's Men, of course), who would you choose to play you?

Ha! Meryl Streep, of course. No, that can't happen. It would have to a young woman to play me as I was then. Perhaps one of Meryl's daughters? Seriously, if there is a movie, I would be a minor character, so no Streep-level actress.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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