03/24/2014 11:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Before Snowden, Before Wikileaks, Before the Church Committee, Before Deep Throat, Before The Pentagon Papers... There Was The Burglary

[Program Note: What follows is the start of my book review of Betty Medsger's The Burglary. It is quite a bit longer than the normal book review, for which reason it has been split into two parts. What follows is "Part 1," and I have posted "Part 2" on my own website now (rather than tomorrow), for those interested in reading it, in full, in one sitting. My apologies for the length, but the subject matter is both important enough and relevant enough to the current debate on national security leaks that I felt it was worth presenting in full. I highly recommend this book to all. Furthermore, this Wednesday I will be posting an interview with the author.]


Where it all began

Forty-three years ago this month, an obscure branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations located in a Philadelphia suburb was burgled. All their files were stolen (being 1971, these files were all on paper) and whisked away to a secret hideout, then they were sorted and sent to the media. This criminal act set in motion the idea that our government should no longer operate in secret without any supervision. It was followed by the leak of the government's Vietnam War plans, a congressional investigation (the first ever of its kind) into the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., the resignation of a president brought about in no small part by leaks to the media, and eventually the modern-day document dumps of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. But while the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Church Committee are at least somewhat well-known these days, few people (even few followers of politics, recent history, or the debates on the modern security state) recognize "the Media break-in" as where it all started.

Former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger is trying to change that with her new book, The Burglary (2014, Alfred A. Knopf). Medsger is the right person to do so, both for historical reasons and for the fact that she has produced a book that is both riveting and extremely readable. Not just an in-depth look at a moment in history, The Burglary is also extremely relevant to today's debates over national security, privacy, and the leaking of government secrets to journalists. Obvious parallels can be drawn between the Media burglary and the situation Edward Snowden finds himself in today, in fact.

The building in Media, PA, which housed the F.B.I. office on the second floor.

Photo Credit: Betty Medsger (used with permission of the photographer).

At its heart, the book chronicles a crime. A group of Americans conspired to break into a federal office in a town called Media, Pennsylvania, in order to steal information -- something that is very definitely against the law. This information was then disseminated to members of Congress and select journalists, in an effort to inform the public what was being done in their name. One of the documents revealed the existence of an F.B.I. program called "COINTELPRO," which would go on to have further political ramifications.

What makes it a fascinating story is that the burglars got away scot-free, even though over 200 F.B.I. agents were assigned to discover who they were, in a years-long investigation. The Burglary is the first time their names have been made public, over four decades after the crime was committed. The real reason they got away with it was the excellence of what a spy novel would call their "tradecraft." The group (calling itself the "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI") was formed independently of any of the other dozens of anti-war groups in existence at the time, met in absolute secrecy, planned and executed a daring crime, successfully got the information to the public, and then (most important of all) they completely disbanded, never to meet again. The members went their separate ways, and with only a few exceptions never even communicated with each other again.

Medsger has written the history as a very human story. Out of the nine people involved in the burglary, she managed to track down at least seven of them. Five agreed to allow Medsger to use their real names; two agreed to be interviewed for the book (but only under pseudonyms); one could not be found at all; and one is not named because he did not actually take part in the burglary. The seven stories are told in a very personal way, both from the perspective of participating in the burglary and also from their current point of view, looking back on their action decades later.


The burglary

Medsger lays out the details of the burglary and its aftermath, both for the conspirators and for federal government policy, in clear and readable fashion. It doesn't hurt that so many parts of the burglary's story fall into the "truth is sometimes stranger than fiction" category -- some of these plot twists would have been rejected by a Hollywood producer as being unbelievably melodramatic, to put this another way. Consider:

  • The burglars were a pretty eclectic bunch, including a physics professor (the mastermind of the group) as well as "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." The conspiracy even included a distant relative of Wild Bill Hickok.
  • The burglary was timed to coincide with one of the biggest heavyweight championship fights of all time, between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier -- possibly the biggest "planned distraction" any burglars ever used in such a break-in.
  • One of the conspirators (who remains unnamed in the book) dropped out of the group only a few days before the burglary, and later contacted the ringleader and said he was thinking about turning everyone in. He did not in the end do so, but it certainly was frightening for the others, who had no way of knowing what he'd do.
  • In a previous and unrelated (but not unknown to the Media conspirators) burglary of a draft board office, while casing the joint, a locked door to an inner office was noticed. Several hours before the burglary took place, a note was stuck on this door reading: "Please don't lock this door tonight." When the burglars arrived, the door was politely left unlocked for them.
  • Even though the F.B.I. office had been cased, the night they arrived for the burglary, the second-story men found a brand new lock on the door which their trained lock-picker could not open -- and yet, the burglars regrouped and decided to forcibly break in through another door.
  • There was a small safe in the F.B.I. office which the burglars couldn't open. The secret files were not stored in it. Had the office had a bigger safe to store secret files, the burglary would have been unsuccessful.
  • The mastermind of the burglary was accused -- after the conspirators had begun to plan, but before the actual burglary happened -- of being in another conspiracy, of Catholic peace advocates who were going to "bomb tunnels under federal buildings and kidnap [then-National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger." Such a plot did not in fact exist, but that didn't stop the F.B.I. from zeroing in on him in the meantime.
  • The morning of the burglary, in an ironic coincidence, William H. Rehnquist (who would be named to the Supreme Court six months later) testified before a Senate committee that virtually no surveillance was being done by the federal government on its own citizens.
  • Most astounding of all: the weekend before the burglary was to take place, Kissinger met -- in the White House -- with three of the unindicted co-conspirators in the plot to kidnap him. Unbelievable as it sounds, the mastermind of the Media burglary was in a meeting with Kissinger two days before the break-in occurred. Kissinger even wrote about this meeting in his 1979 memoir White House Years.

As mentioned, at least some parts of this would get laughed out of the script if Hollywood had conceived of it as fiction. And this list doesn't even touch upon the "comic relief moments," which occurred during the extensive manhunt the F.B.I. conducted afterwards.


The reign of Hoover

Anyone who didn't live through the 1960s and 1970s may find it hard to believe the political atmosphere surrounding the F.B.I. back then, and how powerful J. Edgar Hoover truly was. In the over four decades that he had been in charge of the agency, Congress had not held a single hearing to oversee what the F.B.I. was up to. Every budget request Hoover ever made to Congress was approved, usually without question. Perhaps this was because Hoover did not balk at investigating anyone -- no matter how highly placed in the government (which included anti-war members of Congress). It may sound like exaggeration or hyperbole now, but what appeared in the Nation the day before the burglary happened was nothing short of the truth: "The Director and the Bureau have become folk heroes, an atmosphere has been created wherein even to suggest that the Bureau is a legitimate subject for analysis and political discussion is enough to bring charges that one is subversive, un-American and probably godless."

J. Edgar Hoover ran the F.B.I. as his own personal fiefdom. One of the files the Media burglars discarded (sadly, since it does sound amusing) contained "detailed instructions on how agents should celebrate J. Edgar Hoover's birthday each year." New recruits had to pass a final test with the director, before becoming agents: they met in his office and shook hands with Hoover. Anyone who displayed "sweaty palms" during the handshake was immediately let go. Hoover also fired anyone who gained what he deemed to be too much weight, and (from one of the Media files) he set high standards for even clerical workers: "Please, when interviewing applicants be alert for long hair, beards, mustaches, pear-shaped heads, truck drivers, etc. We are not that hard up yet." That "pear-shaped heads" is not a joke -- Hoover was convinced such people were not acceptable at the F.B.I. He told Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that he "would resign" rather than hire African-Americans as agents, and as a result Hoover didn't even speak to Kennedy for the last six months R.F.K. was in office (as Hoover's titular boss).

After the successful burglary, where the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the F.B.I. made off with just about every piece of paper in the office, the files were sorted. In their final communication, they offered a breakdown of what was contained in all the files they had stolen:

  • 1% -- organized crime, mostly gambling
  • 7% -- leaving the military without permission
  • 7% -- draft resistance, including refusal to submit to military induction
  • 20% -- murder, rape, and interstate theft
  • 25% -- bank robberies
  • 40% -- political surveillance and other investigation of political activity. Of these cases, 2 were about conservative individuals or organization, and 200 were about liberal individuals or organizations.

Everything the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the F.B.I. considered legitimate law enforcement activities (investigations of actual crimes and criminals) was discarded and destroyed. The burglars had no intention of jeopardizing real law enforcement efforts, after all. But the files which showed the F.B.I.'s obsession with spying on political groups were exposed -- the first time the American public had ever heard about such activities (in fact, one of the few times the American public had heard much of anything bad said about Hoover or his agency). After vetting, the files were sent out to two members of Congress and three newspaper reporters. The members of Congress had previously been skeptical of the war, which is why they were chosen: Senator George McGovern and Representative Parren J. Mitchell. Both immediately called up the F.B.I. and turned over the files they had received. Whistleblowing to government overseers went precisely nowhere. It would be three years after the burglary before Congress even asked tough questions of the F.B.I., and another year after that before the Church Committee was formed. Significantly, neither would take place before the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

Much like the modern document dumps by Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, there were many shocking revelations from the Media files. Too many to list here, in fact. Just as one quick example, the F.B.I. had been keeping a list (called the "Security Index") deemed "a threat to the internal security" for decades. The Attorney General (and later, Congress) authorized the F.B.I. to "summarily arrest up to 20,000 people and place them in national security detention camps," in case of emergency. This is not conspiracy theory, this is instead (sadly) historical fact -- the Emergency Detention Act of 1950 wasn't repealed until 1971, after the Media files were made public. All of the later revelations about both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. which were exposed by the Church Committee might never have come to light without the Media burglars. Both the Security Index and COINTELPRO (or "Counter Intelligence Program") were first revealed in the Media files (although in both cases, it took a lot more journalistic digging to answer what the terms referred to, to be fair).

Hoover was apoplectic with rage when he learned of the burglary. He immediately started an extensive investigation and devoted an astounding two hundred agents to find the burglars. He also closed over 100 smaller F.B.I. branch offices across the country, and for the hundreds more that he couldn't close, he instituted the rule that they be guarded around the clock by F.B.I. agents themselves (no lesser police were deemed worthy enough to be night watchmen). This resulted in a whole bunch of overtime pay for agents to sit around in the dark, essentially. An investigator for the Church Committee later summed up the F.B.I.'s overreaction to the burglary: "They spen[t] millions to transfer agents from those offices and spent millions on the unproductive work of agents guarding F.B.I. offices day and night. It was insane."


The farce that was the MEDBURG investigation

This investigation (named "MEDBURG" for "Media burglary") went to unbelievable lengths to find the culprits, all to no avail. Photocopier drums were confiscated in an effort to find the machine used to copy the documents (including one that actually had been used by one of the conspirators, which the F.B.I. never properly identified). Both Princeton, New Jersey (where the documents had been mailed from) and certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia were put under a kind of surveillance siege. In Powelton Village, the residents (none of whom were in fact conspirators) soon got tired of these tactics, and decided to strike back and have a little fun. From The Burglary: "Bumper stickers reading THIS IS AN FBI CAR were pasted onto the back bumpers of F.B.I. cars as they [the agents] slept." Megaphones were sometimes used to wake them up, with cries of "This is your F.B.I. at work!" while on the other side of the car someone would stand with milk and cookies for the agents to wake up to, after their naps.

Finally, the residents staged a day-long "Your F.B.I. in Action Street Fair" where people could stand "beside a life-size cardboard cutout of J. Edgar Hoover" and get their pictures taken. Posters were put up containing both the Media files and photos of photographed F.B.I. agents from the neighborhood, and "children had fun putting together jigsaw puzzles that had been made from pictures taken of agents who seemed to be living in their cars, like homeless people, in the neighborhood." An anti-harassment lawsuit (which the F.B.I. eventually lost) was brought which revealed that "forty to fifty cars" were used to conduct surveillance of the neighborhood, with agents brought in "from as far away as Jackson, Mississippi" to man the vehicles.

When the F.B.I. struck back by raiding the house of a woman who worked for a Quaker organization, the response was swift: her neighbors took her door, which had been destroyed by sledgehammers, down to the local F.B.I. office and demanded restitution. J. Edgar Hoover quietly wrote a memo approving payment for the door. The entire investigation -- which occupied uncountable man-hours and which generated a file containing 33,698 pages -- only ever came close to identifying one of the Media burglars. Most of the burglars hadn't even been interviewed in the investigation. In a final bit of irony, this massive file was never accessed by anyone via the Freedom Of Information Act until 1979, when the mastermind behind the crime requested his own copy of the MEDBURG file (which the F.B.I. eventually provided).


[Note: For those who are still reading this tome of a book review, I invite you to continue with "Part 2," on my site. Full disclosure: I was not paid nor compensated in any way to write this review, although I was provided with a free copy of the book by the publisher. If anyone has a problem with that, let me know and I will donate it to my local public library or public school library, to uphold my journalistic purity (so to speak).]


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