This book, written by Betty Medsger in 2014, tells the incredible true story of the 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, PA by a “we-group” of eight who were never detected and kept their secret for 43 years. Stolen documents were made public and revealed extensive wrongdoing by the FBI, which precipitated a massive shakeup. Inspiring, especially from the standpoint of precious democratic values, perennially under attack from without and within.
The Office Temps
The burglars arrived at their farmhouse rendezvous, plopped the suitcases down, and enjoyed a “happy hour” with beverages and snacks as they unwound and prepared to sift through their booty.Each document was to be re-filed for its next purpose: public scrutiny. First, materials pertaining to legitimate FBI operations – organized crime, kidnapping, bank robberies, etc. were destroyed. The bulk of the documents, however, revealed extensive “extracurricular” activities. They were categorized according to the particular offence: infiltration of student and peace/civil rights groups (particularly black student groups); spying and blackmail of politicians and other public figures and celebrities; disruptions of protest events; phone tapping; room bugging; burglaries, etc.
It took less than an hour to hit pay dirt. The silence was broken: “Look at this!!” The others dropped everything and gathered around the discovery. In a newsletter from Headquarters sent to agents who specialized in snooping on activists, this inspired bit of advice stood out: ”…enhance the paranoia ..and …get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Our tax dollars were funding psychological warfare against peaceful protesters! It would take nearly two weeks to get through their discovery of all the files withmany revealing details about these rogue operations being uncovered along the way, but that initial find was the most outrageous of them all.
After their initial adrenaline-filled all-nighter, they left the farmhouse to begin their first long day of double shifts. For the next ten days, they would perform their “day jobs”, then go and sift through the documents in a responsible and methodical way, befitting “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI”.
When the first FBI agent arrived at the office that morning, a predictable yet bizarre series of events were put into motion – after the initial shock had worn off. They were familiar with anatomy of burglaries (and, as documentary evidence would soon reveal, they had extensive experience performing them), but being on the receiving end of one was a new and mind-bending experience. As they informed the bureau up the hierarchy, they performed their “autopsy” of the crime scene. It was unusually clean with none of the usual burglary debris left behind.
When J. Edgar Hoover arrived at Headquarters, a typed transcript of the incident call-in was waiting on his desk. Unsurprisingly, the old man was apoplectic. This was just about the worst possible news he could imagine. Hoover guarded the Bureau’s secrets in his files with utmost vigilance. He wanted them to be sealed as close to hermetically as possible. The bureau’s snooping into the private lives of Hollywood celebrities was revealed through a court-ordered discovery in a 1940’s spy trial. Since that leak, Hoover had taken elaborate steps to prevent future embarrassments. He devised a cryptic filing system, hiding records of their many nefarious activities in the “administrative” file, which was designed to be off-limits to subpoenas and other probing attempts. Also, too many lawmakers had secrets that Hoover could use against them if they got too nosy. Unfortunately for his fiefdom, he left a flank exposed: private citizens passionate enough to simply break through his shoddy physical security and discover all that was needed to confirm widespread suspicions.
Hoover’s Plan B. And C.
Now, Hoover was terrified. His first priority was to capture the burglars red-handed and secure the stolen documents before they saw the light of day. As a backup, he started looking into pressuring Congress to jam through an “Official Secrets Act” to criminalize possession and publication of FBI documents. He dispatched Mark Felt, head of the Inspection Division, to take charge of this emergency. Felt, an experienced survivor of Hoover’s Blame Games, unfairly scapegoated Tom Lewis, the agent in charge of the Media office (for security protocol failures that Felt himself had committed). The hapless Lewis was summarily transferred to the field office in Atlanta.
“In 2005, at age 91, Felt revealed that during his tenure as associate director of the FBI he had been the notorious anonymous source known as “Deep Throat” who provided The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with critical information about the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.”: Wikipedia
The ensuing investigation of the burglary entailed, at its peak, over 200 agents, and remained active until the statute of limitations ran out five years later. The final report, 33,000 pages long, describes a rather erratic search, jumping from one hot lead to another. Initially, the FBI had strong suspicion of the Catholic protesters, and John Peter Grady (whom Davidon had briefly considered recruiting) was their prime suspect. But, Hoover’s obsession with “that girl” (Bonnie Raines) that duped agent Lewis into granting her an interview put steam behind their hunt. A police sketch artist was brought in to produce her “WANTED” poster.
Let the Sunshine In
Davidon and Raines supervised the collating of the documents. Then one Sunday, they ran off multiple copies at their respective office copiers, handling them with the mandatory rubber gloves. They were mailed, complete with cover letters, to Senator George McGovern,Congressman Parren Mitchell, and three newspapers: the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The documents were met with mixed reviews.
The lawmakers both denounced the burglary and returned the documents. In so doing, they avoided getting caught in a political trap. But they couldn’t un-read the disclosures.
Run the Presses
March 23, 1971 was a big day at the Washington Post. Betty Medsger (the author of this book, then a junior-level beat reporter) opened her morning mail and read a large envelope from “The Commission”. It pertained largely to FBI infiltration of peace and justice activists and campus groups, predominately black student activists. She didn’t know whether or not it was a spoof. Checking with a senior political reporter, she learned that Attorney General John Mitchell had just contacted the Post and urged them not to publish the files. Their disclosure would put agents’ lives and national security at risk. National security – the usual bluffs. While Betty wrote her article describing the shocking contents of the documents, momentous discussions were taking place in the big offices. Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, Post Owner Katherine Graham, and legal counsel agonized over the issue: to publish or not to publish. Leaked documents from insiders were fair game, but they were in new territory by “trafficking in stolen property”. It was decided at 10:00 pm. They would publish.
Also on March 23, identical packages addressed to big-name critics of government overreach arrived at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Those packages were intercepted at their mailrooms and returned to the FBI. However, the next day, their front pages – and front pages everywhere – retold the shocking story of the FBI’s misdeeds which the Post had courageously decided to run. Thankfully, they had broken the ice, and benefited from their scoop as a reward.
In addition to the mailroom interceptors at the New York and L.A. papers, the mailroom at the Post may well have had their own snoop tasked with short-stopping explosive items. Such a person would have been on the lookout for mailings to Alan Barth, who was also known to be critical of the FBI. Because Betty Medsger had no such track record, she received her mail unimpeded. She was relatively new at the Post; the burglars liked her coverage of the draft board raids in a local Philadelphia paper, her previous employer.
The Tell-tale Drum
Shortly after the document bundles were received and viewed, Xerox Corporation advised the FBI that each individual copier left a unique marking from its drum onto the copies. This was received as great news by the Bureau, frenzied by the succession of dry holes. It initiated the launching of a massive copier inspection drive at suspect installations. Legendary investigative reporter Jack Anderson had caught wind of this potential breakthrough and interviewed a public relations executive at Xerox who revealed that cooperation with the FBI would be terminated due to the ethical issue of customer privacy. When Anderson’s column became public, Hoover went ballistic. He got Xerox’s CEO on the line. The CEO had just returned from a vacation and was apparently unaware of the “ethical” decision. It was countermanded. News of this brouhaha hit the burglars hard.
Within days, John Raines saw a Xerox repairman carrying out to his van the drum from the machine he had used to make hundreds of contraband copies. His heart sank. He learned that the copier had been acting erratically and the drum had been replaced. That was little comfort. He informed Davidon, with whom he had shared the copying task. William Davidon’s copier drum soon found a secure home in the inner office of Haverford’s president. What became of the “smoking gun” from Raines’ copier? Nobody knows.
“I was just asking…”
One day in May, as John was returning from a tennis game and Bonnie was working at the daycare center, a pair of visitors showed up at the Raines’ front door. With dark suits and ties, crew cuts and sunglasses, they needed no name tags. Of course they wanted to talk to him about the burglary. John’s response was a long lecture on his reaction to the burglary: shock, disgust, dismay that they were harassing peaceful opposition to the war and racism. When one of the agents interrupted his “filibuster” to ask him point blank if he had knowledge or involvement in the burglary, he refused to say yes or no, telling them he didn’t want to aid their manhunt in any way – and continued his rant. John, remembering that Bonnie was due home soon, found an excuse to usher them out. They told him he could expect a return visit from them sometime soon. They never came back. Apparently his bluster threw them off the track. Five minutes after they drove off, Bonnie arrived home. Bonnie, who would have been instantly recognized as the woman on the FBI WANTED posters, had just dodged a bullet. A big one.
“A democracy, if you can keep it”
In five short months, eight determined patriots with no budget and no legal standing (actually, in great legal jeopardy) and no desire for recognition (quite the opposite) risked their future freedom and did what the Federal Government with its unparalleled resources had been unable to do for decades: shine a spotlight on Hoover’s FBI, which was holding the nation hostage and ensnaring the government in their web of corruption and deceit. The burglars had done their job, and could do no more. Now, it was up to the government to do theirs.