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 first three parts of this review detailed the extraordinary actions eight private citizens took, which blew an enormous hole in the wall of secrecy which J. Edgar Hoover had built around his corrupt operations. Acting alone and in total secrecy, Bill Davidon and his crew planned and executed a burglary of an FBI field office and distribution of their incriminating files in national newspapers in four months. Two months later, despite a frenzied 200-agent FBI manhunt, they were still at large.
The author who, as a young newspaper reporter, had written the first news account of the FBI’s stolen files and their explosive content, tells us many tales of human heroism and weakness from that tumultuous period. The first batch of stolen files reached front pages everywhere and confirmed, by way of the FBI’s own memorandums, what the burglars and activists everywhere suspected: that the bureau had been conducting a wide array of illegal operations, including employment of informants to infiltrate activist groups, wiretapping, room bugging, and burglary to disrupt and defame anti-war and civil rights activists. In the succeeding weeks, all of the files had been made public and more secrets were pried loose, and a sweeping view emerged of a one-man empire with tentacles that fed on corruption at the highest levels of government.
Everything they wanted to know about Hoover but were afraid to ask
Hoover built the FBI from scratch, in his own image. It is difficult to separate the man from the bureau. J. Edgar Hoover was an autocrat, a control freak, a brilliant strategist, a peeping Tom, a xenophobe, a racist to the bone. Knowledge, particularly of salacious behaviors by prominent people, was his stock in trade. The FBI’s investigative charter gave him perfect cover to collect those “secrets”, and to weaponize them offensively or defensively. Being a world-class knowledge warrior was necessary because he had more secrets to hide than anyone else. Hoover authorized more illegal operations over his 46 year tenure than any Mafia boss could ever dream of. As if that weren’t enough, he was most likely a closeted homosexual. His “partner” was the Associate Director of the FBI and his constant companion. As in the nuclear standoff of the cold war, everybody feared mutually assured destruction. There were no profiles in courage to be found willing to take him on.
No business like show business
The FBI was created out of the need to track and apprehend kidnappers, bank robbers, and organized crime. Hoover parlayed early spectacular successes (such as the killing of John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater in Chicago) to build a popular image of incorruptible G-Men keeping the public safe from crime. With a flair for public relations, he backed and helped shape two popular long-running productions: “The FBI in Peace and War” on radio, and “FBI” with Efram Zimbalist, Jr., on TV. The reality was quite different: he did little to take on the Mafia as it grew to dominate organized crime. When Davidon categorized the documents he confiscated from the Media office, he found that 40 percent of the content related to political surveillance, 14 percent to draft resisters and only one percent to organized crime!
Spies, spies everywhere
The stolen files led to the exposure of Hoover’s two most nefarious programs. The “Security Index” (SI) originated with his lists of “people to keep an eye on” in the 1920’s. It grew to thousands as World War Two neared. A Japanese or German surname was often enough to earn placement on the list. Throughout WW2 and the Cold War, he was repeatedly ordered to end it, but he just renamed it and buried it deeper in his secret files. It was a handy directory to keep tabs on the “usual suspects” to conduct their other covert operation, the notorious COINTELPRO (Counter-intelligence Program). Centered on undermining and eradicating protest groups and movements, it was brought to heel (but its spirit lives).
Mission (partially) accomplished
These explosive revelations came in rapid, numbing succession and threw the bureau for a loop. Their pushback was abetted by “friends in high places”, particularly the Nixon White House, which needed a tag team partner in their present and future crimes.An interlocking directorate of institutions with its collective instinct for survival also rallied around the FBI. The public’s reaction was (at least in retrospect) unsurprising. The revelations stood in stark contrast to Hoover’s expertly crafted illusion of the guardians of “truth, justice, and the American way”. But, all too many Americans viewed the FBI’s tactics as necessary to protect the nation from those communist-influenced elements in our society that were rebelling against national unity, particularly those troublemaking black student activists. Congress had no clear popular mandate to lower the boom on the FBI. But successive scandals – Daniel Ellsberg’s exposure of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal – led to Nixon’s resignation, and then the humiliating end of the Vietnam War. It can be endlessly debated how vital the burglary was in this series of developments, but it was undeniably the ice-breaker.
But triumphs, whether the halting of an ill-conceived and counterproductive war or the enactment of voting rights and civil rights legislation, must be protected from erosion and rollback. There is a “Reverse” setting on evolution’s shift lever, and many are grasping for it now. In 2013, an eerie echo of Hoover’s Security Index (“SI”, the list of potential detainees in emergencies) was revealed in the form of Edward Snowden’s exposure of widespread, unauthorized spying by the NSA (National Security Agency) of the phone and electronic communications of U.S. citizens.
In the fall of 1970, most Americans were, at most, spectators in the hot-button issues of the day. Many activists feared they were waging a hopeless struggle. Meanwhile, Bill Davidon conceived an “unthinkable” course of action: seize these FBI files and make them public. (To the suggestion that, by resorting to illegal activities, the burglars were no better than the FBI, one of the burglars responded that breaking the law is not always the same as committing a crime). Davidon did not know what sort of physical security existed at the field offices, but he would take a risk and find out. And he had no idea what useful information was held in those file cabinets. He already had a target on his back, and knew there was a distinct possibility he, and his co-conspirators, would be arrested and imprisoned. Despite being a brilliant mathematician, he could not calculate the odds. And despite all those hazards, he, and his seven crewmates, had the courage to proceed.
With this hope, therefore, we place our intuitive bet, on life and the creativity of evolution. When hope is powered by this kind of faith or intuition – our sense of the ultimate wholeness and beauty of things and our own power to meet the real challenges – it is actually not irrational at all.But we must not confuse the ultimate hope we may have in the goodness or rightness of things with the false hope that they will automatically turn out well for us and for our world. A radical, robust hope lies on the other side of despair. It can energize and sustain us, inspire our highest capacities, make us a powerful, positive force in the world, and help us to effectively address our inconceivably vast challenges. – A New Republic of the Heart, Chapter 1, p. 31
In the here and now
Now, in AD 2020, we sense an eerily similar milieu. Oppression from the state surrounds us. Our system of checks and balances is not working. Our institutions are uncaring or impotent or hamstrung. But a burglary would solve nothing: the masks have been torn off and the response is “So what?”. McConnell’s Senate is filling the benches with judges eager to rubber-stamp that attitude. They have little competence and less compassion. America may be the epicenter of rising authoritarianism, but tyrants everywhere – from Turkey to Brazil to Austria to India – are sensing that now is their moment. A record high concentration of greenhouse gasses has infested our atmosphere, and rainforests are set afire to aggravate that burden. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires are on the way. But this is no time for despair; this is the time for the same type of hope that the burglars possessed during that long-gone era. It still serves no purpose to calculate the odds. This time, the stakes are incalculably higher. It is time for a cadre of “burglars” to punch through the fraudulent barriers that are being thrown up to prevent evolution from lifting us above the reign of the dominators.
We are increasingly aware that the whole landscape will probably be periodically transformed – drastically and suddenly – by events we have little hope of predicting. Unpredictable and seemingly unlikely events – sometimes with positive and sometimes with negative cascading effects – periodically transforming everything. These have been called black swans because of their unpredictability. (At one time all swans were presumed to be white, and sighting the first rare “impossible” black swan defied all expectations.)
There are many examples, negative and positive, of black swan events – from World War I to the impacts of the internet and the rapid dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and more recently, the 2016 U.S. election cycle. A black swan, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is defined by three criteria:
- It’s an outlier, far outside the realm of regular expectations. Nothing in the past pointed clearly to its possibility.
- It has extreme consequences and impact.
- Human nature leads us to concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, creating the illusion that it was explainable and predictable. – A New Republic of the Heart, Chapter 1, p. 23
The election of Donald Trump in the U.S.A. was a “Black Swan” event which exploited – with the intent to co-opt – the rumblings of a new day yearning to be born. Is the COVID-19 pandemic a second Black Swan, stinging our species out of its stupor, daring us to wake up and grow up to reach for our full potential?
To dig deeper
Although the burglary and Ms. Medsger’s book of the same name is (undeservedly) not well known, numerous accounts of the burglary and the ripples that it created can be found by way of a Google search. A short (13-1/2 minute) video by the New York Times does a nice job of summarizing the events detailed in this four post series:
In a much longer (one hour) book talk, the author, who had written the first news account of the FBI’s stolen files, gave this book talk in 2014. She reveals her role in breaking the silence the burglars had vowed to take to their graves.