BOOK REVIEW – The Burglary – The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger

By: Ed Prell

June 17, 2020

This book review originally appeared as four separate posts, beginning on May 6. The book tells the incredible story of eight private citizen-patriots who, in 1971, achieved what the checks and balances of the United States government was too timid to do: reveal a massive campaign of criminal suppression of American citizens by the FBI. Acting in total secrecy, they broke into a FBI field office, removed their incriminating files, and sent them out for publication by major newspapers. It was the first crack in a wall of secrecy that led to the end of the Nixon administration and of the Vietnam War. These burglars were never caught; it would be 43 years before their silence was first broken in this spellbinding book by Betty Medsger, the woman who had written the first account of the stolen files as a young reporter with the Washington Post. The bigger unsolved mystery is: why is this consequential feat of creativity, integrity and bravery virtually unknown by the American public? 

Part 1: The Plan

The Decoys

On the night of March 8, 1971, Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier were trading punches at Madison Square Garden. The bout had been promoted as “The Fight of the Century”. Both men were undefeated; the winner would be the World Heavyweight Champion. But that was not all that was at stake. The fight was hugely symbolic for America, sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. Ali had refused to obey military draft orders in 1967, and was stripped of his Heavyweight title and his boxing license; this would be his first bout after his reinstatement. Frazier, who had ascended to the title in Ali’s absence, supported the war, and had a photo-op with Richard Nixon prior to the fight.

Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, and Ted Kennedy were at ringside. Most Americans were glued to their radios. WHAT!? you ask. It wasn’t televised? Yes, it was, though over closed-circuit showings, adding $45 million to the box-office revenue. But some Americans weren’t focused on the fight that evening. This story is about them.

The Perpetrators

William Davidon, 42, a physics-mathematics professor at Haverford College, joined John Raines, 38, a divinity professor at Temple University, and his 29 year old wife Bonnie Raines, owner of a daycare center, and four of their colleagues to wait for Keith Forsyth, a 20 year old part-time cab driver, to execute the critical phase of that evening’s  project. Keith entered a 4-story commercial/residential building in Media, Pennsylvania. He headed for the second floor field office of the FBI. Equipped with handmade burglary tools, he was aiming to pick the office door lock, and clear the way for his accomplices to clean out the desks and empty the file cabinets. So, why did these young people plan this rather audacious caper, risking years of hard time in prison? And what were they going to do with all that paperwork if they safely hauled it away? Let’s flash back a few years.

Bill Davidon was a very bright guy. On his way to his PhD from the University of Chicago, he developed “the first quasi-Newton algorithm, now known as the Davidon–Fletcher–Powell formula.” That’s a very impressive feat. It yields an original solution to problems in matrix calculus, a field well established since the 1800s.

In his parallel life, Bill was also a fierce, principled advocate for peace and justice.

He was a sponsor of the War Tax Resistance Project and a board member of the ACLU Philadelphia branch while pursuing his faculty career at Haverford College and, as if that weren’t enough, plotted raids with Quaker and Catholic activists to steal and destroy draft board records. One must wonder when he slept.

John Raines was a son of a prominent Minneapolis clergyman. He had gone straight from Union Theological Seminary into the civil rights movement. In 1961, on a Freedom Bus ride from St. Louis to Little Rock, he was accosted by a white mob and jailed. It was a frightening episode he would never forget. Nevertheless, he persisted in civil disobedience together with his wife, Bonnie. In 1970, John, by then a professor of religion at Temple University, met Davidon while he and Bonnie were engaged in draft board raids in protest of the war in Vietnam.

Keith Forsyth was raised by a conservative family in small-town Ohio. He shared those values – but his principled and curious soul was put to the test as the Vietnam War heated up. He came across a Quaker publication challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. involvement which raised foundational questions that he needed to resolve. So Keith, then a freshman at Wooster College, phoned the State Department, requesting solid academic research that would reassure him that his support of the war was well-founded. Their recommended documents were flimsy and unconvincing. The matter was settled then and there. Keith quit school, thumbed a ride to Philly, and found his “tribe”: the anti-war activists. Draft board raids were where the action was. He became an accomplished lock picker in no time.

Not a very homogeneous cast of characters, they had at least two things in common: an overwhelming preference for justice; and a fierce determination to stand up for it.

Necessity Begets Invention

In those days Philadelphia was a hotbed of antiwar and civil rights activities, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was on them like glue. There was widespread fear and suspicion that Hoover’s agents were infiltrating their groups, wiretapping and using other illegal tactics to disrupt peaceful protests. The activist community was gripped with paranoia. Furthermore, Hoover had demonstrated that he was unaccountable when in the Fall of 1970 he destroyed the career of a United States Senator who persisted in asking too many questions.

Davidon, feeling trapped in that dragnet, summoned his superior inductive mind to find a way to turn the tables and right the wrongs. He concluded that getting hands on the FBI’s office files and broadcasting them would do the trick. The only way to do that would be to break into an FBI office and steal them. Bill was hardly an average burglar. He had not left a scrap of evidence at his draft board raids, although the feds had already amassed a fat dossier on him due to his tax refusals and his standing with the ACLU.

He had the plan. All that was missing were the details – and his co-conspirators.

The Party

Davidon figured he would need at least a half-dozen accomplices. He had met John and Bonnie Raines as they planned and executed draft board raids. The couple had a long track record of activism on the ground, dating back to John’s Freedom Bus rides a decade earlier and Bonnie’s tenure as a school teacher in Harlem. They were passionately dedicated to justice in all its forms. So, Bill Davidon asked them one evening in December 1970: “What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?” Their initial shock was followed by days of anguished discussions (they had three small children), eventually followed by their agreement. They would put their own family’s future freedom on the line. Freedom everywhere was in peril, and they felt a moral obligation to fight for it. They agreed that the FBI was illegally and immorally standing in the way, and must be called to account.

The remainder of the crew was recruited later that month. It turned out to be easy. Davidon rounded up his “usual suspects” by inviting them to a party at his house. Ann Davidon’s reaction to her husband’s plot was unequivocal: ”Count me out”. She was a lifelong peace activist, but this was a bridge too far. Their kids, at least, would still have one parent if things went south. All of the guests accepted the summons to clean out an FBI office – after catching their breath and collecting their thoughts, that is. Keith Forsyth, the kid from Ohio, had made a name for himself picking locks at draft board raids and maintaining calm under pressure. His skills were vital in a lineup heavy in academic achievement, not so much in mechanical arts. Susan Smith, Bob Williamson, Ron Durst, and Janet Fessenden rounded out the crew. In addition to being a gifted scientist, Davidon was an astute judge of character. He had observed them in action and judged them to be in it for something bigger than their egos or a rush of adrenaline. Initially, he had considered approaching John Peter Doyle, a charismatic leading organizer in the local Catholic peace movement, but decided that he should be kept uninvolved and unaware of these plans (a wise move, as Doyle was the first suspect to be grilled by the authorities after the burglary). Above all else, secrecy would need to be airtight.

“Paradoxically, in order for a community to forge extraordinary bonds of trust and practice, some structural separation from the outer society is needed. Without such walls around the garden, the whole effort will be diluted and will likely fail.”. . . A New Republic of the Heart, Chapter 9, p. 275.

A Room with No View

With the team in place, it was time to enact the plan. They would give themselves a name: “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI”. All of their planning sessions would be held in the third floor attic of the Raines’s house. The window curtains were drawn and would stay that way. Davidon had checked out the Philadelphia office – it was untouchable. The small field office in suburban Media looked promising. These meetings would be preceded by a dinner with John, Bonnie, and their kids; a baby-sitter’s arrival; a trip to “case the joint”; and a return home and tiptoe up to the attic for debriefing. Their first meeting would take place before the year’s end. Their lives were about to change forever.

Part 2: The Heist

Fight of the century

The most unlikely burglary gang in history, “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI,” held their initial meeting one night in late December 1970. The first order of business was to pick a date for the burglary of the Media, PA field office of the FBI. They arrived at a brilliant choice: March 8, 1971 – when the “Fight of the Century”, the much ballyhooed match between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, would begin shortly after dusk. In the area surrounding that office, police, night watchmen, and nearby residents would be surrounded by loud noises, and making their own, as they fixated on the blow-by-blow accounts of the match. This gang anticipated ideal cover for their break-in. 

Dining and sightseeing

Davidon and his gang met dozens of times during that winter of 1971. The dinners that started off their evening activities were cheerful affairs around a giant bowl of spaghetti at the center of the Raines’ dining table. The unsuspecting Raines kids were delighted whenever their new friends joined them at meal time. 

Afterward, the diligent crew cased the neighborhood, streets, and night spots near the mixed-use building. Noting the comings and goings of its resident tenants, they were looking for patterns of activity at the 8 o’clock hour – the time that round One at Madison Square Garden was set to begin. Often, they would sit in parked cars and vans, ready to impersonate lovers meeting secretly if a patrolling policeman should inquire.

Into the heart of the beast

Although they did a thorough job of surveying the surrounding area, it was critical to know details inside the office: about security measures, door locks, room layout, closets, file storage, whatever. Bonnie Raines was asked to be the scout for that task. Until then, she had handled the dinners and the kids, and furnished the attic “headquarters” with chairs, tables and a couch for meetings. (Before too long, a street map of Media, a floor plan sketch of the FBI office, and numerous to-do lists would “decorate” its walls.) 

Now, with her “promotion,”  Bonnie felt like she was a real team member, and went all in. She took her assignment to heart, helping to devise the ruse in which she would pose as a co-ed at a nearby college tasked with writing a piece for the school paper about local employment opportunities, including the FBI. Would they grant her a half-hour interview at the Media office? Bill Davidon knew they would jump at a chance for “good press”. And they did.

Bonnie was 28 and could easily pass as a co-ed. For disguise, her long hair was pulled up and tucked under a large stocking cap. She wore horn-rimmed glasses. Snug fitting gloves would leave no fingerprints. Bonnie showed up 15 minutes early for the interview and got a good look around as she waited. No alarm system, no surveillance camera, ordinary door lock. Good. 

The agent was a mild-mannered, crew cut young man. For 20 minutes she took notes in her spiral notebook, glancing around in between. As she got up after the interview, she took a deliberate wrong turn to get a peek at a room she hadn’t yet seen. A heavy storage cabinet stood against a closed exit door. “Oops, sorry. Where is your restroom?” Back at the debriefing, they all agreed she had done well. That night, going over her day, Bonnie realized she may be the one person the FBI could link to the burglary. A scary thought.

Loose lips sink ships

All along, our group needed to proceed with the routines of their lives and “zip their lips” so that no friends, co-workers, students, faculty – nobody, could lead investigators to their trail. That was quite difficult for these activists, who loved to trade “war stories.” They were especially discreet in their phone conversations, believing their lines were being tapped. They were right about that.

Keith Forsyth’s role had already been defined when he was recruited. He would execute the break-in. Keith was determined to make that job as slick and quick as humanly possible. He self-taught a crash locksmith course. He carried a practice door up to the attic, and practice he did. As March neared, he could pick that lock in 30 seconds. 

I wonder who’s Kissinger now?

All their planning was falling in place, then one final surprise struck. William Davidon was invited to the White House along with two other prominent opponents of the war for a sit-down private discussion with Nixon’s then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

On Saturday, March 6 (two days before the burglary!), our Bill was led into the sub-level situation room of the White House. The meeting was an attempt by Kissinger to understand where these thoughtful pacifists were coming from. It was over one hour long, cordial but intense. Davidon took the opportunity to query Kissinger on the necessity of napalming villagers, including children, in Vietnam. The Director listened earnestly, but the answers came from Kissinger’s “Realpolitik” perspective, with pain, suffering, and horror occluded from view. Davidon left the discussion with feelings he couldn’t quite define. Perhaps, he wondered, if Henry was a prisoner in his own skin?

In his 1979 Memoir, “White House Years”, Kissinger recalled that meeting:

“Gently, they expressed their deep and passionate opposition to the war, but they had no idea how to end it. The problem for me, on the other hand, was how to translate inchoate ideas-no matter how deeply felt-into concrete policy. Ours the perpetually inconclusive dialogue between statesmen and prophets, between those who operate in time and through attainable stages and those who are concerned with truth and the eternal.”

Betty Medsger, the author, picked apart Kissinger’s eloquent statement clinically. Damn right, they were concerned with the truth. They yearned for truth in the administration’s dealings with Congress and the public. They were outraged with the lies that got us into the war, and the lies that kept us there. And, concerns about the eternal? The nun that sat next to Davidon at Kissinger’s invitation was acutely concerned with the situation that brought her and her religious and non-religious allies to the table. Painting dissenters as other-worldly saints was (and is) a common technique. Attainable stages? Peace was attained, but not the way Kissinger, etal would have preferred. 

The best laid plans

As the burglars left their day jobs and darkness descended on March 8, they proceeded as planned. The baby-sitter arrived at the Raines residence after dinner, this time for an overnight stay. John and Bonnie gave their kids bittersweet hugs, and hooked up with Davidon and the others at a nearby hotel. Shortly thereafter, Keith Forsyth pulled up near the “crime scene”, carrying the tools of his new trade in his briefcase. When he reached the office door, he got what must have been the shock of his life. He saw a second lock on the door that neither he nor Bonnie had noted before. Not like the standard lock he had practiced on, but a high security model that he had no chance of picking. Thoughts of, “How could we have missed this? Have they just installed it? Are they on to us? What now?” raced through his head. Three months of careful planning were up for grabs. He drove to the motel for a huddle. After an intense 15 minute of soul (and gut) checking, the consensus was to continue. Could Keith do his 30–second pick at the office’s second door – the one Bonnie had observed with a storage cabinet backing it up – and swing it open safely? Nobody got cold feet. They knew from the start that one slip-up could land them behind bars. Those odds just got better. The long awaited fight and its diversions were already due to be underway, and the gang hadn’t even gotten started. And, if that cabinet tipped over . . . .

Keith subdued the lock. Only the cabinet stood in the way. Only. It took him several anxious minutes with the aid of a pry bar to swing the door, inch by inch, open wide enough to squeeze through. None of the residents had walked by as he struggled on the hallway floor. He slid the cabinet away to make room for the “clean out” crew and their suitcases. Keith shut the door behind him and made his way back to the motel. He entered their room with a huge grin on his face. He was greeted by several very relieved comrades. Then, he collapsed on one of the beds.

Life Savers, paper clips, and .357 shells

The actual burglary was rather anticlimactic. The inside crew of four arrived, one by one, gripping suitcases in their gloved hands. They moved from desks to file cabinets, neatly packing the file folders for their voyage of discovery. There were some amusing moments. One crewmember noticed that some doo-dad trays in the middle desk drawers held bullets along with the usual life savers and paper clips. Another burglar took a souvenir – a framed photograph of Hoover and the Media office Commander, autographed by the Director himself. It would certainly be missed.

Mission accomplished, the merry team exited the office, suitcases bulging. They were headed for an unoccupied Quaker farmhouse, an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, where their loot would be assayed for market value. For all they knew, all they had was stacks of expense reports, holiday schedules and application letters. But at that point, they didn’t care. Their high anxiety had just been replaced with giddiness.

Oh, the fight? Frazier won in 15 rounds by unanimous decision. New York was snowbound, and there was so much celebrity hoopla that the start of the fight was delayed by two and a half hours – just as Forsyth was struggling to open that office door. Some things are meant to be. 

Part 3: Read all about it!

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 with many 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”.

“Holy Mackerel!”

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 unread 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.

Part 4: What now?

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, all 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. 

The take-aways

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: The Greatest Heist You’ve Never Heard Of 

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.

Author: Ed Prell

Ed is a prolific writer and one of the original team of Co-Creators of the NRTH Voices blog.

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