Monday, July 7, 2014

No. 56: J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and a Superb New Book about a Famous 1971 Burglary

On the night of March 8, 1971, more than a year before the break-in at the Watergate, eight civil rights and antiwar activists broke into an office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Media, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. The burglars stole—and released to reporters and members of Congress—secret FBI files revealing the existence of unconstitutional programs that violated the civil rights of individuals and organizations. The burglary became one of the most embarrassing unsolved mysteries in the history of the FBI under its legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover.

In 1971, Betty Medsger was a young reporter for The Washington Post. She was one of the first to see the secret files and break the news about them. Now, after more than 40 years, she has written a superb book about the burglary. She found seven of the eight burglars and reveals for the first time—with their permission—the identity of five of them. All of them had avoided detection and were prepared to go to their graves without being identified as the burglars. Two of them agreed to be interviewed for the book but still refused to allow their identification despite the fact that the statute of limitations has long since run out; those two are referred to by fictitious names. The 596-page book, published in 2014, is entitled The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI.

I found noteworthy Medsger's detailed analysis of the thought processes of the burglars leading to their decision to break the law and risk lengthy prison terms in order to reveal the illegal operations of the FBI. She describes the meticulous planning that went into the burglary, including the decision to conduct the raid on the night when the nation was absorbed with the heavyweight championship boxing match between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden.

Also noteworthy is Medsger's detailed descriptions of the burglars' life experiences preceding the burglary, and their lives after the burglary as they released the stolen files and struggled for years to avoid detection in the massive FBI investigation of the case. For example, the leader of the burglars was a college professor; he died in his eighties in 2013 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. Two others were a married couple with three small children (a fourth was born later); the couple made careful arrangements for the care of their children in the event of capture and long prison terms. Especially interesting is the description of how they broke to their children years later the news of their parents' criminal act.

Because I was and still am in Bloomington, I was intrigued by Medsger's discussion of the FBI investigation following the burglary. On pages 147-148 of the book is a list of reports that came in from FBI field offices across the country. Here is one of seven reports mentioned:
From Indianapolis: The field office checked on the whereabouts on March 8 of a man from Bloomington, Indiana, who agents there thought might do such a thing.
The Medsger book is a well written page turner. It is also a thought provoking piece of work. I strongly recommend the book.