The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI
596 pages, $46.95 (hb)
As far as burglaries go, this one was pretty audacious. On March 8, 1971, nine anti-Vietnam-war activists in Pennsylvania burgled the FBI. They stole secret files in the regional FBI office in the small town of Media.
With careful planning, a little luck and plenty of pluck, the amateur burglars exposed, for the first time, the FBI’s political spying and suppression of democratic dissent.
Evading capture for four decades, and with the FBI not keen to revisit the scene of their acute embarrassment, the previously unidentified burglars have now identified themselves. They have told their story to Betty Medsger, the first journalist to be leaked the stolen files.
With immense daring, the burglars challenged the power of the FBI’s Director, J. Edgar Hoover. His power came from his role as a “fiery narrator of tales of the communist perils that faced Americans”, his collection of dirt on politicians to use as blackmail, and a glamorous reputation as a crime-fighting champion.
The last claim was hollow — only 1% of the Media files concerned serious crime, which the FBI fought more on the celluloid screen than in the actual criminal world.
Successive presidents and attorneys-general gave Hoover license to operate outside the law with no regard to civil liberties. His mission was to “harass and destroy” progressive movements.
As well as Marxists, this included moderate liberals, intellectuals, religious pacifists, feminists, gays and African-Americans. Medsger writes: “Black Americans fell into two categories — black people who should be spied on by the FBI and black people who should spy on other black people for the FBI.”
The stolen Media files, and subsequent revelations, documented this, in irrefutable black and white. The FBI used illegal spying practices (with neither subpoena nor concern with privacy), infiltration, entrapment, provocateurs and informers to intimidate critics into silence and passivity .
As one Hoover directive to agents put it, the aim was to “enhance the paranoia … get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.
To disrupt, discredit and disable his targets, Hoover’s bag of dirty tricks, some lethal, ranged from lacing activists’ oranges with strong laxatives and spreading venereal disease to student leaders through infected prostitutes, to fabricated documents and false rumours to sow or exacerbate movement differences.
The FBI also maintained a Security Index of 26,000 activists for arrest and indefinite detention without trial during “national emergencies”. More than 1000 ideologically “suspect” professors at US universities were dismissed because of FBI information provided to campus authorities.
Meanwhile, FBI material provided to Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee condemned thousands more Americans to sackings and blacklists.
The burglary destroyed the mystique of the FBI, led to its oversight by Congress, and forced a formal apology to the American people for its lawless and anti-democratic behaviour.
With, as Medgers notes, the National Security Agency now putting a digital snooper behind every electronic mailbox, “such people” as the Media burglars, who “thought long and hard” about their dangerous act of resistance before deciding to risk all, “are going to be called upon again”.
Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning shows thee re people of conscience who continue to answer that call.