Book documents FBI’s extensive spying and the burglars who revealed it

BOOK REVIEW

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEJanuary 19, 2014 

  • ‘THE BURGLARY: THE DISCOVERY OF J. EDGAR HOOVER’S SECRET FBI’ by Betty Medsger; Knopf ($29.95)

On the night of March 8, 1971, while much of the world was focused on the championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, persons unknown broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa. During the following weeks, the burglars photocopied and mailed stolen documents to journalists and public officials. This brazen act was a turning point not only for the FBI but also for the nation. It set in motion a series of events that revealed the FBI’s extensive unlawful political spying and harassment of citizens engaged in dissent, destroyed the myth Hoover had created for himself, and reshaped the nation’s intelligence apparatus, setting the stage for the current scandal over the NSA’s widespread surveillance of Americans.

Historians have long acknowledged the importance of the break-in, but despite an intensive FBI investigation, the burglars never were identified. Now Betty Medsger, the first journalist to report on the stolen files after she received an anonymous package nearly 43 years ago, has written the first full account of this watershed event, revealing the identities of five burglars and examining why they risked their lives to do it, how they pulled it off, and the impact. “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” is an outstanding account that solves one of the greatest crimes in FBI history in more ways than one.

As it turns out, the burglary was not staged by wide-eyed radicals but by eight rather ordinary, middle-class people who had become deeply involved in the nonviolent, loosely structured Catholic peace movement based in Philadelphia and identified with Philip and Daniel Berrigan. What made them extraordinary was their commitment to the right to dissent and their trust in each other — and in an informed public.

Medsger provides a cinematic account of the burglars’ meticulous planning for the break-in, made all the more risky by the inhabited apartments above the FBI office and the 24-hour guard at the courthouse across the street. They chose the date for the burglary in hopes potential witnesses would be distracted by the Ali-Frazier fight. Medsger builds tension by juxtaposing the unfolding events.

The disclosures of the FBI’s extensive spying precipitated the nation’s first and to date only extensive public hearings on intelligence abuses, which were led in 1975 and 1976 by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.

Medsger deftly summarizes the Church committee’s shocking disclosures of official misconduct (such as FBI efforts to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide) and the ensuing reforms.

But as Medsger shows, Congress and the new monitoring court failed to provide adequate oversight of the FBI and other intelligence agencies, through the post-9/11 expansion of surveillance and secrecy and the current NSA scandal

.”The Burglary” makes a powerful argument for moral acts of whistle-blowing in the absence of government action.

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