BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Burglary’

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THE BURGLARY: THE DISCOVERY OF J. EDGAR HOOVER'S SECRET FBI
By Betty Medsger
Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95, 596 pages

During his troubled last years, even friends of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would confide — sotto voce, to be sure — that “the Old Man” was past his prime and should leave office. The complaints were that decades of wielding autocratic power had stripped Hoover of sound judgment to the point where he felt he could do no wrong. Such was what I heard from two men who had held the rank of assistant director, and who admired Hoover's service to law enforcement.

Long despised by the left — the hostility went both ways, to be sure — Hoover gave his enemies the “smoking gun” they long sought when bold anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in the Philadelphia suburb of Media the night of March 8, 1971. They chose an evening when the nation’s attention was sure to be focused elsewhere — on a long-anticipated boxing match between Joe Frazier, a supporter of the Vietnam War, and Muhammad Ali, a convicted draft dodger.

Working with the skills of professional burglars, the activists stripped the office of every file in sight and hauled them off to a farm in upstate Pennsylvania for examination. Of the thousands of stolen documents, perhaps the most explosive was a 1970 memorandum directing agents to increase their interviews of antiwar activists and other dissident groups.

The key sentence read, “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Other documents detailed campaigns to discredit not only violence-prone black groups, such as the Black Panthers, but also mainstream civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King. Thick packets of the documents were dispatched to the media. Betty Medsger, then a reporter for The Washington Post, and earlier for the old Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, was the first journalist to publicize the documents.

Years later, during a casual dinner, Ms. Medsger was stunned when the host couple, her old Philadelphia friends John and Bonnie Raines, casually revealed they were among the “Media FBI burglars.” They put her in touch with fellow conspirators; in the end, seven of the eight agreed to be identified. (The statute of limitations for prosecution had long passed.) Surprisingly, despite an intense FBI investigation, only one of the group was named on an FBI “suspected” list unearthed by Ms. Medsger.

Those who lived through the era will find little new about the revelations in the “Media papers,” which were made to order to inflame congressional outrage. Moreover, only a hardened cynic would challenge the sincerity of many of the persons involved in the “peace movement” of the Vietnam years.

Yet Ms. Medsger skirts around an ugly underside to the “New Left” that caused Hoover's reaction, excessive though it might have been. Consider bombings, both of government buildings (including universities) and private businesses. In his 2011 book, “MH/CHAOS: The CIA’S Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers,” the veteran counterintelligence officer Frank Rafalko devoted 46 pages to listing 943 instances of bombing from January 1969 to July 1970, several of which killed innocent persons.

King attracted Hoover's attention because his immediate entourage included two individuals with known communist backgrounds. Many persons with no connection with the FBI feared their presence could taint the entire civil rights movement. (Inexcusable, however, was Hoover's seeming fascination with King’s active extramarital sex life, and a hint that he should commit suicide lest he be exposed.)

Another relevant factor was pressure from Presidents Johnson and Nixon, both of whom seemed sincerely convinced that communist-inspired covert action was a driving force behind the broad peace movement. Both would cite prominent New Left figures who made anti-American broadcasts over Radio Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

What Ms. Medsger does offer is a primer on how to burglarize an FBI office, and especially one with the laughably flawed security of Media, which was in a building partially devoted to private apartments. Only one of the band had any relevant expertise: a lock picker. The others included a professor of religion who had been a Freedom Rider in the South; a day care director, a cab driver and a graduate student haunted by memories of family members lost during the Holocaust and the passivity of German civilians under Nazi rule. Several had prepped for the FBI operation via raids on draft boards in the Philadelphia area.

Two women scouted the Media premises — one under the pretext of researching an article for a college newspaper; the other posing as a job applicant. Their notes enabled the burglars to pinpoint file cabinets that might contain material of interest. The stolen documents were carried out of the building in innocuous suitcases.

Ms. Medsger concludes her overlong book with lengthy and worshipful profiles of the burglars, written in admiring prose that validates their choice of her to tell their stories. Brave? Yes, and for several of those with small children, reckless as well, for they knew they risked prison terms if caught, which meant family separations.

Nevertheless, as was professed by two of the men, both peace and civil rights activists, peaceful street protests and marches were doing nothing to end what they felt was a useless and immoral war. Hence the decision to stage a burglary that was sure to attract national attention.

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