The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI
On that May morning in 1970, when Betty Medsger, then a young reporter at the Washington Post, opened a bulky manila envelope personally addressed to her, she thought it might contain a hoax. The packet of Xeroxed pages looked like official FBI files, but she doubted their authenticity. Where had they come from? The return address gave no clue. What did they mean? And, above all, why her?
The burglars, eight amateur war-resisters who decided to break into the Media, Pennsylvania field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had discovered thousands of secret files thought by J. Edgar Hoover to be closely guarded. Their purpose was to find evidence to expose the FBI’s practice of systematic wiretapping, media infiltration and manipulation designed to suppress dissent. They quickly catalogued and copied the files, then disbanded. Disappointed that the burglary went unreported even in local newspapers, the leader of the group took over sending small portions of copies to the press but to no avail.
"THE BURGLARY reads like a suspense novel, as Medsger recounts the story behind the burglars, their decision to steal the files, the anxiety surrounding the nearly failed break-in, and the fear and consequences of being discovered."
It turned out that the burglary so alarmed the FBI that they went to great lengths to cover it up, going so far as to plant informers at major newspapers to watch for and defer the mail packets back to the FBI. Medsger, who was under the FBI’s radar, had received the first packet without interference and read through the material. When she spotted the statements that the FBI’s goal was to “raise the level of paranoia” and “make the people think there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox,” she was spurred to urge the publisher to allow her to write a news story.
THE BURGLARY reads like a suspense novel, as Medsger recounts the story behind the burglars, their decision to steal the files, the anxiety surrounding the nearly failed break-in, and the fear and consequences of being discovered. The documents were slowly leaked every 10 days or two weeks to a growingly receptive press over nearly two years. The FBI put the group on a priority list for capture and arrest, but none were ever caught. The group swore themselves to secrecy, disbanded, never to contact one another again, and went on to lead normal lives for the most part.
Hoover had ruled the FBI with an iron fist since 1924 --- the longest running head of an agency in America’s history. The agency had amassed detailed dossiers of tens of thousands of Americans, ranging from war protestors, civil rights activists and environmentalists, to actors, writers and directors. Private citizens who attended meetings of organizations that questioned government actions were photographed and in many cases investigated through questioning of their neighbors, relatives and employers. Also included were judges and elected officials, including Senators, Congressmen, local mayors and councilmen. Anyone who publicly raised a voice of dissent was likely to end up in Hoover’s COINTELPRO files, which he then used to intimidate and silence some of the most powerful people in the country.
Medsger writes: “When the bureau’s secret COINTELPRO programs were first revealed, it was clear why Hoover and his successors feared the bureau’s reputation would be seriously damaged if those operations became known. From the Media (Pennsylvania) files, people had learned that the FBI purposely encouraged the growth of paranoia, was consumed by a perceived need to monitor black people, and had spied on people for years without justification. Later, as a judge and then other officials ordered the FBI to open COINTELPRO files, Americans learned that some FBI operations aimed at dissenters went far beyond spying. Some were designed to hurt people physically and to destroy reputations by planting derogatory information that had been fabricated by the bureau.”
Forty years later, when members of the group stepped forward, Medsger contacted each of them to gather the riveting details of an act of conscience that would forever change the FBI, the most powerful arm of the Justice Department.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on February 7, 2014