• Betty Medsger, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Knopf, 2014, 596 pages, $29.95.
RALEIGH — On Monday, March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship of the world. While the world watched the bout, an unusual group of burglars broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa. They were antiwar activists who carted off files from the office.
In due time the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves, parceled out the information to journalists. One of them was Betty Medsger, then a reporter at The Washington Post. More than four decades later, Medsger tells the ripping tale of the heist and its fallout, with due attention to context.
At that time the United States was still drafting young men to fight in Vietnam and protests were raging. As Medsger notes, more than 200,000 men were charged with violating draft laws. Activists raided draft board offices, sometimes by slipping in and posting a note such as, “Please don’t lock this door tonight.” The raid on an FBI office was a more serious caper.
The burglars were not professionals, but their preparations were thorough. They cased the joint endlessly, sending Bonnie Raines to the office posing as a college student researching job prospects for women at the bureau; she discovered the office had no alarm and that files were easily accessible.
But that left the lock on the front door. Burglar Keith Forsyth simply enrolled in a correspondence school for lock picking and mastered the craft.
The group operated in secrecy and used an attic to rehearse the break-in, which posed other problems. The FBI office shared a building with tenants and stood across the street from the Delaware County courthouse, constantly guarded. So the burglars would need a diversion and wisely picked the night of the Ali-Frazier fight.
With all the celebrities in attendance, the start of fight was delayed and the major action took place as the burglars made their move. It wasn’t exactly a walkover, but they got in. Unsure which files to take, they simply grabbed them all and made the getaway. In the aftermath, Medsger’s narrative takes on a tinge of Alfred Hitchcock as Raines wonders: Did I take my gloves off inside the FBI office?
But they had the files, a first in more ways than one.
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI boss since 1924 and the villain of this tale, prized the secrecy of his files above all else, even if charges against spies had to be dropped in some criminal cases to prevent portions of Hoover’s files from being entered as evidence.
Hoover went ballistic over the Media burglary, which revealed a great deal about him. One file gave instructions how FBI agents were to celebrate Hoover’s birthday. Others showed his rigid dress code and distaste for agents with “pear-shaped heads.” More important, the files were the first public revelations of COINTELPRO, Hoover’s dirty-tricks program against a wide range of groups and individuals.
As Medsger shows, COINTELPRO succeeded in harassing, embarrassing, and violating the rights of Americans, particularly blacks, but came up short in other ways. For example, FBI spying operations did not prevent any bombings by the Weather Underground or other groups and produced few arrests after the bombs detonated. So Hoover “lacked the capacity to shape an approach to either law enforcement or intelligence gathering that safeguarded civil liberties or protected Americans from violence.”
William Sullivan, the No. 3 official in the FBI at the time of the burglary, said “the FBI was investigating students as if they were criminals.” Neil Welch, the FBI agent who played a major role in solving the Ku Klux Klan murder cases in Mississippi, said, “I feel that what has developed at our FBI headquarters over the years is a ponderous, ineffectual, costly bureaucracy which does not contribute substantially or materially to the essential work of the FBI.”
The Burglary is a veritable encyclopedia of misconduct by Hoover’s secret FBI. To her great credit, the author connects the dots to current National Security Agency surveillance of Americans, which failed to stop Fort Hood terrorist Maj. Nidal Hasan and others. Barack Obama “promised unparalleled transparency,” but his administration has “prosecuted more government whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined.”
For their part, the burglars stayed under the radar and their lives took different turns. Social worker Bob Williamson, for example, discovered F.A. Hayek and Thomas Sowell and wound up voting twice for Ronald Reagan.
But he had few regrets about 1971. “I acted with a clear conscience,” Williamson explained. “On balance, the Media burglary produced more good than harm.”
Medsger, meanwhile, took off her own gloves and left some telltale fingerprints. Not all participants in the antiwar movement had the same motives and aversion to violence as the Media burglars. But Metzger appears to accord a moral symmetry to everybody who opposed the war in Vietnam. The author mentions Angela Davis without informing readers that she twice ran for vice president on the Communist Party USA ticket. Weather Underground co-founder Bernadine Dohrn gets off easy, and left-wing celebrities Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are simply referred to as “scholars.”
Even so, on balance The Burglary serves up more good than harm and doubtless will be made into a movie. The account is also a reminder that for all his “I am the greatest” bluster, Muhammad Ali was a gracious loser.
“We all have defeats in life,” he said after the 1971 bout. “All kinds of things set us back, but life goes on.” And when someone addressed him as champ, he said: “Don’t call me champ. Joe’s the champ now.”
Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.