Betty Medsger, The Burglary

I have known for years that Betty Medsger, a former colleague and friend when we both lived in the Bay area, was working on the book that became The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.

And now, it is here, and I see that one reason it took a long time arriving is that it is a very big book: not only the story of a group of eight anti-war activists who stole FBI files from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, but also the story of the world they unlocked the door to: J. Edgar Hoover’s secret FBI.

That FBI story has been told before, but framed by the Media burglars’ story it takes on a special meaning. Through Betty’s telling, we can see how dramatically their brave act that March night in 1971 ripped back the curtain to reveal America’s own demonic Wizard of Oz.

The sins of Hoover’s FBI were legion, and The Burglary offers an array of them. Berkeley readers will especially be interested in the FBI’s collusion in the firing of University of California President Clark Kerr, but there are worse cases—for instance the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the framing of a man imprisoned for his murder.

Would we know all this now if those eight activists had not plotted their way into that FBI office in Media and walked out in the night with their suitcases full of documents? Maybe. Or maybe not.

For Betty Medsger, a reporter at the Washington Post in 1971, the story began when the mail brought her an envelope that contained copies of some of the files from the Media office.

She was a young reporter still in her twenties, and she had come from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a mountain steel town falling on hard times. Her father was a boiler operator. Her mother was a homemaker. Betty went to a small church-affiliated liberal arts college.

In 1971, after stints at a couple of other papers, she was at the Washington Post in a time when the country and the nation’s capital were in extraordinary disarray: war in Vietnam, riots in the cities, a rogue President whose own criminal acts would soon bring him down.

And there she was: a young religion reporter receiving documents that revealed a network of FBI informers and encouraged agents to increase interviews with dissenters in order to “enhance the paranoia” and “get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

It is perhaps a sign of Betty’s relative innocence that when she received the documents and began making calls to develop her story, it never occurred to her the Post might not publish the story she was writing.

In fact, the decision was difficult for Post publisher Katherine Graham. Other media organizations that received copies of that first batch of files returned them to the FBI. In the end, Graham decided: the story would run.

After that, even newspapers that had deferred to the FBI in the past picked up the story. In an editorial the Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed, “All two hundred million of us in this country are in a bad way—and our freedoms may be in jeopardy—if we are dependent upon information from burglars to find out what the Federal Bureau of Investigation is doing.”

The burglars would release more documents in batches and more stories would follow, along with congressional investigations that revealed without a shadow of a doubt the FBI’s years-long, systematic assault on black communities, intellectuals, peace groups, socialists, and any others who did not fit Hoover’s definition of true Americans.

The FBI stood condemned. In comments that ring true today, at a 1974 hearing on the FBI’s dirty tricks operation, COINTELPRO, California Congressman Don Edwards, himself a former FBI agent, said,

“Regardless of the unattractiveness or noisy militancy of some private citizens or organizations, the Constitution does not permit federal interference with their activities except through the criminal justice system, armed with its ancient safeguards. There are no exceptions. No federal agency, the CIA, the IRS, or the FBI, can be at the same time policeman, prosecutor, judge and jury. That is what constitutionally guaranteed due process is all about. . . .”

Congress and Attorney General Edward Levi took actions that would, for a time and to some extent, rein in the surveillance and persecution system Hoover had created to discourage political dissent.

But the matter was not, of course, settled. Surveillance of activists went on through the ’80s and ’90s, and then came 9/11, which gave the surveillance establishment a key that would open endless resources. Where that has led we know now, thanks to Edward Snowden’s release of National Security Agency documents.

Betty’s book must have been nearly finished when the Snowden story broke last June, throwing a bright light across the story she tells. Inevitably we see what those burglars did at Media through the lens of what Snowden has done in our time. And inevitably, now that we have her book, we see his story through theirs.

We have in both stories evidence that a government that has great power to collect information and little oversight will misuse that power. We also have evidence of the power of individuals to challenge that government power.

It would be years before Betty was to learn the specific course each of the Media burglars took to sum up the courage to break the law and, if they turned out to be unlucky, go to prison. In the hope of not getting caught, burglars swore to each other to carry their secret with them to their graves, even after the five-year period during which they could be prosecuted had passed.

Then one evening in the late 1980s, Betty (by this time chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University) was back east having dinner with John and Bonnie Raines. In a casual moment, they introduced her to one of their daughters as the woman they had sent those files to all those years ago.

Betty saw an opportunity, finally, to get the rest of the story—to learn how these eight people made their decision to break in the FBI office at Media and then how they lived with that decision ever after.

With the Raines as intermediaries, Betty found seven of the eight burglars and, through significant changes in her own life (including a move to New York City), she began her long trek through history.

She spoke with the plan’s architect, Haverford physics professor William Davidon, who died before the book came out.

She had long conversations with John Raines, a religion professor at Temple University, and with his wife, Bonnie, director of a daycare center—parents of three young children at the time of the burglary.

She talked with Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson, both full-time anti-war activists in 1971, and with two others who agreed to be interviewed but asked not to be named in the book (they appear as Susan Smith and Ron Durst).

Each had different stories to tell about what led up to their action: the reading they did in college, their work in civil rights and peace movements, their membership in communities like the Catholic left.

They had different stories to tell, too, about the people they became after the burglary. For all but the Raines, it was a time of isolation with the secret of what was likely the most dramatic event of their lives. The opportunity now to tell their stories in this book appears to be, for some of them at least, a visible relief.

As the teller of their stories, Betty is a quiet, unassuming narrator, yet her empathetic presence is apparent in the moments when they talk about their experience, especially in the interviews toward the end. There, before they make their exit, she presents them one by one, letting them step out on the stage to say what participation in this event meant in their lives—and what their story means for the present.

For those readers who find the present political tasks overwhelming, William Davidon, who originated the plan for the burglary, shared thoughts with Betty that speak to us now:

“When you feel, as I did, not only in the case of the prosecution of the Vietnam War, but also in many things being done by your government, it feels as though the forces you are fighting are so huge in comparison to what we can influence. At times like that, how do you keep alive the struggle to influence? It was a matter of keeping alive a sense of purpose and accomplishment when the forces seemed so overwhelming.

“Not just Media, but a lot of other actions were important to me, to others, in just building that sense that the struggle isn’t futile. . . .Sometimes we accomplished more than we had reason to expect, as in Media. It was a long shot. We didn’t know if we could find anything important. Other times, we never knew if we accomplished anything—the draft boards, de-activating bombs, we didn’t know. But it gave voice and a sense of purpose. It built little pockets of life that made sense at a terrible time.”

This review appeared on January 21, 2014 in the Berkeley Daily Planet.