Oval Office meeting on the Detriot riots, July 24, 1967. President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, foreground) working with (background L-R): Marvin Watson, J. Edgar Hoover, Sec. Robert McNamara, Gen. Harold Johnson, Joe Califano, Sec. Of the Army Stanley Resor. (Photo: LBJ Library via Wikimedia Commons)
The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI
Betty Medsger, Knopf 2014
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld, Picador. 2013
More than four decades after his death, J. Edgar Hoover still haunts the US political landscape. For 48 years Hoover served, first as head of the Bureau of Investigation and later as head of the FBI, his power expanding in tandem with the country’s growing global footprint. While the scandals that broke in the early 1970s unleashed a flood of revelations, there was so much the bureau had undertaken that much remained unexamined, to say nothing of secrets still buried. Now as the new millennium begins to hit its stride, something of a second pass is taking place. In that respect two new contributions stand out.
Betty Medsger gives us two books in The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. The first is a page-turning thriller, steeped in the actions of a group of anti-war activists in 1971 who had the audacity to do to the FBI what the FBI would routinely do to anyone who dared defy the US government and its bloody undertaking in Vietnam and other acts of social injustice. It is a book that demands to be read, discussed, and distilled. The other book is one much less satisfying. It is a tale of the singular villainy of John Edgar Hoover; trampling on the constitution, quashing dissent and largely chasing phantoms. It is an analysis anchored in a view of the United States that is mythological and fundamentally false.
Let us begin with the first. In 1971, a well-organized team of anti-war, Catholic peace activists broke into the small resident agent office of the FBI in Media, Pennsylvania, 12 miles southwest of Philadelphia. The group’s aim was to obtain evidence of what many in the anti-war/civil rights/black power movement knew or suspected but could not prove: that the FBI was conducting a major campaign of surveillance, harassment and disruption against their activities. The burglars, a group of white middle-class activists, were: William Davidon, John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson and two people whom the author gives the pseudonyms Susan Smith and Ron Durst. Janet Fessenden – the only participant not found – is not discussed in this book. The idea was Davidon’s, a physics professor at Haverford College, who had come to appreciate the actions of activists breaking into draft board offices and destroying draft records – thus undermining the Selective Service process.
The story Medsger tells is one of months of planning, staking out the target, practicing how to pick locks, how to stealthily enter and exit and how to clear out the entirety of files so that they can be reviewed and publicized. As with most plans, the unexpected happens, and here one can feel the nervous adrenalin as these activists carry out what they have long planned to do.
The critical feature in all this, however, is what they laid hands on. As they began to sort through and attempt to categorize the stolen documents, they did not know what they had. One paper was especially baffling, a routing slip with the words “COINTELPRO – New Left” written on it. This, it would later be learned, was shorthand for Counterintelligence Program; effectively the FBI’s domestic counter-insurgency program for forces it felt could undermine or otherwise threaten US national security. The program had different elements, Black Nationalist, Communist Party, Puerto Rican Independence, etc. The aim of COINTELPRO – New Left would later be starkly revealed.
Our Nation is undergoing an era of disruption and violence caused to a large extent by various individuals generally connected with the New Left. Some of these activists urge revolution in America and call for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. They continually and falsely allege police brutality and do not hesitate to utilize unlawful acts to further their so-called causes. The New Left has on many occasions viciously and scurrilously attacked the Director and the Bureau in an attempt to hamper our investigation of it and to drive us off the college campuses. With this in mind, it is our recommendation that a new Counterintelligence Program be designed to neutralize the New Left and the Key Activists.1
Given such a program already in place, it is hardly a surprise that the bureau launched a monumental effort to capture the burglars and, if not fully keep the stolen documents from being made public, at least minimize their release. Here what becomes clear, although Medsger doesn’t venture much analysis, is that the team was not caught so much because of their expertise but by certain anomalies in play. In this, Davidon’s behavior is especially striking in its almost taunting nature. Speaking at the Swathmore Presbyterian Church three days after the burglary, he actually read the official press statement from his group, Citizens’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, albeit he did not identify himself as part of that. That statement, not otherwise publicly available, in turn made the front page of the Delaware County Daily Times. It appears the main reason Davidon eluded deeper scrutiny was because he was being considered in another case. As Medsger writes, “Soon after the Media burglary, Department of Justice lawyers told the director that MEDBURG [Media Burglary] investigators should not question Davidon because he was likely to be charged in a new grand jury indictment as a defendant in the Harrisburg case.” Continue