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The Burglary

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The Burglary

The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI
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The never-before-told full story of the history-changing break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists--quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans--that made clear the...
The never-before-told full story of the history-changing break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists--quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans--that made clear the...
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  • The never-before-told full story of the history-changing break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists--quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans--that made clear the shocking truth and confirmed what some had long suspected, that J. Edgar Hoover had created and was operating, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, his own shadow Bureau of Investigation.

    It begins in 1971 in an America being split apart by the Vietnam War . . . A small group of activists--eight men and women--the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, inspired by Daniel Berrigan's rebellious Catholic peace movement, set out to use a more active, but nonviolent, method of civil disobedience to provide hard evidence once and for all that the government was operating outside the laws of the land.

    The would-be burglars--nonpro's--were ordinary people leading lives of purpose: a professor of religion and former freedom rider; a day-care director; a physicist; a cab driver; an antiwar activist, a lock picker; a graduate student haunted by members of her family lost to the Holocaust and the passivity of German civilians under Nazi rule.

    Betty Medsger's extraordinary book re-creates in resonant detail how this group of unknowing thieves, in their meticulous planning of the burglary, scouted out the low-security FBI building in a small town just west of Philadelphia, taking into consideration every possible factor, and how they planned the break-in for the night of the long-anticipated boxing match between Joe Frazier (war supporter and friend to President Nixon) and Muhammad Ali (convicted for refusing to serve in the military), knowing that all would be fixated on their televisions and radios.

    Medsger writes that the burglars removed all of the FBI files and, with the utmost deliberation, released them to various journalists and members of Congress, soon upending the public's perception of the inviolate head of the Bureau and paving the way for the first overhaul of the FBI since Hoover became its director in 1924. And we see how the release of the FBI files to the press set the stage for the sensational release three months later, by Daniel Ellsberg, of the top-secret, seven-thousand-page Pentagon study on U.S. decision-making regarding the Vietnam War, which became known as the Pentagon Papers.

    At the heart of the heist--and the book--the contents of the FBI files revealing J. Edgar Hoover's "secret counterintelligence program" COINTELPRO, set up in 1956 to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the United States in order "to enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles," to make clear to all Americans that an FBI agent was "behind every mailbox," a plan that would discredit, destabilize, and demoralize groups, many of them legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups that Hoover found offensive--as well as black power groups, student activists, antidraft protestors, conscientious objectors.

    The author, the first reporter to receive the FBI files, began to cover this story during the three years she worked for The Washington Post and continued her investigation long after she'd left the paper, figuring out who the burglars were, and convincing them, after decades of silence, to come forward and tell their extraordinary story.

    The Burglary
    is an important and riveting book, a portrait of the potential power of non­violent resistance and the destructive power of excessive government secrecy and spying.

    From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    "What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?"

    Even in that time of passionate resistance against the war in Vietnam that included break--ins at draft boards, his question was startling. What, besides arrests and lengthy prison sentences, could result from breaking into an FBI office? The bureau and its legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover, had been revered by Americans and considered paragons of integrity for the nearly half century he had been director.

    Who would dare to think they could break into an FBI office? Surely the offices of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country would be as secure as Fort Knox. Just talking about the possibility seemed dangerous.

    But Davidon, with great reluctance, had decided that burglarizing an FBI office might be the only way to confront what he considered an emergency: the likelihood that the government, through the FBI, was spying on Americans and suppressing their cherished constitutional right to dissent. If that was true, he thought, it was a crime against democracy---a crime that must be stopped.

    The odds were very low that such an act of resistance could possibly succeed against the law enforcement agency headed by this man who held so much power. Nicholas Katzenbach, who as attorney general was Hoover's boss, had resigned in 1966 because of Hoover's resentment over being told by Katzenbach to manage the bureau within the law. The director's power was unique among all national officials, said Katzenbach. He "ruled the FBI with a combination of discipline and fear and was capable of acting in an excessively arbitrary way. No one dared object. . . . The FBI was a principality with absolutely secure borders, in Hoover's view." At the same time, he said, "There was no man better known or more admired by the general public than J. Edgar Hoover."

    Such was the power and reputation of the official whose borders and files Davidon was considering invading. He knew Hoover was very powerful, but he didn't know---nor could anyone outside the bureau have known---how harshly he ruled it and how he protected the bureau from having its illegal practices exposed. Katzenbach believed that Hoover or one of the director's top aides had even forged Katzenbach's signature in order to make it appear that the attorney general had given permission for the FBI to plant an electronic surveillance device, a bug, in civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s New York hotel room. Despite what appeared to be his signature on the memorandum, Katzenbach was certain he never approved such a procedure, which he considered the "worst possible invasion of privacy."
    Hoover's sensitivity to criticism, Katzenbach said when he testified in December 1975 before the committee then conducting the first congressional investigation of the FBI, "is almost impossible to overestimate. . . . It went far beyond the bounds of natural resentment. . . . The most casual statement, the most strained implication, was sufficient cause for Mr. Hoover to write a memorandum to the attorney general complaining about the criticism, explaining why it was unjustified, and impugning the integrity of its author.

    "In a very real sense," Katzenbach testified, "there was no greater crime in Mr. Hoover's eyes than public criticism of the bureau."

    A congressional investigation of the FBI during Mr. Hoover's lifetime, Katzenbach said, would have been utterly impossible. "Mr. Hoover would have vigorously resisted. . . . He would have asserted that the investigation was unnecessary, unwise and politically motivated. At worst, he would...

About the Author-
  • BETTY MEDSGER was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Grove City College. She began covering the FBI break-in as a reporter for The Washington Post. Medsger, after many years, found the burglars and persuaded each to break his silence. Medsger is a former chair of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University and is the founder of its Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. She is the author of Winds of Change, Framed, and Women at Work. She lives in New York.

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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI
Betty Medsger
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Betty Medsger
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