by Betty Medsger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
On March 8, 1971, a group of eight activists broke into a regional FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, seeking evidence that the FBI was actively suppressing dissent in America. They got their evidence–the files stolen that March night revealed the existence of Hoover’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), its illegal surveillance of American citizens without cause, its use of “dirty tricks” and lies to smear the reputations of people Hoover did not like, and much more. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, journalist Carl Stern and others were able to gain access to mountains of damning evidence concerning FBI activities and culture. But it was the Media burglary that started the investigations that eventually resulted in new rules and more oversight. The eight burglars were never caught, despite a determined (but somewhat inept) FBI investigation. Quite by accident, journalist Betty Medsgar, recipient of one of five sets of copies of the files stolen from the Media office that day (and the only one who did not give them immediately to the FBI, thanks to her gutsy employer, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post), learned the identity of two of the burglars and was then able to find and interview all but one of them for this book.
The book came out during the brouhaha over Edward Snowden’s theft of NSA files, and the contrast (the vilification of Snowden vs. the admiration for the Media burglars, now that we see their crime in retrospect) is instructive.
The book was fascinating, upsetting, depressing, and very long (28 chapters, 538 pages). I think it could have been much shorter. It delves into topics which are not strictly related to the burglary and its aftermath; there’s a whole chapter on the NSA files, which I assume may have been added at the last minute; and a lot of information about the history of the FBI, pre- and post-Media. The editing could be cleaner, too; at times it appeared to be patched together. I was often confused, and there seemed to be a lot of repetition. The organization of the material is not what I would have chosen. It starts out with the burglary and ends up with profiles of the burglars and what happened to them afterward. Personally, I would have preferred to learn the burglars’ background early in the book, and read about their subsequent lives later. As it was, the burglary itself was confusing because I wasn’t sure who was who.
The chapter “Crude and Cruel” was the core of the book for me. It details the heartless and illegal ways that Hoover’s FBI operated when no one was overseeing it. Specifically, Medsger describes the cases of Jean Seberg (miscarriage and suicide), Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton (murdered by the FBI in his bed), Geronomo Pratt (wrongly imprisoned for 27 years), Muhammad Ali, and others. Hoover’s “crude personal fascinations” guided FBI intelligence gathering, and cases were never closed. Hoover manipulated elections, was the driving force behind Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and targeted intellectuals, writers, academics, African-Americans, scientists, political parties (in particular the Socialist Workers Party), and students. Even in the area in which the FBI was supposed to be working–organized crime–Hoover depended on illegal and immoral activities to get the job done, as in the case of four men sent to prison fora murder actually committed by FBI informants. The innocent men spent almost forty years in prison while the FBI sat on the evidence that they were not guilty.
It is unbelievable that J. Edgar Hoover was appointed director of the FBI when he was only 29. He had already shown a willingness to ride roughshod over people’s rights in the 1919 Palmer raids (“one of the worst violations of civil liberties in the nation’s history”), yet he was given free rein to develop an empire within the U.S. government. As Medsger points out in her chapter “Questions”, nobody asked any for most of the 48 years Hoover was in charge–instead, people lionized Hoover and fell over themselves to supply him with everything he asked for and more. And if someone did dare to ask a question or levy a criticism, Hoover immediately responded with surveillance and smear tactics.
After I read the book, I thought that the FBI should have been disbanded completely and replaced with something completely different as soon as the extent of its abuse of power became known. Instead, a few checks were put into place, and a few people tried to change the culture of the organization, without much effect. Today, the FBI has (together with the NSA) so much information about each and every one of us that future (and present) abuses are likely.
This is an important book. It’s too bad some readers won’t ever make it through to the end.