Crime: an action or omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law Criminal: a person who has committed a crime Patriot: a person who vigorously supports their country…
Many of the greatest heroes of United States history were criminals. The people who helped slaves to escape were all criminals. Harriet Tubman, herself born a slave, escaped to become the most successful “conductor” on the underground railroad. Always at risk of horrible punishment if captured, she made 13 trips back into slave territory to help some 70 others escape. She was never detected, and did not lose a “passenger” on any of her rescue expeditions. This was a serious criminal!
Closer to our time, thousands fought non-violently in the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the freedom riders, the lunch counter sit-ins, so many more whose names we don’t know, all criminals in some way. All the war resisters and draft refusers, the Berrigan brothers and other draft board raiders – also criminals, people who deliberately and non-violently broke the law of the land to promote a better world.
I have a special regard for those whose crime was uncovering hidden truth that we as citizens needed to know. Whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden paid a high price to expose dirty secrets about hidden policy disasters and the misdeeds of public officials who led the country astray.
The criminals described in Betty Medsger’s The Burglary (New York: Knopf, 2014) performed a marvelous public service of just this sort. The book is subtitled The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, and it tells how eight patriotic thieves broke into the district FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania on the night of March 8, 1971. They took all the office’s files and analyzed them; those files contained ample proof that the FBI was less a law enforcement agency than a political secret police. The primary enemy for Hoover’s FBI was not actual crime so much as political and social movements against war and injustice.
Although that Media office was a backwater, its files provided the “Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI” with the evidence they were looking for. The burglars set out to tell the story to American people, sending copies of FBI documents to people they respected, especially to journalists including Medsger herself who was then at the Washington Post.
Although it took a while, the results were even more than they had hoped. Antiwar activists, especially in the Philadelphia area, had felt sure that their work and their lives were spied on and harassed. The first document Medsger read confirmed those suspicions. It told agents to interview more dissenters since “it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Really? The job of FBI agents was to “enhance paranoia”? It seemed that criminal activity was not their worry; disrupting the opposition to the Vietnam war was the agency’s first priority.
Other documents showed that Black students and civil rights groups were particular targets; the campaign against Martin Luther King was especially vile. The FBI itself, and the U.S. Attorney General, confirmed the authenticity of the documents by urging anyone receiving them not to publish – falsely invoking “national security.” The Post’s top management conferred with their lawyers and decided that the story should be told, and the first article, entitled “Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities,” appeared on March 24, 1971.
As the Media materials became known, the first cracks appeared in the FBI’s polished façade. Members of Congress who had always been subservient to J. Edgar Hoover now called for an investigation of the FBI. Editorials in major newspapers also took up that cause. Although the surface was barely scratched, the FBI’s lawlessness was becoming clear – and even conservative Americans did not like what they were seeing.
Hoover, of course, was mightily offended that his personal empire had been penetrated, and ordered an intense and massive hunt for the burglars. Over two hundred agents focused on the MEDBURG case as it was called, and their chief expected that the thieves would be quickly caught and the precious files recovered. He was wrong. The FBI’s prime suspect was a prominent antiwar activist who had nothing to do with the break-in. The true burglars were never caught, and surfaced, safely, only last year.
Hoover used the blackmail potential of FBI files to try to deflect any official inquiry, with some initial success. But his near-absolute power, and his life, were coming to the end. J. Edgar Hoover died in May, 1972, and the long overdue Congressional investigation, led by Senator Frank Church, began its work in 1975. Some secrets of Hoover’s thought police came to light for the first time in half a century in those hearings – which would not have happened without the Media revelations. The extent of the FBI’s criminality, and of J. Edgar Hoover’s hypocrisy, were astonishing.
And who were the patriotic burglars Hoover’s men could not find? Their leader, the one who conceived the operation and recruited the others, was someone I knew! William Davidon taught physics and mathematics at Haverford College where I’d been a student twenty years earlier. (He joined the faculty after my time there, and our paths crossed elsewhere.) Bill was a dedicated and brave opponent of the war, but the FBI investigators convinced themselves that someone else was the Media mastermind.
Two other members of the “Citizens’ Commission” were John and Bonnie Raines, a married couple with three young children, and they worried a lot about their children’s futures if they went to prison. (Trusted family members were ready to take over.) Still others were single, and younger. They agreed not to meet after the job was finished, and they did not provide the FBI with the informers it relied on. A perfect crime. The FBI closed its MEDBURG investigation in 1976; the burglars were out of danger although of course they couldn’t be sure of that.
By then Hoover’s successor as director, Clarence Kelly, once a Hoover traditionalist and defender, had reconsidered what the FBI had done and become. In May 1976 Kelly actually apologized to the American people: “Some of those [FBI] activities were clearly wrong and quite indefensible. We most certainly must never allow them to be repeated.” Betty Medsger’s marvelous book looks imposing (it’s 544 pages plus notes), but it’s engrossing and important.
The book tells several stories. Beside the burglary itself, there is an account of the “Camden 28” draft board raid and subsequent trial, which turned into an emotional victory for the anti-war movement and a surprising defeat for J. Edgar Hoover. The history of the FBI is sketched, from Hoover’s first days as director through the unchallenged growth of his secret empire up to 1971. And tales of the pre- and post-Media lives of some of the burglars are fascinating and moving. Finally, there is the post-Media and post-Hoover history of the FBI itself. “McCarthyism” did not die with Joe McCarthy, and that’s also true of the secret political police mentality exemplified by J. Edgar Hoover. The Church committee’s work was both praised and attacked; some reforms were enacted, but basic problems remained. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency the FBI massively investigated and harrased opponents of his war policies in Central America, and as Medsger writes “The ghost of Hoover seemed to be in charge.”
Since then the bureau has had a checkered past, especially after 9/11. The FBI has boasted of solving “terrorism” cases largely created by provocateurs, and it displayed amazing incompetence regarding the Boston Marathon bombings. There are also brand new threats to freedom such as massive NSA surveillance. Still, today the American people also have better tools with which to fight back. And as some famous person said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
The story of the Media burglars is important to me because the people involved lived lives broadly similar to my own, and they risked losing their freedom and the white, middle-class advantages we share. As much as I admire Harriet Tubman, I cannot imagine myself in her place. But Bill Davidon was a respectable professor of physics and mathematics at my old college. Like me he taught those subjects and also tried to contribute some research of his own. And look what else he did for our country! I can almost imagine Bill asking me – as he did those others – “What would you think of burglarizing an FBI office?” Would I have had the guts to take part? It didn’t happen, and I’ll never know the answer. But maybe the example of the patriotic burglars can inspire me, and all of us, to turn up the heat on our social concerns and do something more. Let’s make that be so.
Photo: a page from the FBI file of the investigation into the burglary (more at archive.org)