The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Nine stars

In this high-impact book, Betty Medsger thoroughly explores a 1971 break-in of a small FBI office that turned the entire Agency and its most prominent director, J. Edgar Hoover, on their heads. When a small group decided to undertake a break-in of the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office to protest the power and corrupt nature of the Agency, no one knew what they were going to find. Thoroughly planning and casing the offices, this small group planned and prepared, hoping to make a statement by stealing some of the files and making sure they were handed over for publication. After undertaking an almost flawless break-in during a seminal sporting event, the burglary took in an interesting turn when the group stole most of the files from the office. These files included scathing memos, written by FBI Director Hoover himself, about secret missions the Agency had been undertaking for decades, including secret blackmail files on numerous people of notoriety, suppression techniques the Agency would take against various protestors, and an all-out heightened campaign of racial inequality, including coordinated acts to ensure civil liberties were not supported in America’s South. The group chose specific media outlets—including the author—and high-ranking politicians, in hopes of revealing some of the horrible missions Hoover sponsored or encouraged. It sought also to shed a strong light on the antics being undertaken by various US Administrations to suppress dissident groups, sometimes devised by Hoover and foisted upon the Attorney General and President (likely through blackmail). When media outlets began buzzing with the news (and presenting some of it to its readers), Hoover turned to rounding them up by putting all available resources into identifying the burglars. Additionally, sure the perpetrators came from a select group, he undertook a sting operation at a draft office and had many protestors arrested for crimes committed there, sure that people would leak what they knew. Unable to stand by and watch, Congress undertook its own investigation, culminating in the Church Committee, which sought not only to examine the severity of the information found in the memos, but to rewrite the covert nature of America’s various intelligence agencies. This may have been the most damning part of the entire fallout. During the latter portion of the book, Medsger explores these burglars, none of whom were ever identified during the five years the FBI sought to find them, before the statute of limitations expired. She offers up biographical and follow-up information to show that these people were more than simply vigilantes seeking to smear the Agency at a time when government resistance was at its height. With the Vietnam War in full swing, the country was almost unrecognisable and those seeking to speak out were often muted or violently suppressed. Unveiling some of the horrible, government-sanctioned means of silencing the protestors shows the lengths to which the US Government would go to push its plans forward, even when the majority felt diametrically opposed to the actions of their elected officials. A stellar piece of work that many with a keen interest in American politics and intelligence gathering will find enlightening. I know I was blown away with what I learned throughout.

It can be effectively argued that the Media, Pennsylvania burglary was a turning point in American intelligence and the iron grip that Hoover held over the FBI. Medsger does a great job in not only arguing this point throughout, but is able to substantiate it with countless examples. In an era when directors of the FBI fall as swiftly as a tweet does off the fingers of the ignorant, it is almost impossible to think of someone at the helm of American Intelligence capable not only of securing his job for decades, but to keep his superiors in line through blackmail. It is also quite unfathomable to think that the modern American would rise up and protest as vehemently as took place back in the late 1960s and early 70s, the central time period of this book. While some may say that the burglary was an act of defiance against the US Government, it was surely more than that, as Medsger elucidates throughout. It tore the veil off major Intelligence gathering and dissemination for a number of decades. The fallout of these revelations, beginning with the Church Committee, started an era whereby the citizens of the United States were no longer overtly targeted by their own government for dissent, but it also weakened the ability of such agencies as the FBI, NSA, and CIA to gather and effectively act on intel without oversight or limitations. Medsger strongly argues that this double-edged sword reared its head in the latter part of the 1970s and into the Reagan Administration, which blatantly removed the leash from most agencies. For the casual reader, such as myself, that may not have as dire an impact as those who are in the trenches (or live in the United States), but it does pose an interesting question: how much freedom should a government have to act covertly to gather intelligence? I choose not to enter that debate here, though Medsger does use September 11, 2001 as an intriguing litmus test. Whatever the reader feels, it is worth noting that the actions of a handful of amateur burglars who sought to engage in a form of protest brought the first FBI Director significant shame (albeit posthumously) and the entire Agency running for cover. While I am not one to condone smarmy intelligence gathering to silence those in positions of power, what might things be like nowadays if the FBI had some concrete intel on recent men who have been POTUS? Let that one stew for a while!

Kudos, Madam Medsger, for a brilliant piece of work. I am happy to have been directed towards your book when recent a recent account of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. So many wonderful piece of information that came from those years in American politics!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: