Skip to content Skip to footer

America’s Secret Police

An empire of the magnitude of the United States does not exist without a secret police.

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)

In Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI and Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, it is clear that an empire of the magnitude of the United States does not exist without a secret police.

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

Get Betty Medsger’s recently-released book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI from Truthout here.

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.”2

Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter who received packets of the stolen files at the time and was instrumental in having them published, has written a book that is widely researched and rich in telling a hidden story. Unfortunately, she strays too often and at too great a length from the central story. The narrative overreach, however, is not near as problematic as the way in which she frames the incident. This can be seen, for example, in the chapter titled, “Appropriate for the Secret Police of The Soviet Union” – referring to a Washington Post editorial of the time. It is a point that seems quite damning on first read, but on reflection the distinction seems unnecessary, i.e. the FBI’s actions were quite appropriate for the secret police of the United States.

Overall, however, too much of the “why” addressed in this volume is simplistic and off the mark. Thus we get the claim that the bureau was “building massive files intended to intimidate people from exercising their right to dissent,”3 as if the aim was stopping dissent in the abstract. The problem with this is that the historical moment now called the ’60s, of which the Media break-in was part, was more than dissent, i.e. voicing a contrary opinion. It was a period of social upheaval – with no small amount of Durkheim’s anomie. The anti-war and the civil rights movement that had in turn transformed into a black freedom struggle challenged basic things about US society. The FBI, along with a multitude of other agencies and institutions, pushed back viciously, and things spiraled up from there.

Medsger’s book comes in the wake of another major – and overall helpful – contribution; Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Rosenfeld offers much in the way of heretofore-unknown exposures, some of it quite rich and some of which challenged basic assumptions about the time, as in the case of the informant file of Richard Aoki.

A big part of Rosenfeld’s framework, however, dovetails with Medsger’s exceptional view of Hoover. For Rosenfeld, Hoover’s targets were largely phantoms, especially in regard to communists. Thus we get repeated references along the lines of the bureau “exaggerated the Communists role in the City Hall protests,” “exaggerated claims of a Communist conspiracy on campus,” and that Communist infiltration of organizations was “often exaggerated.”4 In so far as this refers to the old Communist Party USA, he is largely correct, but Rosenfeld is sanitizing something out of the scene – the actual participation and generating of new communists. For example, here is an FBI description of the largest radical student organization in the US in 1969 – with a membership projected at 100,000:

The program of SDS has evolved from civil rights struggle to an anti-Vietnam war stance to an advocacy of a militant anti-imperialist position. China, Vietnam, and Cuba are regarded as the leaders of worldwide struggles against United imperialism whereas the Soviet Union is held to be revisionist and also imperialist.5

This is an overall accurate description of SDS circa 1968-69, as any review of later editions of their paper, New Left Notes, will attest. Of course not everyone in the group fit into that description, but much of its leadership and core did. One can disagree whether it ought to have been so, but that is another discussion.

It is a description, too, that serves as a counterpoint to certain assumptions in Medsger’s and Rosenfeld’s books. The SDS blurb is drawn from the secret FBI file of Steven Charles Hamilton, obtained from a Freedom of Information request. Hamilton had begun the 1960s as a more or less typical American kid from a working class family in Southern California. He had initially attended divinity school, but transferred to the University of California as a history major, where he became involved in the Free Speech Movement and later a founder of the anti-war formation The Resistance – a group that figures in a number of histories about that period, including in Rosenfeld’s and Medsger’s books. What does not get mentioned about Hamilton is that he was an early member of the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist formation that was active in the early anti-war movement, before becoming a founder of the Maoist, Revolutionary Union. Because of this, starting in 1966, Hamilton was put on the FBI’s Security Index – a list of people to be rounded up in the case of “national emergency.” From the bureau’s standpoint, this made perfect sense; Hamilton was young, radical and a leader. This is the backdrop to, among other things, his being arrested during the Free Speech protest, kicked out of Berkeley, subpoenaed to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and put on trial for his draft resistance activity as part of the Oakland 7 – all of which was dutifully documented by the FBI, which was following his every move. Hamilton’s larger political biography, like thousands of others, gives a deeper sense of who the bureau saw as enemies and what they did about it.

There was, in short, specificity in much of what the bureau did – and not just a generalized effort to quash dissent. And here another point needs to be made. What the bureau did in the ’60s and ’70s happened in the same country that exists today. The responsible agencies may have shifted, or even been privatized, but an empire of the magnitude of the United States does not exist without a secret police – operating in the shadows often regardless of established laws. Just as the FBI activity then was largely not aberrant, neither today is that of the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the NYPD Intelligence Division, etc. Medsger’s and Rosenfeld’s books have the benefit of showing us to a degree how that worked in particular ways at a specific time – the conclusions for today are on us.

1 Brennan, C.D. to W.C. Sullivan “Subject: Counterintelligence Program Internal Security Disruption of the New Left.” May 9, 1968.

2 Medsger, Betty. The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Knopf 2014. 208.

3 Ibid. 246.

4 Rosenfeld, Seth. Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Picador. 2013, 106, 326, 516.

5 Report of Brent T. Palmer. San Francisco, FBI. Re: “Steven Charles Hamilton – Security Matter Revolutionary Union.” 4/10/70 – Appendix Page 26.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.