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When J. Edgar Hoover Lost and Freedom Won

The author of “The Burglary,” Betty Medsger, speaks with Truthout about how a small group of determined, otherwise law-abiding Americans brought down powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The Burglary.(Image: Knopf Publishing)In talking with Betty Medsger about her new nonfiction book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, one can hear her journalistic neutrality yield to an admiration for individuals who would risk their futures to expose government acts (in this case, by the FBI) that corrupt the Constitution.

Medsger broke the story with articles in The Washington Post about government files – obtained through a 1971 burglary of an FBI office – that documented a shadow FBI that spied at will on US citizens. Several decades later she spent years researching how this little-known robbery with a monumental impact came to be – and she learned for the first time who had carried it out, eluded the FBI and avoided prosecution.

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Medsger agrees with John Raines, who – along with his wife – played a key role in carrying out the heist that in the end “Hoover lost, and freedom won.”

Indeed, Medsger speaks highly of a statement read by Raines over the telephone to a Reuters reporter, the day after the 1971 raid, and the courage and patriotism that it represents. Medsger noted to us that the declaration went largely unnoticed because the purloined files were not released to selected journalists until two weeks later. It reads, in part:

On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, PA [Penn.], office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine:

• The nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on 
by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals 
working for a more just, humane and peaceful society;

• How much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes 
by the poor and powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate, instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence, which cause great damage to the lives of many people; crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs;

• The extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers . . .

We have carried out this action in a way which does not physically threaten anyone. We intend no personal harassment of the people who work in the office from which files were taken. Indeed, we invite them and others to join with us in building a peaceful, just and open society; one which does not wage nor threaten war, which distributes human and material resources fairly, and which operates on the basis of justice rather than fear.

We have taken this action because:

• We believe that a law and order which depends on intimidation and repression to secure obedience can have but one name, and that name is tyranny;

• We believe that democracy can survive only in an order of justice, of an open society and public trust;

• We believe that citizens have the right to scrutinize and control their own government and its agencies;

• And because we believe that the FBI has betrayed its democratic trust and we wish to present evidence for this claim to the open and public judgment of our fellow citizens. 

In doing this, we know full well the legal jeopardy in which we place our- selves. We feel most keenly our responsibilities to those who daily depend upon us, and whom we put in jeopardy by our own jeopardy. But under present circumstances, this seems to us our best way of loving and serving them, and, in fact, all the people of this land. 

The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.

The words could as well be spoken by whistleblowers today.

Medsger’s first stories on the damning proof of FBI surveillance and interference in the private lives of US citizens were almost not published. Then-Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell warned Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham not to publish Medsger’s pieces. After deliberation, Graham decided that the public interest (it was a different era) outweighed the intimidation of the attorney general of the United States, and the articles were printed in the Post.

Now a full-time author, after leaving her post as chair of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University to write Burglary, Truthout talked extensively with Medsger about the nearly forgotten act of citizen robbery that led to bombshell disclosures about the FBI.

Gloria Steinem wrote of the gripping real-life story of The Burglary: “Ordinary people have the courage and community to defeat the most powerful and punitive of institutions – including the FBI.” How did it come about – in that turbulent time of social dissent – that a group of comfortable Philadelphia liberals found the fearlessness to conduct a heist of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylania, in 1971?

It was an amazing time in the country and perhaps especially in Philadelphia, where the peace movement was large, diverse and very vital. People there were continuously pressing nonviolently for peace. Bill Davidon, the organizer of the Media burglars, also was a leader in the larger Philadelphia antiwar activist movement, of which the other burglars were also participants.

In the most intense part of this movement, people were continuously pushing themselves to find more powerful and effective ways to protest nonviolently. All of the Media people had found that avenue in the draft board raids conducted by the Catholic peace movement.

It is important to realize that the Vietnam war ignited the interest of nearly everyone, those who opposed it and those who supported it. As I have written, it was like a national litmus test. It was not unusual for strangers who found themselves standing in line or sitting on planes to turn to turn to each other and ask what they thought about the war. The vivid reporting about the war made it possible for people to know what was happening in Vietnam. Also, the draft made it everyone’s problem – people worried about their sons, their friends, their neighbors who were being drafted. That worry increased as the nation became more divided about the war, and it felt to a growing number of people that the war was wrong and, therefore, people should refuse to serve in the military.

That said, I think it is unlikely that the antiwar movement would have developed to anything approaching what it became without the civil rights movement in the early and mid-1960s. The civil rights workers, often visible on television news reports, introduced the country to the idea that it was possible to find courage to resist government power and to succeed in doing so. It also was painfully clear, from the suffering and killing of some civil rights workers, that such actions involved facing great risk.

The Media burglars came from those roots. The older members of the group had been part of the civil rights movement. The younger ones were all touched deeply by racial justice issues. They immediately recognized Bill Davidon’s compelling desire to find evidence of whether the government, through the FBI, was suppressing dissent, as something worth taking a great risk for. He told them he had come to think of stopping the suppression of dissent as being as important as stopping the war. He thought of it as a crime against democracy that must be stopped. As the burglars have pointed out since they became public after 43 years, they also knew that given the nature of those times, and of the Philadelphia area, their action would be welcomed in that community. That was true. No one knew who they were, but they welcomed and celebrated the action, and more and more files were released.

Of course, this occurred while the anti-Vietnam War protests were at their height. J. Edgar Hoover was still in tyrannical control of the FBI, using the agency to collect information on anyone he chose to target in the US, including government officials and politicians. It appears at least two objectives were going on in his efforts: 1) He investigated and often discredited dissenters allegedly due to his paranoid fear of Communism; and 2) He used information to essentially blackmail government officials, including presidents (not for money but for power). What did the Media, Penn., FBI office files reveal about the first Hoover objective in terms of FBI activities?

Several of the Media files are examples of Hoover’s obsession with communism as a justification for keeping massive secret files, something he had been doing since becoming FBI director in 1924 – a timeline that did not become known until after the Church Committee hearings, as scholars and journalists were able for the first time to use the Freedom of Information Act, strengthened in 1974 as a result of the nature of the revelations in the Media files.

Americans of any age who traveled to or corresponded with someone in a communist country were subject to being watched by the FBI and having a file developed on them that would continue to grow for years, thanks to informers assigned to keep an eye on them.

The 14-year-old son of Herbert L. Shore, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, came under surveillance when he attended summer camp in East Germany. His father’s mail was read and his phone calls were listened to. At the same time, US military intelligence agents also had the son under surveillance. After several months, the FBI, in light of the target being only 14 years old, refocused the operation on the father and continued to monitor him indefinitely. Someone employed in the university’s personnel records department helped the FBI by giving Shore’s entire personnel fire to the bureau. Most institutions were willing to be helping hands to Hoover’s FBI, whether or not there were privacy laws in place to prevent such cooperation. The exceptions were when a subpoena was actually issued legally demanding information.

The Media files showed that Americans who participated in academic and cross-cultural exchanges with counterparts in communist countries found themselves in a contradictory situation: to spy or not to spy on their exchange colleagues. To participate in these programs, including ones organized by the State Department and other parts of the federal government, meant being targeted by the FBI. Agents were assigned to approach people returning from such experiences not only to debrief them on what they had learned on their trips but also to assess them as potential informers for the bureau on their future travels.

Such requests were carried out as part of a special program, DESECO – Development of Selected Contacts. Attached to a Media file was a long list of potential informers, mostly scientists, who would be attending various upcoming international conferences and who should be asked to spy on their fellow scientists while at these conferences.

It should be noted that Hoover’s obsessive keeping of files on people because of their political ideas started with communism, but he quickly expanded his definition of subversive to include people in every movement of people trying to claim their basic civil rights – all black organizations, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement. In other words, any person or group he saw as a threat to the status quo was a potential surveillance target.

This is an extraordinarily gripping story that, politics aside, is a riveting tale of a most unlikely feat: anonymous citizens working under a vow of silence burglarizing the chief law enforcement agency in the land – and getting away with it. Could you summarize briefly how they managed to pull this off and discuss the Haverford professor who originated the plan?

Bill Davidon, the Haverford physics professor, had many extraordinary qualities. One of them was that, thanks to his scientific training and personality, he was a problem solver. He rejected conspiracy theories and did not deal in speculation. Consequently, when people in various peace organizations told him they thought their organizations had been infiltrated by informers, he doubted their claims. He thought people were perhaps overwhelmed by their sense of failure about not stopping the war.

By late 1970, when he decided those rumors were true, he then decided this was an enormous problem – a crime against democracy, as I wrote earlier – that must be solved. In light of the odds, that was an extraordinary conclusion. He knew J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most beloved officials in the country and that no official in Washington – in either congress or the executive branch – had ever held him accountable. He knew the FBI was the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country. He also had reason to believe, as most people would have, that no FBI office would be vulnerable to burglars.

From the small amount of information then available about Hoover, Davidon thought Hoover was a consummate bureaucrat. That, Davidon reasoned, might mean that he kept precise records of everything he and the bureau did. If that were true, he thought, evidence of suppression of dissent might exist on paper. If it existed, it would be possible to get evidence and present it to the public. But burglary, with all its many risks, especially many years in prison if convicted, was the only means he could think of for acquiring that evidence.

He was so deeply respected by the people he invited to be part of the Media group that he was able to convince them to join him in this great risk. They, too, were very intelligent and careful people. Those qualities are the main reasons why they were able to pull off the Media burglary successfully.

But I should point out that there also was a great deal of luck involved. They moved ahead with the burglary despite the fact that there was a courthouse guard across the street from the FBI office 24 hours a day watching the door where they would enter and leave the building. They did so despite the fact that a ninth member of the group abandoned the group just days before the burglary without explanation. He knew every detail of their plans. They did so despite the lock picker in the group finding a second lock, instead of just the one he had seen before, on the main entrance of the FBI office.

The statute of limitations has run out on prosecuting the activists who pulled off the heist. Professor Davidon has passed away. How did these nine people (including Davidon) remain undiscovered by the FBI and the public for more than four decades?

John Raines has said during recent interviews that the fact that so many people in the large Philadelphia peace movement were suspects contributed to the Media burglars’ ability to go undetected. That’s true. There are additional factors.

One of the most important factors that helped the Media burglars go undetected was the fact that the FBI made a critical mistake about who the burglars were. Immediately after the burglary, they decided that John Peter Grady, a leader of the Catholic peace movement, was the leader of the Media burglary. This was ironic, for Bill Davidon decided at the outset of planning that Grady, someone he liked very much, should not be part of the Media group, and the members of the group agreed with him. Grady, they thought, might not be able to maintain the degree of security that would be needed in planning and executing the break-in of an FBI office. The bureau maintained their certainty about Grady throughout the five-year investigation.

But I think another important reason for the burglars being able to keep their secret hidden so long was their ability to live without being praised for what they accomplished. Many people would have been eager, especially after the Church Committee investigations of the FBI, to come forward and be recognized for being the people who opened the door to the FBI. Not these people. They seemed to be able to be satisfied by knowing what they had accomplished and without praise for it. By the time I started working with the seven who had been found in 1989, they were long past the time when the statute of limitations had expired on the burglary. During all that time, they had content to see the emphasis on what had been revealed rather than on them.

Can you recount the amazingly casual way in which the identification of the Media FBI office burglars began to unravel for you?

Yes, it was amazing. I made arrangements to spend the evening with John and Bonnie Raines one evening on a weekend visit to Philadelphia. Like the other people I visited that weekend, they were people I had met when I worked as a reporter at the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia in the late 1960s. As the three of us ate dinner at their home, their youngest daughter entered the room to ask them a question. John turned to her and said, “Mary, we want you to know Betty because many years ago when your dad and mother had information about the FBI we wanted the American people to have, we gave it to Betty.”

I was stunned. John said later he just happened to blurt it out. Though I had never thought much about who the burglars were, as of that moment, I was, to put it mildly, very interested in their story.

That accidental comment by John Raines was the beginning of my research to tell the story of how each burglar made the decision to participate, how they carried it off, the inside story of the FBI search for them and the incredible impact of what they did – what I think is one of the, if not the, most powerful nonviolent acts of resistance in American history. I’m deeply grateful for their decision to break their vow of silence about the burglary and for their trusting me with their story.

You, of course had a personal interest in the 1971 event because while a journalist at the Washington Post, you were the first recipient of the group’s carefully planned distribution to media of the files revealing the Hoover campaign to spy on Americans and conduct FBI operations to disrupt many of their lives.

Your recent article in the Washington Post article begins: “On March 24, 1971, I became the first reporter to inform readers that the FBI wanted the American people to think there was an ‘FBI agent behind every mailbox.’ That rather alarming alert came from stolen FBI files I had found in my own mailbox at The Washington Post when I arrived at work the previous morning. ¶ It was the return address on the big tan envelope that prompted me to open it first: ‘Liberty Publications, Media, PA.'”

What was your feeling when you opened that envelope and began to sense the bombshell information that you had just received?

The cover letter from the anonymous members of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, what the burglars called themselves, was interesting, even moving. But it might have been mere rhetoric, for all I knew – a group of people claiming to have burglarized an FBI office.

The first document was so shocking that at first it seemed as though it might not be real. It was hard to believe a law enforcement or intelligence agency would have in its files a document advising its agents to “enhance the paranoia . . . get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” As I read more documents, some were about black people I had known or heard of when I worked in Philadelphia. At that point, it seemed as though files probably were real.

Within an hour of my receiving the files, we had confirmation from the FBI that, indeed, the files were copies of ones stolen from the Media office. They provided that confirmation as the initial step in the effort – continued throughout that day in phone calls from the attorney general, John Mitchell, to Washington Post editors and to publisher Katharine Graham.

To me the bombshells in the envelope were a significant news story that needed to be published. The editors, Ben Bradlee an Ben Bagdikian, agreed. The decision was more difficult for Graham, for whom this was the first time the Nixon administration had demanded that she suppress a story. It also was the first time a journalist had received secret government files from people outside government who had stolen the files. By 10 PM, Graham agreed to publish the story.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but I was just in Berlin and visited the enormous (now mostly empty) STASI complex in the former eastern sector, including a museum. I wouldn’t by any means propose that the FBI under Hoover was equivalent to the STASI grip on the then-East Germany, but a passage from your Post article is chilling: “In it [a memo you received from the burglary], FBI agents were encouraged to increase interviews with dissenters “for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” That sure sounds some alarm bells about civil liberties and a favored tactic of the STASI in the two decades before its demise.

I agree that the “enhance the paranoia” file is reminiscent of the STASI, the dreaded secret police of East Germany. It’s such an extreme comparison, but I think it is appropriate.

In the end, though, I think the most important Media files were ones that demonstrated Stasi-like surveillance of African Americans by the FBI. Many people became aware later of the years-long, cruel Hoover efforts to destroy Martin Luther King, including efforts to force him to commit suicide just weeks before he was to receive the Nobel peace prize. That and attacks on other black leaders were beyond outrageous. But I think the little-remembered blanket surveillance of black American communities was even more outrageous. Together the many different FBI approaches to spying on African Americans and damaging their leaders undoubtedly contributed substantially to holding back for many years black citizens’ efforts to claim their basic rights.

From the files, we learned that every FBI agent was required to have at least one informer who reported to him regularly on the activities of black people. In Washington, DC, every agent was to have at least six informers spying on black people. The files specified the types places where black people were to be spied on. They were all the places anybody might go – their stores, their churches, their classrooms, their libraries, their bars and restaurants and settlement houses. Specific types of people were recommended as informers – veterans, friends; relatives, and acquaintances of bureau employees; “employees and owners of businesses in ghetto areas which might include taverns, liquor stores, drug stores, pawn shops, gun ships, barber shops, janitors of apartment buildings, etc.” Bureau officials also suggested that agents establish contact with “persons who frequent ghetto areas on a regular basis such as taxi drivers, salesmen and distributors of newspapers, food and beverages. Installment collectors might also be considered in this regard.”

Hoover repeated expressed a sense of urgency in the files about the surveillance of black people, especially black students. Informers were placed in every college to surveil all activists, but black students were affected most. At Swarthmore College, every black students was under surveillance.

Black Americans, more than any other part of the population, were subjected to Stasi-like surveillance. But the method also was used on Americans in general in an extensive project that was revealed in 1985 by FBI scholar Athan Theoharis in a scholarly journal, Political Science Quarterly.

Despite the vastness of this spying project, it became known to very few people. From 1940 to 1966, a total 100,880 American Legion members were part of a formal program in which they, as untrained volunteer informers, filed regular reports with the FBI about people in the 16,700 communities where their Legion posts were located. This massive augmentation of the FBI’s spying capacity probably was the closest the FBI came to being much like the dreaded Stasi, spying on citizens at any time.

Ultimately the Post published your initial article and subsequent ones about the surveillance state information documented in the purloined FBI files. How did this impact action in Congress, resulting in the Senate committee hearings held by the late Frank Church (D-Idaho).

There were immediate calls for an investigation of the FBI. Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) was the only senator prior to the Media revelations who had raised questions in the Senate about Hoover and the bureau. As soon as the first story was published, others called for an investigation – Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), Edward Muskie (D-Maine), Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin, Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), and John V. Tunney (D-California).

These senators and numerous newspaper editorials called on Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina), the senator known as the strongest defender of the Constitution and who had just completed the first hearings ever held to investigate domestic surveillance, surveillance conducted by the Army, to investigate the FBI. Finally, a little more than a month after the first Media files were released, Ervin announced he would not conduct such an investigation. He said there would be political obstacles to such an investigation and said he was “under the impression that Mr. Hoover’s done a very good job.”

After a judge, in response to a lawsuit brought by NBC reporter Carl Stern, forced the FBI to reveal the documents that described the purposes of COINTELPRO, the Department of Justice for the first time conducted a limited investigation of FBI operations. The FBI, however, refused to hand over its files to the attorney general, insisting it provide summaries but no access to its titular leader.

The first congressional hearing, again a very limited inquiry, into FBI domestic surveillance activities was conducted by Rep. Don Edwards (D-California) and took place on November 20, 1974, almost a year after Stern had reported Hoover’s statement of the purpose of the COINTELPRO operations directed against the “New Left’: “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize.’ Demanding heavy secrecy in carrying out the operations, he wrote, that they would be aimed at “disrupting the organized activity of these groups…..No opportunity should be missed to capitalize upon organizational and personal conflicts of their leadership.’

Hoover emphasized the clandestine nature of the operations: “The nature of this new endeavor is such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the bureau, and appropriate within-office security should be afforded this sensitive operation.”

Finally, in January 1975, both houses of Congress established committees to conduct the first congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies. The revelations in the Media files had started the process that led to that decision. The tipping point was a story by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times December 22, 1974, that the CIA conducted massive domestic surveillance in violation of its charter. They had been directed by Richard Helms, who, when pressed by a group inside the bureau at the time the Media revelations were reported, had said inside the agency and then in public that no such operations existed.

You observed recently, “It is clear, though, that twice in the past half-century, Americans have had to rely on burglars [Snowden, Manning and other whistle blowers today] – not official oversight by Congress, the Justice Department or the White House – for crucial information about their intelligence agencies’ operations.” What does that say about nontransparency in government under Republican and Democratic administrations alike when it comes to domestic surveillance activities?

I think it says that this has been one of our most difficult issues. As a society, we have been largely silent when our leaders – and our intelligence agencies – ask us to trust them instead of holding them accountable.

That points to what was unique about what happened in the years after the Media burglary. The awful nature of what was learned then about the FBI’s truly crude and cruel programs to suppress dissent not only ignited the country’s first national discourse on the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. Combined with what people learned about President Nixon’s willingness to subvert the Constitution in the commission of the crimes known as Watergate, the Media and COINTELPRO revelations and the end of a long and nasty war – all of those elements made it possible for Americans to demand that their elected representatives force intelligence agencies to become accountable in the same way that other all other government agencies are supposed to be accountable about what they do in citizens’ names.

It was a rare moment in our history, a big step. But the way forward since then has not been a steady, straight line. There have been many reverses, beginning with the Reagan administration undoing some of the reforms put in place after the Church Committee hearings. In fact, in his 1980 campaign, Reagan promised to unleash the FBI. But the existence of mechanisms – the establishment of permanent intelligence oversight committees in both the House and the Senate and the FISA Court – meant that when intelligence agencies overreached, it remained possible to force them to be publicly accountable. That happened several times.

But after 9/11, fear ruled again, as it had in the Cold War. Congress and the public submitted to demands that intelligence agencies be given free reign. Impossible demands were placed on these agencies by successive administrations, Bush and Obama, to change their mission to a single focus: Stop the next terrorist attack.

Americans had no idea what that demand caused. They did not know that the National Security Administration had turned its vast surveillance capabilities, once used only as tools of espionage against foreign enemies, against the general populations of the United States and its allies. They did not know that the guiding principle of the NSA, and, to some extent, also of the FBI, was to use technology to its maximum reach rather than to adapt it to meet precise needs.

They did not know that and much more about the security state that developed after 9/11 until the next burglar, Edward Snowden, came along in June 2013 and made public hundreds of thousands of NSA files that continue to inform us about what the NSA and its clients within the government are doing in our name, such as the stated purpose to be able to surveil phones in ways that will make it possible to keep track of anyone, any time, anywhere.

As an editorial writer said shortly after the Media burglary, “It’s tragic to learn that we have to rely on burglars to learn what our intelligence agencies are doing in our name.” The same can be said today.

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