ChrisWeigant.com

Please support ChrisWeigant.com this
holiday season!

Before Snowden, Before WikiLeaks, Before The Church Committee, Before Deep Throat, Before The Pentagon Papers... There Was The Burglary [Part 2]

[ Posted Monday, March 24th, 2014 – 20:34 UTC ]

[Program Note: What follows is the conclusion of my book review of Betty Medsger's The Burglary. It is quite a bit longer than the normal book review, for which reason it has been split into two parts. Please read "Part 1" before reading this. My apologies for the length, but the subject matter is both important enough and relevant enough to the current debate on national security leaks that I felt it was worth presenting in full. I highly recommend this book to all. Furthermore, on Wednesday I will be posting an interview with the author.]

 

Getting the word out

The Media files were made public in large part due to a few journalists (and a few brave editors) at the Washington Post who received them and reported on them. Attorney General John Mitchell personally called up the editors at the Post in a last-minute attempt to quash the story multiple times the day they arrived, but in the end the decision was made to go ahead and publish. Incredibly, at this time Mitchell didn't even know what was in the burgled files, and even though it was two weeks after the burglary, he had apparently just become aware of it. The event explored new territory in both journalism and in the legal world, because it was the first time secret documents had ever been provided to news organizations after having been stolen from the government. There simply were no precedents to follow.

In addition to the two members of Congress, three news organizations were on the conspirators' mailing list. The New York Times did not write about the story until the day after the Washington Post had reported it, and the Los Angeles Times ran the Post story from the wires the next day on their front page.

At the Washington Post, a young religion reporter was the addressee for the Media files. Betty Medsger, at the time, was working for what one editor had playfully named the "SMERSH" department (for "science, medicine, education, religion, and all that shit"). She had previously written about anti-war Catholics, which is likely what brought her to the Media group's attention. In the first story she wrote on the files for the Post (which ran exactly forty-three years ago today, under the headline "Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities"), Medsger exposed the shocking attitude the F.B.I. held on convincing leftist groups of the omnipotence of the agency, from a memo advising agents to "enhance the paranoia" and "get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox."

The Washington Post was brave enough to print the story, as brave as they would later be with the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- and as brave as the New York Times would also later be with the Pentagon Papers (which were published later in 1971, months after the Media burglary story broke).

The files which were sent to the Los Angeles Times never reached the reporter they were addressed to, or the editors who would have been responsible for deciding what to do with them. Medsger (who had first reported the "enhance the paranoia" quote) recalls a disturbing personal experience, which might shed some light on this:

A few weeks later, I too qualified for having my mail watched. One Saturday afternoon I went to the newsroom to see if the burglars had sent more documents. Envelopes containing more files arrived at random times, so I went to the newsroom every day in order to read and report on them as soon as they arrived. I found a new set in my mailbox that Saturday. As I started to read them, a tall white-haired man I had never seen before appeared at my desk. He said he worked in the mailroom, and as he glanced at the evidence on my desk, he said he had noticed that I had been receiving stolen FBI files recently. He also hastened to say he had "noticed you're from Johnstown, Pennsylvania." I thought that was strange and asked him how he knew that. "I see all those letters your mother sends you." My mother had never written to me at the Washington Post, and she probably never knew the address of the newspaper. My visitor from the mailroom that Saturday seemed to be making a ham-handed attempt to "enhance" my paranoia in the manner prescribed in the first Media file I had reported on. It was too late.

 

The political aftermath

The aftermath of both the burglary and the publication of the story was profound, at least outside of J. Edgar Hoover's office. For the first time since the 1920s, Congress began overseeing the activities of the F.B.I. For the first time, Congress started asking hard questions about what, exactly, the F.B.I. was doing with its time and our tax dollars.

It took over four years from the Media burglary for the political willpower to exist to form the Church Committee, which did more to expose the secret workings of government than possibly any other congressional committee in history. It took a lot of hard journalistic digging and persistence in courtrooms to expose COINTELPRO for what it was -- a program designed to illegally intimidate and harass political groups which Hoover did not personally approve of. The Media burglary did not answer all the questions (to put this another way), but it certainly did raise a lot of questions that had never previously even been asked.

Neil Welch, the F.B.I. agent who eventually signed off on closing the MEDBURG investigation, still has mixed feelings about it. He would, if he could have caught the burglars "locked every one of them up," but he also admits that if they had been convicted, he "would have recommended that they should be given suspended sentences because of the major contribution they made to their country." Many today have similar feelings about Edward Snowden, to put this in perspective. Welch closed the MEDBURG file five years after the burglary occurred, when the statute of limitations on burglary ran out. A few months later, the current F.B.I. director (Hoover had died by this point) spoke in a speech about how he was "compelled to devote much of my time attempting to reconstruct and then to explain activities that occurred years ago." In the closest the American public would ever get to an apology, Clarence Kelley admitted: "Some of those activities were clearly wrong and quite indefensible. We most certainly must never allow them to be repeated."

Even more extraordinary, when considering Edward Snowden, was something else Welch had to say when looking back on the episode:

The problem was, there weren't any checks and balances. The government wasn't accountable. There wasn't any other means [than the Media burglary] to know what the government was doing.... The system ought to provide for some other mechanism so people don't have to resort to these extraordinary -- to criminal acts! There ought to be other avenues open to them. We had people taking acts of civil disobedience. They had to resort to this kind of activity -- criminal acts against the government -- in order to get some exposure of the government's wrongdoing. What I'm saying is that they wouldn't have to do that if there were some proper method of accountability on the part of the government.

There certainly weren't any internal checks or balances on Hoover's obsessions. William Sullivan, who headed the F.B.I.'s Domestic Intelligence Division at the time, testified before the Church Committee on the F.B.I. culture which then existed:

Never once did I hear anybody, including myself, raise the question: "Is this course of action which we have agreed upon lawful, is it legal, is it ethical or moral?" We never gave any thought to this line of reasoning because we were just naturally pragmatic. The one thing we were concerned about, will this course of action work, will it get us what we want, will we reach the objective we desire to reach.

Quite clearly, the ends always justified the means, for Hoover.

 

Looking back

Medsger discusses the current relevance of the Media burglary at the end of her book (and how it is both similar and different to cases like Snowden's), and I leave it to you to read and decide for yourself how you feel about both what happened back then and what is happening now. The more poignant commentary, however, came from the burglars themselves, when they were interviewed for the book decades after the burglary.

As mentioned, the most fascinating thing about reading The Burglary isn't so much the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO (which are fairly well known, by now). It is, instead, the human element of the story. A group of ordinary citizens decided to commit a crime which they felt needed committing for the benefit of the public at large. Later events (including those quotes above) proved them to be right.

But, unlike Snowden, they never claimed credit or went public. They lived knowing that their lives could be turned upside down at any time by what they had done. This was especially terrifying to some of them, because they stuck so rigidly to the tradecraft of undercover operations -- they never met each other again, and they never discussed the matter with anyone, even people who would have congratulated them for their actions. Doing so led to crushing fearfulness for some (especially those interviewed by the MEDBURG investigative team), but they never broke their silence -- even to each other. These fears became even more acute when the member of their team who had dropped out days before the burglary said he was thinking of turning everyone in.

Some of the burglars didn't comprehend the magnitude of their achievement until years later. As they drifted apart, their lives took wildly differing paths. One even later became a speechwriter for a Republican candidate for governor of New Mexico. When interviewed for the book, he laughed when he said he was "probably the only Media burglar who voted not only once but twice for both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush." It took him fifteen years before he realized what they had done, when he watched a documentary about the F.B.I. and the Media burglary was mentioned as being "seminal." His response:

I remember being dumbstruck that somebody apparently thought that our little action was that important.... Until that moment, I never thought it had any long-range impact.... I still get chill bumps when I realize that the Media burglary started a long chain of events that caused reforms.... And we didn't even know what we were doing. We had no idea whether our risk would result in anything.... It's very gratifying to know that people... think that we performed a service to our country. That's what we intended to do. I know our hearts were pure in that regard."

Others remember the Media burglary in their own way:

It is important to understand that we did not think of ourselves as especially heroic or courageous. We probably didn't even think of those words. We thought of ourselves as taking an important risk that would be well received by many people and that would be used to bring about change if we were right about what we would find. And we were.

One wonders if Edward Snowden will feel the same in forty years. Whose choice was the better one -- go public and admit what you've done to the world, or let the evidence speak for itself and try to just get on with your life? It is impossible to say. I'll let one of the burglars have the final word:

There comes a time when one has to break the laws of the land, when well-thought-out civil disobedience is necessary to maintain a righteous and reasonable state.... It was a wonderful, well-conceived act of civil disobedience. It was much more than we hoped it would be. It's something that I'm really proud of. It's not something that I can put on my résumé, but to me it's one of the most significant things I've done in my life.

 

[Note: Full disclosure: I was not paid nor compensated in any way to write this review, although I was provided with a free copy of the book by the publisher. If anyone has a problem with that, let me know and I will donate it to my local public library or public school library, to uphold my journalistic purity (so to speak).]

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

11 Comments on “Before Snowden, Before WikiLeaks, Before The Church Committee, Before Deep Throat, Before The Pentagon Papers... There Was The Burglary [Part 2]”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    I saids it befores and I'll says it agains..

    Your history commentaries are simply UNPARALLELED, CW!

    This one is no exception..

    Well done...

    Michale

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Yes, well done.

    Medsger's book and the Media burglary are getting some well deserved traction.

    NPR ran a piece Media back in January, with some brief accounts given by the particpants:

    http://www.npr.org/2014/01/07/260302289/the-secret-burglary-that-exposed-j-edgar-hoovers-fbi

    The Media burglary was of much greater importance than the better known Pentagon Papers affair. Probably more significant than WikiLeaks.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i also love your historical writing CW. speaking of which, how's the book project coming?

  4. [4] 
    Paula wrote:

    What in interesting review of a fascinating story! Thanks Chris!

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Update:

    A little over a month ago I made a prediction, which ended:

    It's really hard to see much of a downside, which is why I'm boldly making the prediction today: when we all wake up from Paddy's Day hangovers, Obamacare's individual mandate deadline (the date you must be insured by, to avoid paying a penalty on your taxes) will have slipped to the end of April.

    Well, I was a week off, and didn't get it perfectly right, but still got pretty close.

    :-)

    Thanks for all the kind words on the review. It... um... ran a bit long. Sorry about that. But it was a fascinating story, and I wanted to do it justice.

    I highly recommend everyone buy The Burglary, or at least get it from a library. It's a great book, and a great story.

    -CW

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Well, I was a week off, and didn't get it perfectly right, but still got pretty close.

    One can really never go wrong predicting the failure of obamacare.. :D

    It's like death and taxes. It's failure is inevitable.. :D

    Michale

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Looks like my own prediction was also fairly accurate as well.. :D

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/11/1268958/-Obamacare-s-backend-problems-come-home-to-roost

    Beware the Ides Of March

    Michale

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    "We have no plans to extend the open enrollment period. In fact, we don't actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014."
    -HHS Official

    Once again, the Obama administration blatantly violating the law without ANY "statutory authority" to do so...

    I guess the Left doesn't REALLY mind a POTUS that ignores the law..

    As long as it's a DEM POTUS... :^/

    There's a word for that..

    Hypocrisy...

    Michale

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    "You know things are bad when our President sounds like Gil from THE SIMPSONS
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5QXeukCz94

    :D

    Michale

  10. [10] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Seems an appropriate place to note that FBI headquarters is falling apart and will most likely relocate to a new building someplace else. That's the quickest and cheapest option according to the GAO, although D.C. being D.C the costliest and slowest option, refurbishment, may ultimately get the nod.

    Either way, it's a great opportunity to retire the J. Edgar Hoover nameplate and honor somebody else. Or nobody else.

    Dump the old letters in a landfill, or donate them to a museum of cross dressing, if one exists.

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    A nomination for the MDDOTW award...

    http://freebeacon.com/issues/harry-reid-people-arent-educated-on-how-to-use-the-internet/

    Reid's stoopidity knows no bounds...

    Once again.. Obama is blameless.. It's the people that are too stoopid to sign up...

    :^/

    Michale

Comments for this article are closed.