Shop Notes

Betty Medsger winds up 'Burglary' tour

Posted: July 8, 2016 | Tags: journalism


Photo by Christina Animashaun, IRW

Betty Medsger talked to college students and former antiwar activists across the country during her book tour, in which she chronicled the tale of the break-in of an FBI building in Philadelphia and promotion of the companion film “1971.”

In 1971, Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger wrote the first stories based on files stolen from the FBI by a group of activists calling themselves The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. Despite immense pressure from the Nixon administration, Medsger, with support from the Post’s Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Publisher Katharine Graham, wrote of widespread FBI surveillance and harassment of students, academics, civil rights activists and anyone else director J. Edgar Hoover deemed a threat. 

Among the most disturbing revelations was the FBI's intensive spying on African American activists and student groups with a goal of increasing “the paranoia endemic in these circles” by making targets believe there was “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” The day after Medsger’s article ran, the Post’s editorial board gave its reasoning for publishing the files: 

“We believe the American public needs to know what the FBI is doing. We believe the American public needs to think long and hard about whether internal security rests essentially upon official surveillance and the suppression of dissent or upon the traditional freedom of every citizen to speak his mind on any subject, whether others consider what he says wise or foolish, patriotic or subversive, conservative or radical.”  

Medsger's stories and those that followed led to the first investigations of Hoover’s all-powerful FBI and congressional oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies. In her latest book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” (Knopf, 2014) Medsger tells the stories of the eight people behind the burglary and how they managed to bring down one of the most powerful and secretive agencies in U.S. history.  

The Investigative Reporting Workshop spoke with Medsger as she wrapped up touring for her book and the companion documentary, “1971.”  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The first of three video clips from Executive Editor Charles Lewis' interviews with Medsger is below; the others and her detailed biography are featured on the Investigating Power website.

Why hadn’t the FBI been subject to media or government oversight before the burglary? 

You can look at it just in terms of J. Edgar Hoover, but the wider picture is important, too. Intelligence agencies were considered to be different from all other parts of government. They got a free pass from the attorney heneral — who was technically the boss of the director of the FBI. 

It was believed that they should be given a completely free hand and do whatever they needed to do to protect us. That had always been the case, but Hoover was also a master of public relations. He helped make the FBI a household name in the 1930s after they put down the post-Prohibition crime wave in the Midwest. He created an image of the bureau as this incredibly important institution that should be regarded as protecting the U.S. from destruction. 

So at the time of the burglary, Hoover was the most beloved American official and had been for a very long time. Only people who were dedicated, longtime activists had any suspicion that the FBI had activists under surveillance. For the public as a whole, Hoover was a revered figure.  

Did you face a backlash after you published your first story?

That morning after we confirmed the authenticity of the story I prepared to write it with eyes wide open. I told myself that if I was going to do this I needed to be prepared to refuse to testify before a grand jury or refuse to hand over the documents. Even though my sources were unknown to me, I felt I had the same obligations to them, and it occurred to me there could be fingerprints or other identifying marks on the files.

At that time, there were faint but visible markings on copies; some of those markings told the model or generation of equipment that was used, but other markings could lead to very specific copy machines and the FBI were looking for that machine. They already suspected that John Raines and Bill Davidon were making the copies at their office and took the drum from that copier.

I tend to think there may have been some active resistance within the low levels of Xerox because they certainly would have been able trace the copies otherwise.  

Did the FBI start watching you?

It was evident early the next morning [after the first story ran] that my home phone was being tapped. I had just written a story about the FBI purposely stoking paranoia, and when I picked up a phone to make a call that morning, there was a live man on the other side asking me what I was doing. Then within a couple of weeks my husband and I saw an FBI surveillance van parked in front of our home. 

Also within the first weeks, a man I had never seen who worked in the mailroom at the Post introduced himself to me and then told me he had seen all the letters my mother had sent me. He told me her name and where she lived. My mother had never written me. She didn’t know the address at the Post. The only thing that makes sense is that he was trying to intimidate me. They were trying to make me feel paranoid, to fulfill the description of what I had written in the first story.

I do know from what I found out from FBI files years later that they were watching the mail of Jack Nelson at the Los Angeles Times very carefully on behalf of the FBI, so we know that that was a method. I would never say that was what was happening authoritatively but I point out the craziness of it. 

So those were some fairly visible and obvious things. But I never experienced anything truly threatening.  

What was the response from the wider public?

As soon as the files came out, the public reaction was so strong — despite the reverence they had for Hoover. That’s a real tribute to the strength of the revelations. People at the time had knowledge of the Stasi — the secret police in Eastern Germany. When these files came out and people learned that the FBI had tried to penetrate African American communities — not because specific individuals were under suspicion in a crime but just because they were black — they immediately thought about the German secret police. They were reading about how the FBI gave agents instructions to spend time wherever blacks would be — in church, on college campuses — and that caused a really strong reaction that you can see that in some of the editorials at the time.  

What about Congress? 

The response was almost universally positive but not quite. You had members of Congress who had never suggested that there be an investigation of Hoover doing so and raising very serious questions for the first time. And then there were some who thought it was a continuation of a communist plot. 

Initially, people were calling for Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina) to conduct hearings on the FBI because he was regarded as a hero of the constitution and had held the only hearings to date on domestic surveillance — this time by the army. Then after a month he announced that he would not do it because he thought Mr. Hoover was a fine man. That was big. It had a big impact. The Media stories continued to appear up until the middle of May but then the Pentagon Papers took over. 

It wasn’t until Carl Stern succeeded in his lawsuit against the FBI that the Media papers became a big deal again through COINTELPRO. So there was this really strong reaction at first and then the investigation did not take place. Then once COINTELPRO was revealed there was no turning back. The country was in the mood to find out what was going on after Watergate so in January 1975 both houses of Congress called for official investigations of all intelligence agencies. 

How long did it take you to write “Burglary" and what did it take to flesh out the full story?

I found out that John and Bonnie Raines were two of the burglars in 1989. I was working full time as an administrator but I started working on the book then and continued to work on it, but my job was overwhelming in terms of my full-time obligations. Finally in 1994 I decided that writing this story in a full way was more important to me than keeping my academic job and that I would leave academia to devote time to it.

But it was a very long project. I spent a lot of time interviewing the burglars and their children, FBI agents, congressional staff and intelligence scholars, and then reading 34,000 pages from the bureau's investigation of the burglary. There was also the transcript from a related trial, as well as many thousands of pages of official reports and investigations, journalistic and scholarly articles and books.  

What kind of reception did “Burglary" receive after its release? Were there any reactions that surprised you?

I just stopped touring two weeks ago. It's one of those things where you can’t be sure but you know the most positive impact we had was with people from that generation who often felt as though they hadn’t accomplished anything in the antiwar movement. Seeing that this had happened and people coming out and telling these stories seemed to have left them feeling like they really did do something in the antiwar movement that mattered.  

The first surprising reaction, though, was that the FBI immediately had a somewhat positive response. We had kept everything secret and had no way of knowing how they would react. The reporters working the first day when the book came out all had to go to the FBI to get their reaction and they essentially said that this had happened a long time ago and positive things resulted from that burglary. So that was a surprise and a relief. 

For us, though, the best experiences have been where young people came to hear us and ask questions. One of the best experiences was at Caltech, which is one of the main places where the NSA recruits. Those students are very bright and we had no idea what it would be like when we went there. They were great and thinking ahead to the ethical questions they face if they are asked by the NSA to do things they don’t believe in. Edward Snowden is very much on their minds and this story appealed to that part of them. 

How did the documentary project come about?

From the beginning of working on the book I recognized it as something that should also be a documentary. For one, I realized that film is very powerful and that my main interest is this story. I’m a writer, but I really cared deeply about this story being told, and I realized the power of the story would be greatly increased if a documentary film was made. I also thought it was such a natural subject: people who risked their freedom for decades to stand up for their rights. It just seemed like something that was made for film. 

How involved were you with the resulting documentary?

I was a subject in the film, but I was also deeply involved. Four years before the book came out, I introduced Johanna Hamilton to the burglars. There were other people who knew what I was doing and were interested in the possibility of making a documentary. They also met the burglars in Philadelphia at that point.  

But they chose Johanna. She’s just so good. She had more experience than anyone else. She had been involved in "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which is a great film on the role women in Liberia played in getting Charles Taylor out of power. 

The fact that we were friends and had known each other for a long time was also a very helpful part of the process. She already knew part of the story as a result of knowing me and we were in constant contact, planning interviews and other aspects of the film. I had no control over the film but we were very good and close collaborators.  

What else have you been working on? Any other projects we should keep an eye out for in the future?

I have a project in mind but I’m not far enough into the research to talk about it. I continue to pay attention to surveillance issues and there’s certainly a lot to pay attention to.

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