Monday, December 1, 2014

Q&A with author Betty Medsger

Betty Medsger is the author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI. She also has written Women At Work, Framed, and Winds of Change. A former Washington Post reporter, she is a founding member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and founder of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University. She lives in New York.

Q: You first wrote about the 1971 burglary of the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI office at the time for The Washington Post. Why did the burglars choose to go public with their identities years later, and why did you decide to write a book about the burglary?

A: The burglars' decision to go public arose from a slip of the tongue by John Raines, a member of the group. When the burglars last met about 10 days after the burglary -- after they had analyzed the files and organized them for distribution -- they promised each other they would take the secret of the burglary to their graves.

Then, one night many years later, John Raines accidentally revealed to me that he and Bonnie were part of the group. I was startled to learn that and a few weeks later asked the Raines to reconsider that vow of secrecy and tell me the full story of their involvement -- their motivation, how the burglary was carried out and its impact on their lives since then -- for a book about the burglary and its long-term significance.

Back story: I had met the Raines when I was a reporter in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, prior to my being hired by The Washington Post.

On a trip to Philadelphia many years later from my home in San Francisco, I visited the Raines, whom I had not seen for more than a decade.

During dinner at their home, their youngest child, Mary, came into the dining room to ask one of them a question. When John introduced us, he said, "Mary, we want you to know Betty because many years ago, when your dad and mother had information about the FBI that we wanted the public to know, we gave it to Betty."  

I was startled to learn that my anonymous sources of the stolen files I received in 1971 included these two people I had known in Philadelphia.

In addition to asking them if they would tell their story, I asked them to help me find the other six burglars. The Raines, plus the five they helped me find, all agreed to participate. For differing personal reasons, two of them have refused to be identified. 

I told them that, given the great impact of the burglary, the story of who carried out this historic non-violent act of resistance in order to find documentary evidence of whether the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was suppressing dissent was a very important piece of American history that should become part of the public record.

I think the passage of considerable time contributed to their willingness to agree with my assessment and to reconsider their vow of secrecy.

Q: What more can you say about some of the motivations behind the burglars’ decision to take FBI files, and how big was the impact once the files were made public?

A: The idea for the burglary originated in the mind of Bill Davidon, a mild-mannered physics professor at Haverford College, who was the leader of the group.

His goal was precise: to find documentary evidence of whether the FBI was suppressing dissent. By that time, rumors were rampant that the civil rights and antiwar movements had been infiltrated by FBI agents and informers.

He found burglary repulsive. But, realizing that there was no official oversight of the FBI and very little questioning of the bureau by journalists, he saw no way to get evidence other than by breaking into an FBI office.

The people he recruited, one by one, agreed with him and also agreed that the right to dissent was of such great importance that they were willing to risk many years of their freedom in order to find such evidence and get it to the public.

The impact of the burglary was enormous. It evolved in stages. There was an immediate impact when stories about the contents of the files were published two weeks after the burglary, the first story in The Washington Post.

Editorials in major newspapers expressed outrage at the initial revelations and called for an investigation of the bureau by Congress. For the first time, several senators called for such an investigation.

This angry reaction was in response to files that revealed that agents had been instructed to behave in such a way that they would "enhance paranoia" and make people think there was an "FBI agent behind every mailbox."

The reaction also was to files that revealed the hiring of informers who spied on professors and students on campus, including monitoring phone calls and opening mail, and to files that revealed blanket surveillance of black communities throughout the nation.

The reaction to the files was intense until the Pentagon Papers became public three months later. The calls for an investigation also decreased when Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), who had been urged to chair a special committee for that purpose, refused to do so and said he thought Hoover was doing a fine job. 

The deepest impact of the Media files started to be felt in December 1973 when a federal judge ordered the FBI to release to NBC television reporter Carl Stern bureau files he requested that explained what COINTELPRO was.

This term was at the top of one of the Media files, a mere routing slip attached to a story from Barron's about how college administrators should control campus protest against the war in Vietnam.

In March 1972, Stern saw that routing slip for the first time and asked the bureau and the attorney general for the founding papers of COINTELPRO. They rejected his request repeatedly, saying that to make the papers available would endanger national security. The bureau appealed the decision, but acting attorney general Robert Bork dropped the appeal and released the files. 

As a result of this release of the first files ever released by the FBI under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, Americans learned that under Hoover the bureau had conducted a series of COINTELPRO operations against various groups he considered subversive.

The operations were designed not to gather intelligence or to enforce laws but, rather, to harass individuals and destroy organizations.

These dirty tricks ranged from crude to cruel and even murderous. They included injecting activists’ oranges with laxatives, hiring prostitutes known to have venereal disease to seduce activists, and planting false rumors about the race of the father of a well known pregnant actress' unborn child (which resulted in the stillborn death of the baby and in the actress' suicide).

The most extreme COINTELPRO operations included ones in which FBI informers testified falsely against a man falsely charged with murder -- testimony that led to his conviction and serving 27 years in prison before being released when a judge forced the FBI to submit evidence that exonerated the man….

The public outcry in response to this information caused both houses of Congress to appoint committees that conducted the first congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies in 1975. And that, in turn, led to the establishment of permanent intelligence oversight committees in both the Senate and the House.

Perhaps the most important impacts of the burglary were, first, the strengthening in 1974 of the FOIA, requiring the bureau and other agencies to have to respond to citizens' requests for FBI files.

Though getting files often is a long and expensive process that involves suing the bureau, files are much more accessible as a result of this legislation. Nearly every book that has been written about the bureau has been written since then and has, in fact, been possible because of writers' access to original files. Prior to that access, most books about the bureau were based only on Hoover's version of bureau history.

Second, the burglars' revelations immediately stimulated the first national conversation about the bureau and other intelligence agencies. Until then, intelligence agencies had been free to operate in complete secrecy and with no accountability to elected officials or to the public.

That changed forever, as one FBI historian has written, on the night of March 8, 1971, when people broke into the Media, PA, FBI office, stole every file in the office and made them public. 

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of that research?

A: My research for The Burglary included reading the 34,000-page FBI investigation of the burglary -- the daily reports filed during the futile five-year investigation of the burglary, one of the largest investigations conducted by the bureau as of that time.

It included reading many other government files, as well as hundreds of news articles, scholarly articles; the Church Committee files; inspector general investigative reports, and dozens of books about the bureau and about non-violent acts of resistance.

Multiple interviews were conducted with each burglar and with numerous other people who had valuable information or insights regarding the bureau or acts of resistance.

What surprised me most during my research was my discovery that Hoover's extreme actions to suppress dissent had taken place over nearly a half century -- from 1924, when he was appointed, until the burglary -- with thousands of FBI agents knowing what was happening but not questioning either the morality or legality of such actions.

Only one FBI official, Neil Welch, is known to have refused to let agents who served under him in various cities participate in COINTELPRO operations. 

That such behavior could take place for decades in the most powerful law enforcement agency in a democratic society is a strong warning about the imperative for oversight of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. 

When I was on a panel with an FBI agent from that era, I asked how it was possible that agents, over many years, did not question carrying out such orders, he said: "It was an autocratic organization. No one dared say no."

Q: What do you see as the legacy of that 1971 break-in?

A: I think the key legacies of the Media burglary are that it demonstrates the great damage that can be done to society when intelligence agencies are not held accountable, and the great power ordinary citizens can have against even the most powerful institutions.

Because they were willing to sacrifice their freedom, the Media burglars were able to empower the public and elected officials with revelations that led to major reforms that no elected official had ever been willing to consider.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am spending most of my time responding to requests to speak and write about the burglary and issues related to it. A fine documentary has been made about the burglary -- 1971, by filmmaker Johanna Hamilton. Johanna, some of the burglars and I continue to be asked to speak in a variety of forums.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The eighth burglar, the person the burglars and I could not find and feared may not be alive, has surfaced and told her story. She read some of the stories that were written when my book was published and then connected with some of the burglars and with me.

Her story is told in the epilogue of the paperback edition of the book and will be told in subsequent editions of the hardback. The other burglars chose to hide in plain sight in Philadelphia. In contrast, the eighth burglar, Judi Feingold, left the area shortly after the burglary and lived in the underground under an assumed name west of the Rockies, where she still lives. At 19, she was the youngest member of the group. She's now 63.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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