Ambitious, meticulous account of a successful burglary of the FBI, during a different time of controversy regarding governmental surveillance.
In 1971, Washington Post reporter Medsger was surprised to receive pilfered FBI documents from “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.” While the break-in at the FBI’s satellite office in Media, Penn., had garnered minimal attention, the release of the documents to journalists and politicians caused a national furor. At the time, bitterness over Vietnam fueled suspicion among activists of covert governmental harassment. Several disciples of the Catholic peace movement came together as the “Commission” and hatched the audacious plan following similar actions at draft boards, which combined subterfuge with a commitment to nonviolent resistance. The deftly executed burglary soon became longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “worst nightmare,” in that the documents revealed that the FBI had aggressively harassed leftists, blacks and civil rights activists since the 1940s and kept tabs on many others, although Hoover’s inner circle had long claimed “there were no FBI files on the personal lives of government officials or other prominent people.” As the files were released to the Post and elsewhere, mainstream outrage prefaced that which greeted the impending Watergate scandal. Remarkably, the burglars were never caught, though Hoover’s FBI pursued them doggedly, even interviewing an activist who’d quit before the burglary without realizing his significance. Years later, Medsger found they’d generally lost touch with each other and their radical past: As one told her, he was shocked to see in a documentary that “somebody apparently thought that our little action was that important.” Yet, as the author points out, comparisons to post-9/11 America and recent revelations about the National Security Administration are inescapable.
Medsger captures the domestic political ferment of the 1970s on a large canvas, though the narrative’s extreme detail and depth occasionally make for slow going or repetitive observations.