“The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” by Betty Medsger


Reviewed by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-LA

March 8 marks the 44th anniversary of the break-in and burglary at the FBI office in Media PA that eventually exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret illegal program against dissidents, especially the Black Panther Party, which FBI Director  J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed the #1 threat against US internal security.

As “The Burglary” makes clear, COINTELPRO was the tip of a much larger body of FBI surveillance, infiltration and blackmail that impacted US society and government for decades. The agency focused on Black people in their  broad masses, at some points carrying out surveillance on every single Black student at some colleges. FBI agents had informants throughout the country, especially on campuses, promoting a snitch culture and keeping secret records on 3X5 index cards. Now they’re still doing it, electronically, with the NSA.

Medsger’s book is must-read, particularly if you didn’t live through those times. The damning disclosures the burglary led to have obscured what the actual stolen files revealed at the time. Hoover had a spider’s-web of informers who provided FBI agents information about the beliefs, expressions, associations, and personal proclivities of neighbors, coworkers, students and even elected officials. This had a chilling impact on dissent and oversight. Hoover’s FBI enforced white supremacy and considered Black people inherently subversive and threatening. This persists today when police reflect that same racist fear of Blacks.

The COINTELPRO designation was on a single cover sheet in the Media files, but it led to releases detailing dirty tricks, infiltration, FBI coordination of police raids that killed Panthers, and “black-bag jobs” against the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers, and “New Left” student, civil rights and anti-war movements. Medsger describes the meeting Hoover had with Eisenhower and members of his cabinet, where the FBI chief outlined the “counter-intelligence” methods he intended to pursue after the Supreme Court  found the Smith Act criminalizing communist beliefs to be unconstitutional. Hoover detailed that he’d use burglaries and other illegal methods of disruption against suspected “subversives,” and got the go-ahead.

Medsger’s account places too much of the blame on Hoover individually. She accepts the ignorance of what he was “up to” by various Attorneys General, or that they were deceived by Hoover changing the name of programs he was ordered to end. She can’t understand how Harlan Stone, future Chief Justice, named Hoover to head the Bureau of Investigation in the first place, when Hoover had been the key operative in the illegal Palmer Raids (mass arrests and in some cases deportations) that led to calls to reform the Bureau. She doesn’t understand that this is the way the shell game is played. When the LAPD was forced to disband its “Red Squad,” they too simply changed the name. Ordered to destroy files, the officer in charge turned them over to a racist, right wing foundation. When a later injunction prohibited the LAPD from carrying out political espionage, they developed a work-around, where the LAPD and other PDs facing similar injunctions, like SF and Portland, franchised the operation to the Anti-Defamation League, whose operatives continued to infiltrate Black, Arab-American and left groups and share the information with the police.

Because the book exposes so much of the FBI’s non-COINTELPRO operations, it gives short shrift to COINTELPRO itself and the extent of the attack on the BPP in particular and other Black liberation organizations in general, and the continuing cost to our movement by the number of people who are still locked down or in exile (or dead) as a result. There’s no mention of political prisoners of COINTELPRO still incarcerated, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, or Russell Maroon Shoatz.

Medsger tells the story of the burglars themselves and their decision to risk arrest to expose crimes by the FBI. They situate their decision in the times, rooted in participation in the Freedom Rides to the South and particularly the incessant Vietnam war. We need more such people of similar valor today. I spoke briefly with Medsger and Bonnie Raines, one of the burglars, at their appearance at Glendale College, and they were unaware of the cases of Jeremy Hammond and Barrett Brown, a “hacktivist” and a reporter respectively, who are in prison because of the release of files exposing the private intelligence company Stratfor, but they promised to learn more.

I recommend the book highly, and urge people to go see the film based on the same events, “1971,” which will be playing here in L.A. for a week starting March 13 at the Laemmle Music Hall (see calendar listings for information).

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