The discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger (2014, Alfred A. Knoph). The following is a guest-review by Raff Ellis:
On March 8, 1971, a small group of amateur burglars broke into the Media, PA, FBI office and emptied their file cabinets. The story of the perpetrators behind the burglary had remained hidden from public view for nearly 40 years.
Quite unexpectedly, two of the participants blurted out their involvement to author Betty Medsger during a routine social encounter. The couple who confessed to the crime hadn’t intended to make this admission for it was a secret they and their six cohorts had vowed to take to their graves. Medsger was shocked, and the revelation sent her on a mission to interview others who were involved, convince them to go public, and to tell their story in an engrossing book she titled, The Burglary.
Author Medsger uses the burglary as a springboard to discuss not only the excesses of the FBI, but also the CIA and NSA. Along the way she examines the lack of intelligence agency oversight by fawning presidents and a permissive Congress.
The later demythologizing of Hoover and his gang has left a lingering aroma of suspicion surrounding any governmental sanctioned spying on its citizenry.
Although this concern waxes and wanes with a largely apathetic public, it was given a significant boost in attention by the recent Snowden disclosures.
The strength of the book lies in its compilation of a series of historical events in one volume so readers can see the linkages between them and how a complete lack of control left an unscrupulous J. Edgar Hoover free to become the unchallenged dictator of American law enforcement.
Hoover is shown not only to be a racist and a devious lawbreaking rationalizer, but also one dedicated to self-indulgent prejudices. His personal views mandated who would be investigated, continually spied upon, and/or have their homes broken into and personal possessions seized.
His predilection for seeing Communist inspiration in every protest movement–be it anti-war, civil rights, or freedom of speech–guided his activities long after such a “menace” had disappeared. At the end there were more FBI agents and informers posing as Commies than there were actual members of the party.
To most Americans the revelation of illegal secret activities would seem incredulous given the public’s innate trust of the government and its vaunted FBI. Faith in that institution had been cultivated and taken for granted for many years, aided and abetted by Hoover’s masterful PR campaign.
Surely the FBI, the premier arm of the American justice system, wouldn’t disregard or break the law, would they? Surely Hoover, the director of this feared and revered agency, wouldn’t disregard orders and twist interpretations of laws to allow him to continue illegal activities, would he?
Once the Media files began leaking to the public, first by the Washington Post—where author Medsger was then employed, Hoover went into full court press mode. He tried to intimidate newspaper publishers to not reveal any of the purloined FBI files by implying they would be violating the law and would therefore be prosecuted. He also employed his secret army of spies, many of whom actually worked at newspapers, to help plug the leaks.
The panicked director even went so far as suggesting to Congressional friends that a law be passed that would make it illegal to possess or make public these stolen documents. Washington Post Publisher, Katherine Graham, made the heroic decision to break the story despite the rest of the Fourth Estate’s initial timidity about taking on the FBI.
Prior to the break-in, whenever questions arose about his agency’s activities, Hoover would slyly let his superiors—and anyone else who had notions about investigating him or his fiefdom—know that other damning information in his possession would also have to be revealed. Hoover’s death a year after the Media break-in rendered this ploy ineffective. It is assumed that his blackmail files were destroyed by his secretary to protect her revered boss’ reputation.
But the real story is about the group of amateur burglars themselves who, regardless of the specter of serious prison time, chose to go ahead with their audacious mission in the hope they could prove that the FBI was illegally spying on their anti-war activities. Not only were they genuinely surprised at the contents of the burgled treasure trove but also in retrospect that the mighty FBI was never able to find out who they were.
For all its flaunted “always get their man” mantra, the agency was revealed most often to be an inefficient, bungling group of Inspector Clouseaus. Despite Hoover regularly dedicating 40% of his budget to domestic spying, the Bureau never was credited with uncovering any terrorism plots.
The most disheartening conclusions that one draws from this book is how, even after all the revelations, the FBI remains imbued with a culture that resists oversight and obfuscates investigations into their activities. Their actions seem aimed at not only protecting the legacy of its long-deceased director, but also to preserve its freedom to restrict the freedom of others.
The book also points out how the Obama administration has not only refused to dismantle or repeal any of the post 9-11 directives that permit First and Fourth Amendment violations of its citizenry, it has sought to increase them.
In fact the government has outright lied about the nature and depth of domestic spying and stepped up the prosecution of whistleblowers. It is doubly discouraging when one considers that Obama is the first president with a Constitutional Law background.
Criticisms of this book pertain to the organization and amount of repetition that one has to endure. The author seems to believe that if something is worth saying once, it is worth saying two or three times. Nonetheless, the material contained in this work is well worth the time needed to consume the nearly 600 pages it occupies.
Excerpts should definitely be used in civics classes at all levels of our educational system. It is sobering, and well worth remembering, that the revelations made two generations ago required a criminal act to bring a secretive, law-violating judicial arm of the government to heel.
It is important to continually reaffirm that unconstitutional governmental excesses and lawlessness remain a threat to our guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom from illegal search and seizure. These principles are more at risk in the current atmosphere of fear, which is accepted by much of the passive or frightened public.
The clear message of this book is, “Please wake up and don’t let this happen again.”
The reviewer, Raff Ellis, can be found at www.raffellis.com. Raff is an acquaintance of several years and is himself the author of Kisses from a Distance (2007), Dam Foolishness (2011) and The Bishop’s Curse (2014). He’s a former computer industry business executive and lives w/his family in Orlando, FL.
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD) January 2015…