The reporter who broke America’s original domestic spying scandal and activists who raided an FBI office to obtain the proof teach ‘Lessons in Courage and Resistance’ at Loyola Marymount University
By Kevin Uhrich
What would you do if the government’s darkest secrets showed up in your mailbox?
Shortly after arriving for work at the Washington Post on March 23, 1971, religion reporter Betty Medsger found among the usual press releases a package with an intriguing return address: “Liberty Publications, Media, PA.”
Not yet two years into the job after leaving the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in late 1969, Medsger opened the envelope to find an enigmatic cover letter and similarly duplicated official-looking documents. She knew immediately that this was anything but everyday mail.
“Enclosed you will find copies of certain files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI, which were removed by our commission for public scrutiny,” stated the letter sent by a group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. “We are making these copies available to you and to several other persons in public life because we feel you have shown concern and courage as regards issues which are, in part, documented in the enclosed materials.
“About a week after you receive this material, our commission will publicly announce this mailing together with the names of those to whom we have sent it,” the letter concluded. “We will, of course, make perfectly clear in our announcement that our actions were entirely our own decision and responsibility. Your degree of public association or disassociation with our commission is entirely a matter of your own choice.”
As the letter suggested, Medsger weighed her options.
She didn’t know who sent the material documenting the existence of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO activities— which, it was later learned, attempted to discredit civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; infiltrated and disrupted such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and Students for a Democratic Society; and spied on groups that opposed the war in Vietnam and supported equal rights.
Nor did Medsger know who else might have received it. She later found out that an identical package had been sent to U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic candidate for president the following year, U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell of Maryland, one of the few black members of Congress, and two other journalists: investigative reporter
Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times and columnist Tom Wicker of The New York Times.
By way of a blurb in the Post three weeks prior, Medsger was vaguely aware that a small, two-man FBI office in Media, a town 12 miles west of Philadelphia, had been burglarized on March 8. That night was the first of three fights between Muhammad Ali, then just emerging from boxing exile for refusing to serve in Vietnam, and heavyweight champ and working-class favorite Joe Frazier. Updates of the bout, which wasn’t broadcast in the U.S. on TV or radio, were provided by the major networks, preoccupying guards at the county courthouse near the four-story building where the FBI office was located and providing a perfect distraction for the break-in, the burglars would say years later.
“[I] had not thought much about the burglary when I read the very short wire service story the Post ran shortly after the break-in,” Medsger writes in her book “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” published in January 2014.
That was until she began reading the contents of the package she had received.
“If authentic,” Medsger writes, the documents “provided evidence that the FBI went far beyond creating a chilling effect. The FBI, as a stated policy, wanted to freeze dissent.”
Medsger tried to decide what to do with the mysterious package, much of its contents scribbled on and signed by Hoover himself.
Should she turn it over to the FBI? Medsger didn’t know it at the time, but the two lawmakers and the two other news organizations had done just that.
(In fairness, Nelson said he never saw the package, and neither did editors at the LA Times’ Washington bureau.)
As Medsger notes, these were “untested waters” for news organizations.
“It was the first time a journalist had been given secret government documents by sources outside of government who had stolen the documents,” she writes, also noting in her book that the source was anonymous, a privilege that reporters should only grant sparingly.
Before doing anything, she read the contents of the envelope, in total describing some of the terror tactics employed by FBI agents in conducting secret surveillance on black citizens (particularly black students), instilling paranoia among people who counted themselves among the political left and attended colleges in the Philadelphia area, and entrapping students, teachers, clergy and average citizens who did little more than oppose the war in Vietnam and support equal rights and civil rights.
As an agent remarked in one of the purloined FBI documents — or “serials,” as they were called by those with the agency — questioning more people on college campuses “will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
And if you were black, Medsger said, paranoia was well warranted, because in Hoover’s eyes you were dangerous.
“That came across and that was shocking. But it had no bearing on the mission of the FBI,” Medsger said.
Apparently, neither did the rest of the “secret” FBI’s activities.
“The information was not used to stop crime,” Medsger said. “The operation was designed to harass, distort and destroy. It was really a matter of going after people and ideas they didn’t like.”
Climate of Fear
At that moment in history, no one — not journalists or members of Congress, including McGovern — dared to question Hoover or his vaunted G-men. Simply put, they were all scared to death of the man, as well they should have been. The rabid anti-communist cut his law enforcement teeth engineering the Palmer Raids of late 1919 and early 1920. Named for then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the Palmer Raids completely ignored due process with the arrest of thousands — and deportation of hundreds — of Italian and Russian immigrants labeled anarchists and Bolsheviks, respectively. Even the presidents Hoover served under after becoming Bureau of Investigation director in 1924, then Federal Bureau of Investigation director in 1935, feared him.
Medsger told her editor about the documents, and Ken Clawson, a Post reporter who covered the FBI and was friendly with its much-feared director, confirmed their authenticity. Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Assistant Managing Editor for National News Ben Bagdikian argued that the files did not present a national security threat. Publisher Katherine Graham ran the story over the strenuous objections of President Nixon’s then-Attorney General John Mitchell, an eventual Watergate convict who, it was learned later, had not even read the documents before declaring them a threat to national security.
“After a painstaking review of the documents and the Attorney General’s request, and with the advice of counsel, the editors at the Post decided to print those portions of the document that: 1. clearly did not damage the national interest, and 2. did not unfairly damage individuals mentioned in the documents,” Bradlee wrote in a prepared statement.
The headline of the next day’s front-page story co-written by Medsger and Clawson: “Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities.”
The report would lead to further exposure of COINTELPRO, which Hoover officially ended in April 1971 but some historians believe actually continued under a different name. In December 1973, NBC TV reporter Carl Stern, who doggedly pursued the release of more files on this FBI corruption, revealed a fuller extent of the sinister program started by Hoover in 1956. Such reports sparked the 1975 hearings by the Church Commission, headed by former Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, which revamped the FBI as well as the CIA.
‘A great, great shock’
It wasn’t until 1989 — 18 years after receiving the stolen documents — that Medsger learned she had known two members of the burglary team while working in Philadelphia from 1967 to 1969.
By that time Medsger was teaching college in California. She was traveling from a journalism workshop in Missouri to a program evaluation at the University of Massachusetts when she decided to stop in Philadelphia to visit some of the people she had met while working there.
John Raines, a professor of religious studies at Temple University, and his wife Bonnie Raines, a child care specialist, were the first people she called.
“So I had dinner at their home — and it changed my life,” Medsger said of the couple’s bombshell revelation that they took part in the burglary. “I never would have guessed. … I had no idea, and so it was a great, great shock.”
After that, “I could hardly think of anything else,” she said.
In the years that followed, Medsger learned the names of the six other burglars and interviewed all of them. Two spoke with her but declined to be identified. Late last year she discovered the identity of the eighth burglar, who she said has been living essentially underground since the time of the break-in.
John and Bonnie Raines will join Medsger for the Lessons in Courage and Resistance Tour, which includes appearances at All Saints Church in Pasadena on Saturday, Loyola Marymount University in Westchester on Monday, Caltech on Tuesday, Glendale Community College on Wednesday and Occidental College on Thursday. In addition to discussions led by Medsger and the Raineses, the events include screenings
of award-winning filmmaker Johanna Hamilton’s “1971,” a documentary inspired by Medsger’s“The Burglary.”
The Raineses were both staunch anti-segregation activists. John Raines joined in civil rights protests in the South in the early ’60s, including the historic Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery. Now 81, he is a prolific author and ordained Methodist minister who taught religion at Temple for nearly 50 years. He and Bonnie, 73, have three children, all of whom were younger than 10 at the time of the burglary.
Medsger, who currently lives in New York with her husband, a retired California appellate court judge, formerly served as a board member with the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is also a former chair of the journalism program at San Francisco State University, where she founded the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism in 1990.
The purpose of Medsger’s tour is, in part, to sell books. But much more than that, she hopes her story will open the eyes of young people who live in an America where their government can employ technology to scrutinize every aspect of their lives — a practice more pervasive, more invasive and, some say, more invidious than Hoover could have ever dreamed of implementing.
“The Media FBI office robbery revealed in cold, hard terms the indisputable fact that one of our intelligence agencies, the FBI, was flagrantly breaking the law by spying on law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, the FBI was inciting radical acts of domestic terror, such as bombing and assassination,” said Robert Nelson, a retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist and American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California board member who coordinated the tour with his wife, Marguerite “Peggy” Renner, chair of the History Department at GCC.
“It is important for all to know the extremes that citizens are sometimes forced to go to protect the rights and freedom we enjoy in a democratic society,” said Renner. “We owe these citizens a great debt for protecting our privacy.”
Public Enemy No. 1
Hoover, as Medsger writes, was reportedly apoplectic upon learning of the burglary.
That’s because he knew the stolen serials contained evidence of the “secret” FBI that he had been running for several years — one that didn’t go after crooks or organized crime figures, but instead targeted “subversives” and “communists”; ruthlessly squashed political dissent through rumor, innuendo, intimidation and violence; launched salacious smear campaigns against King, once writing him an anonymous letter encouraging him to commit suicide over alleged marital infidelities; concocted stories to destroy entertainers and others; bought off, subsidized or blackmailed informers into providing agents with information that was often wrong or exaggerated; and employed other dirty tricks to achieve what were really political goals.
In a frantic effort to find the burglars, Hoover employed more than 200 agents to scour Philadelphia and surrounding communities, resulting in more than 400 files being opened on possible suspects. But in the end, the burglars were never caught. The FBI’s Media burglary file was closed in 1976 after the five-year statute of limitations on the crime had run out.
“I think what was shocking was not only what was happening but that it had no connection to law enforcement, and it would have no connection to intelligence gathering because the information was not used to stop crimes,” Medsger said of COINTELPRO.
At the time of his death from heart disease in May 1972 at age 77, Hoover faced for the first time in his
48 years in office sharp criticisms from Congress and a once “friendly” press corps for employing tactics that would later be likened to the former East Germany’s oppressive Stasi secret police and the Soviet Union’s KGB.
In her riveting retelling of the burglary, as experienced by most of the people who pulled it off, Medsger recounts the troubled and sometimes dangerous times in which the theft occurs and also illustrates the lasting effects that this methodically planned act of civil disobedience had on reining in the country’s oppressive domestic spying and sabotage program.
“The culture in government, journalism and society was that intelligence agencies had a free pass — that intelligence agencies were untouchable and could do whatever they wanted. One of the many impacts the burglary had was it changed that,” Medsger said. “As soon as those first files were revealed, calls came for an investigation. The calls came from Congress and then from major editorial pages, including some who had never written anything but words of praise about Hoover and the FBI. It really cracked a wall, an enormous wall that Hoover had created through his vast internal public relations arm that had never been broken through until that time, and from then on there was a different atmosphere. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it was very, very different.”
Ready to Believe
In 2012, Robert Nelson (no relation to the LA Times’ Jack Nelson) ended a 34-year career at JPL after a civil rights lawsuit that he and others filed against NASA was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit had alleged that new federal background checks for JPL employees, which explored medical and sexual histories as well as political activism, were an invasion of privacy.
Nelson sees many similarities between the Media burglary and the case of Edward Snowden, the infamous former National Security Agency contractor who revealed to reporter Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and “Citizenfour” documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras that the National Security Agency was not only monitoring phone calls but also mining and storing vast amounts of personal data on average citizens.
Exposure of the FBI’s secret domestic spying in 1971, Nelson said, “resulted in temporary reforms in intelligence operations. Sadly, these reforms were short-lived. Last year, Edward Snowden had to do it all over again. Our elected officials failed us. They were not simply asleep at the switch; they were part and parcel of the entire disgraceful operation.”
In her book, Medsger names three burglars besides the Raineses: William Davidon, a nationally known figure in the anti-war movement and a physics professor at Haverford College in Philadelphia; Robert Williamson, a former college student who worked with the poor; and Keith Forsythe, also a former student, a cab driver and an avowed peace activist who was supposed to pick the lock of the Media FBI office following weeks of practice. When that didn’t work, Forsythe used a crowbar to get in. “I also knew Davidon,” Medsger said of her two years with the Bulletin, “but not very much.”
The group vowed then to never talk about the burglary with anyone, not even among themselves, and they all stuck to that pledge — until the Raineses spoke with Medsger in 1989. After that meeting, Medsger filed federal Freedom of Information Acts requests that resulted in the release of more than 34,000 pages of information about the Media burglary, information that now buttresses much of her disturbing story about Hoover’s secret police.
In addition to “The Burglary,” Medsger has also written 1983’s “Framed: The New Right Attack on Chief Justice Rose Bird and the Courts,” an investigation of attacks on the California Supreme Court from inside and outside the court in the late 1970s.
Medsger said there are a number of similarities between the Media burglars and Snowden. One is that “at two crucial times in history, the only way Americans learned that their intelligence agencies were out of control was when devoted citizens were willing to risk their freedom to get that information to the public,” she said. Another is how public officials lied about the two programs until they were exposed in the press. And like the FBI of old, which busted not one major crime under COINTELPRO, a terrorist attack was never stopped by NSA data collection.
The differences are equally striking. For instance, the burglars didn’t know what they would find, although they had suspicions of what was in the FBI files, while Snowden was well aware of what the NSA was doing. But the main difference is the tenor of the times in which the two events occurred.
“The Snowden files revealed so much that is very, very important, but the atmosphere is so different from what the Media burglars lived in,” Medsger said.
With COINTELPRO exposed in 1971 and Watergate developing into a national scandal in the early 1970s, “the audience for [the burglars] was ready to believe them and to do something about it.”
Today, “I don’t know if there is an audience that is enthusiastic and ready to act,” she said.
Although Medsger believes a board much like the Church Commission should investigate the FBI, the CIA and the NSA, “It’s very hard now to think reform is going to take place,” she said. “I absolutely think there is no stomach — no heart, I should say — for that.”
The Lessons in Courage and Resistance Tour includes a public forum hosted by LMU President David Burcham from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Ahmanson Auditorium, University Hall, 1 Loyola Marymount Drive, Westchester. Call (310) 338-2700 or visit lmu.edu.
Kevin Uhrich is editor of the Pasadena Weekly.