In February 2014 I reviewed Betty Medsger’s book on the 1971 break-in of the FBI’s offices in Media, Pennsylvania. That book titled The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, profiled most of the burglar/activists who participated in the action while telling the history of the period and the details of the break-in itself. As I wrote back then, the burglary was “about people putting their lives on the line in opposition to an encroaching police state and the men determined to imprison those people for their opposition.” Since the book was published, Medsger worked with filmmakers Johanna Hamilton and Laura Poitras to create a film based on the book and the story it told. It is an engrossing, informative and captivating film, equal to the story of the action related so well in Medsger’s text. Titled 1971, the film debuted on television May 18, 2015 and is currently streaming at the PBS.org website (until mid-June 2015). After viewing the film, I was inspired to email Betty Medsger with a few questions regarding the story told first in her book and then onscreen. That exchange is below.
Ron Jacobs: How much difference do you think the exposure of these files made?
Betty Medsger: The revelations made by these first intelligence whistleblowers had an enormous impact — on the public, on Congress, on intelligence agencies and on the culture of journalism. There was an immediate call for action. Members of Congress and editorial writers, two groups of people who had hardly ever offered anything but praise for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, for an investigation of Hoover and the FBI.
People were shocked, in part because the revelations in the Media files showed Hoover to be the opposite of what Americans had, for a half century, assumed he was. Instead of being a protector of civil liberties and other basic rights, he was revealed to be operating a lawless agency that he directed to illegally spy on and destroy individuals or organizations he did not like because of their race or their political opinions. He was suppressing rights, just as the Media burglars had feared. When people learned from the initial files that blanket surveillance of African Americans was taking place, comparisons were made to the dread Stasi, the secret police of East Germany. Powerful response also was prompted by the file in which agents were instructed to behave in ways that would “enhance paranoia” and make people think there was “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The impact of the Media revelations unfolded over more than five years, culminating in the decision of both houses of Congress in January 1975 to conduct investigations of all intelligence agencies. The investigation in the Senate by what was known as the Church Committee, named for its chair Frank Church (Democrat from Idaho), led to numerous reforms, including the establishment for the first time of permanent intelligence oversight committees in both houses of Congress.
Perhaps the most powerful reform inspired by the Media revelations took place in 1974 when Congress strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, which had been passed in 1966, but which was very weak. Hoover had ordered officials to simply ignore any requests for files made under the act. Beginning in 1974, journalists and scholars were able for the first time to obtain original FBI files and begin writing the first accurate accounts about the bureau’s present and past. Prior to then, the only records available were ones dispensed by Hoover’s vast internal public relations office, purposely misnamed the Crime Records Division.
Another very powerful impact of the burglary was the changing of the culture of the press and the society in regard to intelligence agencies. Until that time, these agencies had a free pass. There was nearly unanimous agreement that they should be able to operate in total secrecy. There was no oversight by presidents, by Congress or by attorneys generals, who were, in name only, the boss of the FBI director. But there also was very little reporting about the FBI, certainly no investigative reporting.
The Media revelations led to a realization among journalists that these powerful government agencies — intelligence and law enforcement — should also be held accountable. They no longer should be given a free pass. By the time the Church Committee held hearings in 1975 where FBI, CIA and other intelligence and law enforcement officials gave shocking under-oath testimony publicly about the cruel actions and illegal actions and policies they had carried out, journalists were regularly covering these agencies.
It’s important to note that the impact of the burglary would have been considerably less if NBC television reporter Carl Stern had not somewhat serendipitously come across the Media file, a mere cover sheet, that had the label COINTELPRO in the upper right corner. The bureau and Department of Justice refused to give him the files he requested, the ones that would document what COINTELPRO was. Finally, he successfully sued under the FOIA and got the files that revealed these operations that ranged from crude to cruel to murderous. When that information became public, Congress had no choice but to act.
Efforts to quash the reforms and effective use of them started as soon as Ronald Reagan became president. In his campaign, he had promised to unleash the FBI from the reforms that had been installed. Public memory of the shocking behavior of the bureau made it impossible to return wholesale to the days of Hoover, despite sporadic efforts to do so. The reforms were seriously damaged, though, as fear gripped the country and Congress passed the Patriot Act in 2001, ushering in a new age of secret surveillance and other massive intrusions and illegal actions by the intelligence agencies, including torture, that largely escaped the attention of the congressional oversight committees that were born in response to the Media burglary.
Ron: What would your reaction be today if you received stolen classified info? Would you publish it, despite the possibility of even greater penalties (think Snowden)?
Betty: Without a doubt, if I believed the information was authentic and important for the public to know, I would publish it. For a journalist, the penalty now probably would be the same as then — being subpoenaed by a grand jury. In other words, I would have to make the same decision I had to make the morning I received the files: to refuse to testify before a grand jury and be willing to go to jail for the life of the grand jury, up to 18 months, for that refusal.
You mentioned the greater penalty today. Actually, Hoover had announced that he hoped the burglars, when found (he was certain they would be), would be charged with espionage. That is the same charge that has been brought against government whistleblowers today, including Snowden.
Ron: In today’s world of Facebook, Google, and so on, what do you think the concept of privacy means? Are we so numb to the invasion of our private selves by employers and corporate America, does it even matter that the government (via NSA, etc.) collects every bit of data available at any time?
Betty: I am uncertain how people feel about privacy. I didn’t feel any rush of public anger when Snowden’s files were first released and people started learning about that their privacy had been invaded by the government.
What matters, I think, is what younger people think, for they are going to determine the future of these issues. The youngest have grown up online. For a while, when social media was new to everyone, I think it seemed seemed natural. It was something high school age people and people in their twenties didn’t give much thought. It pervaded their daily lives. Later they experienced some of the bad results of not protecting their privacy, and their opinions began to change.
I think we are in a very fluid time on these questions. The polls have shown that since Snowden’s revelations, in increasing numbers Americans have opposed the government invading their privacy. If that were not the case, we would not have the fierce debate that is taking place now in Congress.
I think the reaction to the Snowden revelations is affected by more than peoples’ attitudes about privacy. A young school teacher I met after a screening of the film in Boston told me he thought his generation was not shocked or moved to action by the Snowden revelations because corruption in general, including invasive surveillance by the government, is not a surprise. It’s expected. Many oppose what they have learned is happening, but they feel both powerless and unmotivated because government wrongdoing seems to be the way things are done and not subject to reform.
A depressing thought but one I fear may be correct. If it is, the challenge is great.
Ron: Were you asked not to include certain information in the original articles back in the 1970s by your editors or the government? In other words, were you censored? Did you censor yourself, then or when you wrote the book?
Betty: In the original articles, I was not censored by editors. The government was trying to completely suppress the story, but failed. The attorney general, John Mitchell, who later went to prison for Watergate crimes, repeatedly called two editors — Ben Bradlee, executive editor, and Ben Bagdikian, national editor — the publisher, Katharine Graham, throughout the afternoon. He demanded that they not publish and said that to do so would endanger lives and endanger national security. It was possible from reading the files to know that was not true.
The fear of publishing arose primarily from the culture that had always been true — intelligence agencies files are secret. The fact that the files were given to us by unknown people from outside the government also caused raised red flags with the publisher and with the in-house legal counsel. Both of them were against publishing. It also was the first time an administration had demanded that she suppress a story. All parties involved were in uncharted waters.
From the beginning, the editors were solidly behind publication. They did not seek to censor the content. Bradlee made the argument with Graham throughout the day, and by 10 p.m., she approved publication.
Did I censor myself — then or when I wrote the book?
I don’t recall censoring myself then, and I don’t think anyone involved in the editing process removed material for any reason.
When writing the book, I omitted the name of the burglar I could not find — Judi Feingold, who surfaced a few months after the book came out and whose story is in the epilogue of the paperback. I had convinced seven of the eight to reveal the secret they had promised each other they would take to their graves. Five agreed to become fully identified, while two of the seven, each for a different personal reason, were willing to tell their stories but not be named. I was willing to regard them as confidential sources. However, if none of the eight had been willing to be identified, I don’t think I would have been willing to write the book. A big point of the book is revealing the people who committed this historic act of resistance. Without their names being used, I think I would have had no credibility; the story would not have been believable.
The greatest challenge for me was whether to identify and search for the ninth burglar, the man who dropped out of the group just days before the burglary without any explanation. He knew every detail of their plans. He showed up at the Raines home (where two of the burglars lived-Ron) just weeks after the burglary, when the search for them was intense, and told them he was thinking of turning in the burglars.
I knew his name. I thought I found what city he lived in. By that time, about a year and one-half before our projects were completed, Johanna and I were collaborating. We decided together that we would not try to find him. We were curious about what he would say, but we also could not be sure what his attitude might be. Throughout our work, we protected the names of the burglars. Until near publication time, I used numbers instead of names in my manuscript. We did not think the FBI would have any interest in them today, but we could not be certain. We did not want that risk to take place until the projects were complete. That was an especially acute concern with the ninth burglar. We had no way of knowing if he might go to the government now. We took that precaution despite the fact that I knew from reading the 34,000-page investigation of the burglary by the FBI that he had been interviewed by the bureau nearly two years after the burglary and had not turned them in or revealed that he knew who they were.
Ron: The FBI agent you interviewed about the burglary states at the end of the film: “That door was shut and we haven’t had a peek at it since.” What do you think this means for the United States, its government and its people?
Betty: That’s Neil Welch speaking … former head of the New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Buffalo FBI offices and the person unanimously recommended by a commission created by President Jimmy Carter to be the director of the bureau after Clarence Kelley, the first director after Hoover. The Hooverites still in the bureau conducted a massive campaign to prevent his appointment.
As you may tell from that quote, he admired what the burglars did. He told me he thought they performed a great service for their country. This is an extraordinary statement for an FBI official from that era. But he was different. He was, for example, the only FBI official who ordered agents under his supervision not to participate in COINTELPRO operations.
He made that statement in the 1990s. He was depressed about the state of things then, felt the FBI had never been reformed the way it should have been and that the glimpse provided by the burglary was a rare glimpse. He also thought it was in the nature of government to engage in such activities as Hoover had carried out. That the problem was inherent in the nature of power. He was a lawyer and took the constitution very seriously. He despised the idea that a law enforcement agency thought it should invade people’s lives because of their ideas.
What do I think this means for the government and the people? I think Welch is right — that governments always will repeatedly attempt to use excessive power and to so illegally and in secret. They assume secrecy will protect them.
All of this means that any time there is a victory in these areas of public life — the burglary and its impact, Snowden and his impact — we need to know that constant vigilance is needed. For progress to be sustained, relaxation about these issues is not possible. For democracy to work, citizens must be constantly active, never silent or passive.
The burglars provide a great example — willingness to risk freedom, even decades in prison, for the public interest. Most of us could never possess that kind of courage. But we could keep asking questions and demanding answers.
Ron: And we should!
Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.