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How an unlikely group changed the face of the FBI, retold in ‘The Burglary’

July 15, 2014 at 8:21 PM EDT
In “The Burglary,” author Betty Medsger tells the story of a group of burglars in 1971 who stole files from a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania -- a theft that provided evidence of wide scale surveillance of U.S. citizens. Medsger sat down with chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown to talk about the unlikely group and the consequences of their plot.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a look back at a different era of government surveillance, well before e-mail or Edward Snowden.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: On March 8, 1971, a group of burglars entered a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. In the files they took away, they found evidence of wide-scale surveillance of U.S. citizens, particularly of anti-war and black civil rights activists.

It opened a window on the FBI that eventually led to the downfall of its leader, J. Edgar Hoover, and to major reforms of the bureau. The perpetrators were never caught, but their identities and story are now told in the new book “The Burglary.”

Author Betty Medsger was one of the original journalists to receive and publish the information that came from the stolen files and she joins us now.

And welcome to you.

BETTY MEDSGER, Author, “The Burglary”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was an audacious plan carried out by an unlikely group of activists, academics. Tell us a little bit. How did it happen?

BETTY MEDSGER: There was a sense in the anti-war movement that it was being infiltrated by spies, by informers.

But there was no evidence. And William Davidon, the leader of the Media burglars, finally concluded, after being skeptical, that it probably was true and that it was so important, if dissent was being officially suppressed, that something needed to be done about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Davidon himself was a Haverford physics professor. There was a Temple University religion professor. Tell us a little bit more about this group of people.

BETTY MEDSGER: Well, as you said, a physicist, religion professional, John Raines and his wife, Bonnie Raines. And also somebody who was very important to the group was Keith Forsyth, who dropped out of college to protest the war, was working as a cab driver, and became a lock picker for the occasion, took a correspondence course for lock-picking.

JEFFREY BROWN: They picked a night of a legendary fight, right, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Everyone was paying attention to that.

BETTY MEDSGER: Still considered the fight of the century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And they got away with it. They got in and they took the files.

BETTY MEDSGER: They did.

They spent a few months casing. They were very careful about what they were doing, but at the same time there were obstacles they couldn’t overcome, such as a guard 24 hours a day at the courthouse door across the door looking at precisely where they would enter and leave the building.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they found the surveillance campaign, what later became known as the counterintelligence program.

They saw references in these files to — and you quote these words — enhance the paranoia that the FBI was trying to do to make people feel that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox.

BETTY MEDSGER: There were many files that were important in the thousands that they took out of the office that night in the dark. But that file that you just mentioned sent a lot of chills through people at the time.

And for the first time, people in Congress called for an investigation of the FBI and also newspaper editorials. And that was really quite striking, because Hoover was an idol. Hoover was an icon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Untouchable.

BETTY MEDSGER: Untouchable, truly untouchable.

And that’s what drove Davidon to think of this, because he felt sure that, if surveillance, political surveillance was going on, and actually much worse was going on, that there was no possible way that this would be found by government officials, that Hoover was so immune to any kind of investigation.

And that turned out to be true.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the amazing facts of the perpetrators, as I said, they never were caught. They agreed never to even met again. What, they just lived their — went back to living their lives?

BETTY MEDSGER: They went back to living their lives. And for those who were middle-aged, that meant continuing with their work as professors and raising their children.

And for the ones who were younger, it actually turned out to be more difficult, because they had dropped out of school to work so strongly to stop the war. It was more difficult. And they had to rebuild their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Things didn’t happen fast, right? All these kind of changes that I mentioned, what happened to J. Edgar Hoover, they unfolded over time. And of course Watergate happened as well.

BETTY MEDSGER: In the background, during all of those things, there was an impact.

And one of the most important things is Carl Stern, an NBC reporter at the time covering the Justice Department, noticed that one of the Media files had this word on top, “COINTELPRO.” The file itself was just a routing slip on top of a story that Hoover wanted released to presidents of universities.

But Carl noticed that, at the bottom, it said, send this with — give it to friendly administrators and give it anonymously to unfriendly college administrators. It was about how to control student protesters.

And he thought, this is a strange thing for an FBI to be doing. And also what is COINTELPRO? And if it hadn’t been for his persistence, we never would have discovered what in the end what one of the most important findings from the Media files.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you finished your book telling this history, and the survivors came forward, new revelations, right, from Edward Snowden. Do you end up feeling that, what, things haven’t changed so much? How did you see that?

BETTY MEDSGER: One of the things that I ended up feeling was that despite the oversight that was officially established as a result of the Media burglary and then the congressional investigations that took place, that oversight really hasn’t been functioning so well in recent years.

And 40 years later, we’re also learning information that seems to be pretty important for the public to know from another burglar, this one from inside an agency.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The new book is “The Burglary.”

Betty Medsger, thank you so much.

BETTY MEDSGER: Thank you.