Synopses & Reviews
The never-before-told full story of the history-changing break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists — quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans — that made clear the shocking truth and confirmed what some had long suspected, that J. Edgar Hoover had created and was operating, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, his own shadow Bureau of Investigation.
It begins in 1971 in an America being split apart by the Vietnam War....A small group of activists — eight men and women — the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, inspired by Daniel Berrigan’s rebellious Catholic peace movement, set out to use a more active, but nonviolent, method of civil disobedience to provide hard evidence once and for all that the government was operating outside the laws of the land.
The would-be burglars — non-pro’s — were ordinary people leading lives of purpose: a professor of religion and former freedom rider; a day-care director; a physicist; a cab driver; an antiwar activist, a lock picker; a graduate student haunted by members of her family lost to the Holocaust and the passivity of German civilians under Nazi rule.
Betty Medsger's extraordinary book re-creates in resonant detail how this group of unknowing thieves, in their meticulous planning of the burglary, scouted out the low-security FBI building in a small town just west of Philadelphia, taking into consideration every possible factor, and how they planned the break-in for the night of the long-anticipated boxing match between Joe Frazier (war supporter and friend to President Nixon) and Muhammad Ali (convicted for refusing to serve in the military), knowing that all would be fixated on their televisions and radios.
Medsger writes that the burglars removed all of the FBI files and, with the utmost deliberation, released them to various journalists and members of Congress, soon upending the public’s perception of the inviolate head of the Bureau and paving the way for the first overhaul of the FBI since Hoover became its director in 1924. And we see how the release of the FBI files to the press set the stage for the sensational release three months later, by Daniel Ellsberg, of the top-secret, seven-thousand-page Pentagon study on U.S. decision-making regarding the Vietnam War, which became known as the Pentagon Papers.
At the heart of the heist — and the book — the contents of the FBI files revealing J. Edgar Hoover’s “secret counterintelligence program” COINTELPRO, set up in 1956 to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the United States in order “to enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,” to make clear to all Americans that an FBI agent was “behind every mailbox,” a plan that would discredit, destabilize, and demoralize groups, many of them legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups that Hoover found offensive — as well as black power groups, student activists, antidraft protestors, conscientious objectors.
The author, the first reporter to receive the FBI files, began to cover this story during the three years she worked for The Washington Post and continued her investigation long after she'd left the paper, figuring out who the burglars were, and convincing them, after decades of silence, to come forward and tell their extraordinary story.
The Burglary is an important and riveting book, a portrait of the potential power of nonviolent resistance and the destructive power of excessive government secrecy and spying.
"When a huge trove of classified documents was stolen from the Media, Pa., branch office of the FBI in 1971, Medsger (Women at Work) was one of the first journalists to cover the story. Four decades later she has tracked down the perpetrators, whose identities had never before been revealed, and written the definitive account of what she calls 'perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American history.' The burglary revealed to the public how the Bureau served as 'secret judge, secret jury, and secret warden' in its efforts to 'intimidate people from exercising their right to dissent.' The richly detailed narrative flows seamlessly from the planning and commission of the break-in to the FBI's bungled investigation to the explosive aftermath of the files' release. In its zeal to bring the perpetrators to justice, the FBI provided much support for the Camden 28, mistakenly believed to have committed the Media burglary as well, to rob a draft board an attempted sting that became instead a watershed moment for the antiwar movement when the defendants were acquitted by jury nullification. Medsger concludes by following up with each of the plotters, most of whom have since enjoyed quiet lives since, unlike those who have appropriated classified files more recently." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Ordinary people have the courage and community to defeat the most powerful and punitive of institutions — including the FBI. That's the unbelievable-but-true story told by Betty Medsger, the only writer these long term and brave co-conspirators trusted to tell it. The Burglary will keep you on the edge of your seat — right up until you stand up and cheer!" Gloria Steinem
"I thought I would read The Burglary for a few minutes while I waited for my plane to take off. Six hours later my eyes had not left the pages. I continued to read in the cab, but the driver forced me to turn off the light. It is astonishingly good, marvelously written. It is the best book I've read about either the antiwar movement or Hoover's FBI. It's a masterpiece." Dan Ellsberg, military analyst who made the Pentagon Papers public
“A masterpiece of investigative reporting. As a writer, I admire the way Betty Medgser has explored every angle of this truly extraordinary piece of history and told it with the compelling tension of a detective story. As an American, I’m grateful to know at last the identities of this improbable crew of brilliant whistle-blowers who are true national heroes. As someone appalled by recent revelations of out-of-control NSA spying, I’m reminded that it has all happened before, and that then, as now, it took rare courage to expose it. This brave group of friends were the Edward Snowdens of their time.” Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
The never-before-told full story of the 1971 history-changing break-in of the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists — quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans — that made clear the shocking truth and confirmed what some had long suspected, that J. Edgar Hoover had created and was operating his own shadow Bureau of Investigation.
The book shows how the break-in, and subsequent release of the contents of the FBI's files to newspapers across the country, upended the public's perception of the up-till-then inviolate head of the Bureau, paving the way for the FBI's overhaul for the first time since its inception forty-seven years before, in 1924, and setting the stage for the sensational release three months later by Daniel Ellsberg of the top-secret seven-thousand-page Pentagon study of U.S. decision making regarding the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.
About the Author
Betty Medsger was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Medsger is a former chair of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University and is the founder of its Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. She is the author of Winds of Change, Framed, and Women at Work. She lives in New York and Connecticut.