On March 8, 1971, Richard Nixon was in the White House, the United States was in Vietnam and J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI.
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were in New York's Madison Square Garden, fighting for boxing's heavyweight title — an event that eight Pennsylvania residents hoped would deflect attention from their plans for the evening: burglarizing the FBI office in Media, a Philadelphia suburb with the highest concentration of Republicans in the country.
The burglars were motivated by persistent rumors that the peace and civil rights movements had been infiltrated by spies, said Betty Medsger, former chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. "But there was no evidence," she said. "So this was a way to determine whether or not it was true."
In 1971 Medsger was a reporter for the Washington Post, and the burglars were mostly academics and graduate students opposed to the war in Vietnam. They anonymously sent her and four other people copies of the documents they had found, which revealed the FBI's extraordinary efforts to suppress dissent, including its blanket surveillance of black people.
Medsger's story about the burglary, which ran in the Post and many other papers around the country, generated outrage and a national discussion about the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. Her 608-page book about the heist — and how and why it occurred — came out in January: "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI."
She was interviewed recently at the San Francisco City Club by freelance journalist Seth Rosenfeld, who wrote "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power," published in 2012.
It was a conversation that could have gone on for weeks. Medsger and Rosenfeld know way more about the FBI than most people on the planet — and probably vice versa. The FBI spent about $1 million to prevent Rosenfeld from getting files he'd requested on Hoover and Ronald Reagan. Medsger, meanwhile, obtained the 34,000-page FBI investigation of the Media burglary.
"Seth and I should probably have our heads examined," Medsger said. "Both of us have read thousands of pages of FBI documents."
Billed as "Celebrating Dissent," the City Club event was sponsored by S.F. State's Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, which Medsger founded in 1990. Although the journalists' conversation went back 43 years, it could not have been timelier, given Edward Snowden's revelations on National Security Agency surveillance — a subject that led to Pulitzer Prizes for the Washington Post and The Guardian just two days before the City Club event.
Medsger told the crowd she was not nearly as well known as the other two journalists who received the stolen documents — Tom Wicker of the New York Times and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. She figured her coverage of the peace movement in the late '60s had played a role, and it turned out she was right: Many years later, she found out that two of her activist acquaintances in Philadelphia were among the burglars.
Eventually, she learned the identities of seven of the eight, and told their stories for the first time in the book, which is full of intriguing details. For instance, the aspiring burglars cased the outside of the FBI office for about two months but eventually needed to get inside to see if there was an alarm system. So, Bonnie Raines made an appointment to talk about work opportunities at the FBI, and she wore gloves to the interview to avoid leaving fingerprints. Another burglar took a correspondence course to teach himself lock-picking skills.
Their efforts paid off. They cleaned out the office and were never caught, despite a five-year manhunt that involved more than 200 agents.
"They took every document in the place, and they even took a photo of J. Edgar Hoover," Rosenfeld said.
"They left the frame," Medsger noted.
Hoover Was a Towering Figure
The Nixon administration asked the Post not to publish Medsger's story. The newspaper's publisher, Katharine Graham, ignored the request.
"At this point in our history, the FBI was used to getting 100 percent cooperation from the media," Rosenfeld said.
In the early '70s, Medsger didn't have to worry about competition over who would break the story first: Nelson and Wicker turned the documents over to the FBI.
"Intelligence was different than anything else, and intelligence was something journalists had not touched at that time," Medsger said.
The journalists' wariness reflected the times. In the 1950s and '60s, Rosenfeld said, Hoover was a revered folk hero who'd been a towering figure for almost half a century. He was more popular than President Harry Truman and had developed close relationships with all the major studios in Hollywood.
Sen. George McGovern, one of two public officials who had received the stolen files, condemned the burglary, saying it would make it impossible to investigate the FBI.
"To digress to now, maybe that's why Snowden didn't take documents to Congress," Rosenfeld said.
Medsger noted that Daniel Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers, tracing the history of the Vietnam War, to four different senators. When none were willing to make the documents public, he turned to journalists.
"It speaks to the very unique and crucial role of the press to get information out," said Rosenfeld, who was an investigative reporter at the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the spring of 1971, Medsger continued to receive stolen files. One set had a routing slip labeled COINTELPRO, a series of covert operations designed to disrupt and discredit domestic political dissidents. The notorious program included Hoover's meanest and dirtiest tricks.
She was stunned at how much the FBI put in writing in its documents, such as telling agents that they should enhance people's paranoia and make them think there was an FBI agent behind every mailbox.
"At this particular time, the FBI committed almost everything to paper in a very unguarded way, even though the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) had passed five years before," Rosenfeld said.
Story Set the Stage for Many More Revelations
As a result of Medsger's work, some members of Congress and editorial boards around the country called for a probe of Hoover and the FBI.
"Even though there was a strong reaction initially, things slowed down," Rosenfeld said. "But a fuse had been lit by these stories."
Three months after the burglary, the Pentagon Papers came out. The Watergate break-in and coverup happened the following year. In 1973, NBC News reporter Carl Stern filed the first Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in the U.S. and broke the first story about COINTELPRO, which he'd learned of after reading about the burglary. And the watershed Church Committee hearings in 1975 and 1976 were the first and most extensive investigations of FBI and CIA involvement in American lives. Many reforms followed. But in the years since 9/11, intelligence agencies have acquired much greater power to engage in domestic surveillance.
"Fast forward to where we are now with Edward Snowden," said Rosenfeld, who asked Medsger about similarities and differences between then and now.
She said the Media burglars and Snowden had the same motivation: to provide information to members of the public, who could then make decisions about whether they wanted intelligence agencies to behave in this way.
"The crucial difference is that Snowden knew exactly what he was doing and that there was valuable information," Medsger said. "The FBI burglars were risking their futures without having any idea."
"It seems we know an awful lot about what the NSA collected but almost nothing about how that information was used," Rosenfeld said. "And Congress so far has not shown much interest in asking those questions."
Before the event began, Medsger told me, "It seems as though I've been talking continuously ever since I arrived."
No wonder. She read at Book Passage in San Francisco's Ferry Building on Tuesday night, addressed a class of Knight Fellows at Stanford on Wednesday hours before the City Club talk, and went to a party Thursday evening in San Francisco that included a book discussion. She flew back later that night to New York, where she lives, so that she could attend the screening of "1971," a parallel documentary on the burglary, at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday night.
As the City Club event was wrapping up, Medsger mentioned that she was very happy about something that had happened in New York the day before. The city's mayor and police commissioner had disbanded a controversial special spy unit of the NYPD, shaped with the help of the CIA, that had been in place since 9/11.
Medsger could not help but point out that The Associated Press won a Pulitzer in 2012 for its series on the unit's intelligence operations.