After years of silence, a group of activist-burglars discussed their theft of government files with the one journalist they trusted: Betty Medsger
In 1971, on the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight fight, eight burglars carried suitcases full of stolen files out of the FBI’s Media, Pennsylvania, office. Betty Medsger was a reporter at The Washington Post when she received the first of the files, sent to her anonymously. The documents exposed the FBI’s long-term surveillance of antiwar activists, African Americans, alleged communists and civil rights workers. The first paper she read was among the most damning. It encouraged FBI agents to interview more dissenters “for plenty of reasons, chief of which will enhance the paranoia endemic in their circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Medsger, who went on to become a professor and chair of journalism at SF State, assumed she would never figure out who the burglars were, but the secret was revealed in 1989. It happened over dinner in Philadelphia with Bonnie and John Raines. Bonnie, a day care director, and John, a religion professor at Temple University, were old friends she’d known from her newspaper days. That night, when John introduced Medsger to the Raines’ teenage daughter, Mary, he confessed to the burglary.
“Mary, this is Betty Medsger,” he said. “We want you to know Betty because, many years ago when your dad and mother had information about the FBI we wanted the American people to have, we gave it to Betty.”
After convincing five of the eight group members to tell their story and studying 34,000 pages of FBI files, Medsger revealed the details of the break-in for the first time in her new book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” (Knopf, ’14). In April, she returned to campus for an interview at the office of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, which she founded at SF State.
What were you thinking at The Washington Post on that day in 1971 when you started reading the first documents from the burglars?
For a while, I thought this might be a hoax... When I was done reading them that morning, I knew that if it wasn’t a hoax, that it was very significant — that it was important public information and that the most important question at that point was authenticity. The FBI helped with that immediately, because they wanted to confirm they were authentic so they could make the case that they shouldn’t be published.
So how was the decision made to publish?
This was the first time a journalist had received secret government documents stolen by somebody outside the government. That kind of issue simply had never been dealt with by a journalist or editors or a publisher. It also was the first time the Nixon administration demanded that [Post Publisher] Katharine Graham suppress a story. She didn’t want to publish, and the counsel didn’t want to publish either, and they didn’t decide until 10 o’clock that night. When I finished my story at 6, I found out that it might not run. [Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee should get a lot of credit for each brave act of those years. The Pentagon Papers were three months later, and the counsel didn’t want to publish that either.
How did your picture of J. Edgar Hoover evolve while covering this story?
When I first reported the story, nobody had any idea what he had done. He was an icon. He was one of the most powerful people in the country. The public adored him. The PR operation in the FBI was enormous — a PR operation the likes of which had never been seen in the government. Despite everything, I had no idea of the huge and comprehensive nature of his influence on every corner of American life. The firing of teachers during the Cold War, his informants behind the scenes. You cannot find an important area of American life where he didn’t have substantial influence.
Why do you think the FBI, with all its agents on this case, never caught the burglars?
I think the burglars were extremely smart and extremely lucky. It was ingenious to pick the night of the fight and have that noise. [FBI Assistant Director] Mark Felt had turned down the Media office’s request for an alarm system. They had the risk of the ninth [potential] burglar, who walked away before the burglary [and knew every detail of the plan].
Why do you think the burglars finally agreed to talk?
They took a vow to take the secret to their graves. They weren’t planning to be public. I think they changed their minds when I said, ‘I think this is an important story and an important piece of history that needs to be told.’
Why do you think that this story is so little known today?
That’s why I wrote the book. People forgot about it. The Pentagon Papers came. That eclipsed it, and so did the developments around the Pentagon Papers [such as] the burglary of [Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel] Ellsberg’s office. Ellsberg was big news and that led right into Watergate.
Did you ever feel threatened when reporting this story?
My phone at home was tapped. At that time, you had funny noises that let you know you were being tapped. I had some strange experiences driving when I was on freeways, with cars coming close to me and pushing me off to the side of the road.
What was it like to finally finish the book?
We had to add the chapter on [Edward] Snowden and the NSA, so it did feel like there wasn’t an end... I remember a day in August last year when my editor and I were going back and forth on one sentence in the NSA chapter — and I don’t even remember which sentence it was — and finally she said, ‘That’s it.’ And then in the fall more important Snowden stuff came out, and I said, ‘I think we really have to revise this chapter.’ It was very difficult to have a sense of finality with it.
The Pulitzers were just announced, and Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman won for their NSA surveillance coverage. What does that mean to you?
I’ve been waiting for today, and I am very glad to see it happen. This is extremely important reporting, and I think that they deserve it. It took a lot of courage on the part of the reporters and the institutions, but I also hope that this means something to the government to see them honored for doing this.
Tell us about the process of writing this book about the burglars, who were led by the late antiwar activist William Davidon and included state social worker Bob Williamson and part-time cab driver Keith Forsyth, who picked the office lock.
I didn’t want to just write a book about whodunnit. I wanted to provide historical context and the impact of what they did. But I also was an administrator here and teaching and didn’t really have time to devote significant time to it. When I retired in 1994, I was still doing other things. The last eight years I’ve been working on the book full-time. There’s a lot of research. For one thing, reading the 34,000-page investigation.
When you were teaching here, what advice did you give students should they have a pile of stolen government documents land on their own desks?
I didn’t tell them what they should do. I raised the questions. Does the authenticity [of the documents] matter? Is it something of great importance and does it matter to the public? Is it important to publish? Does it matter who gave it to you and what their motivation was? There are a lot of different questions to ask... One of the important questions is: Do you want to take these risks? Are you willing to be subpoenaed by a grand jury? I never suggested in class that there’s only one way to deal with this. Reporters shouldn’t be forced to do something that could risk their freedom.
Leading investigative reporters like Gregory Vistica, Lisa Davis and Michael Moss trained at SF State. How do you think the journalism curriculum helps shape journalists?
Many good people have come out of the program. It has very strong writing, editing and ethics and is creating people who are thinking journalists.
By KIM GIRARD /// Photo by ROBERT CAPLIN