I found this book absolutely absorbing. Both the skill with which it is written and the story that it tells are astounding. The story centers around the decision in 1971 by 8 respectable and responsible people, including a young married couple with 3 children, to break in to a small local FBI office to attempt to get proof that the FBI was spying on and attempting to suppress dissent by those who opposed the Vietnam War. This act of civil disobedience was much different than what Civil Rights protestors had engaged in--if caught, these people would face not just a few days or weeks in a local jail, like Martin Luther King in Birmingham, but instead as much as 30 years in a federal penitentiary.
The author writes movingly and in great detail about what would lead people to make such a bold decision, their backgrounds, how they prepared themselves, the precautions they took to keep their act secret (again, unlike many other acts of Civil Disobedience), the stress and fear they felt, and at the end, how they now feel looking back on their younger selves. I was so moved by the story of the Robins family and their deep love for each other and for their young children, and yet their belief that a moral life may require putting all that at risk for a higher good. Though it might seem irresponsible, it is routinely expected that a married soldier of either sex will be willing to risk death or disability even though they have a family, so their conviction makes sense, and yet, it was so painful and hard won. I also was fascinated by Brenda Robins, the wife and mother, as she carried out her role in the break-in--she sometimes took on the role of "earth mother," as the author describes it, cooking meals for the other burglars as they planned their job, and yet at a crucial moment making one of the boldest moves of all by going to an FBI office under false pretenses, spending over an hour talking to an agent in order to study the space. She was the only person that the FBI had any description of in the case, and was probably in the most danger of being caught. Her actions led her to become a feminist early on, and to develop a strong sense of herself as a free moral agent and not just a wife and mother.
In addition to the personal drama, the book also reveals (which is not new, but deserves to be reconsidered in the light of current circumstances) the unbelievable extent that the FBI went to to surveil and harass not only potentially violent protestors, but anyone that J. Edgar Hoover personally disliked, which basically included all black civil rights advocates and all anti-war protestors, no matter how committed they were to non-violence.(The American Friends Service Committee and the ACLU, for example.) It is well-known by now that the FBI had extensive files on Martin Luther King, and it is almost taken for granted, but it needs to be remembered that it was illegal for them to do so. One of the key points that was released by the Media burglars (Media being the name of the city where they committed their burglary) is that the FBI had an explicit policy of attempting to "create paranoia" in any group that they felt was suspect. The irony is that it was the FBI, and the government, and in fact the American people as a whole, who were the victims of paranoia. (and the disease is still rampant today, not a paranoia of communism now, but a paranoia of terrorism that is mostly unjustified.)
This book is long, but I found it captivating from first page to last. The only slightly clunky bit of organization is that the death of J. Edgar Hoover is narrated in one chapter and in the following chapters, we are back to a time when he was still alive. Other than that, the story is told with remarkable clarity and smoothness. The writing is never showy, but clear and straightforward. The author clearly is in sympathy with the burglars and the decision they made, but she is even-handed in her description of the questions they raised before, during, and after the burglary and the questions that could be raised in opposition to their decision. She also connects the dots to the pre- and post- 9/11 domestic surveillance, and the actions of Edward Snowden that reveal how much more extensive NSA surveillance is than anything Hoover was capable of. Curiously, she does not make a direct comparison of Snowden's decision to break the law and the Media burglars' decision to do so in 1971. It should also be noted that the author is one of the journalists who first received copies of the stolen FBI files back in 1971, and her paper was the first to publish them. She did not know until recently who it was that conducted the break-in, and some of the participants have maintained their vow of life-long silence and secrecy, though several of them made the decision to break that silence, resulting in this book.
Reading this book took me back to the atmosphere in the 1960s and 70s, when many people were aroused to action, first against racial discrimination and then against what they believed to be an unjust war. It hints at the fact that the United States is a complicated country--proclaiming itself the land of the free, but stooping to shameful depths to curtail efforts to make "liberty and justice for all" a reality.
My first thought on having completed this massive tome is that it's misnamed. Yes, the break-in and the removal of secret files from the Media, PA, FBI office is discussed at length (one could say "at long length"), but that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Most of the book deals with the history and development of the FBI, before, during and after that break-in. Calling this book The Burglary is tantamount to calling Around the World in 80 Days something like My Trip to Paris.
Considering that Ms. Metzger was one of the original recipients of the Xeroxed copies of the pilfered files, she's certainly been involved in the story for a long time. That break-in occurred in 1971. After all this time, though, seven of the eight burglars have decided it's safe to come out of the closet. (The one hold-out, whoever he/she is, is probably either paranoid or dead...or both.)
To be sure, this is a fascinating book, even if it does stray. There are many insights into the workings of the FBI under Hoover. If you go by the book's subtitle, "The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI," rather than the actual title, which is limiting, you have a fascinating history of the bureau. But just when Ms. Metzger has wandered afield of the Media burglary, she'll toss in a line or two bringing it back into focus, such as: "The [Media] break-in may have been necessary in order for the truth about FBI operations to emerge."
So despite the length of this book (which I still feel is excessive), the information contained in Ms. Metzger's volume is fascinating and eye-opening. The burglars were looking primarily for corroboration that the FBI was stepping on Americans' right to dissent (in particular against our presence in Vietnam). What they found was far more encompassing -- and scary. A can of worms was opened that Mr. Hoover would rather have kept secret. "Paranoia exists today throughout the world. It has been enhanced primarily by two fears -- fear that there will be more terrorist attacks and fear of governments' use of increasingly invasive electronic surveillance of their own citizens. Now people anywhere may wonder if there is intelligence-gathering equipment behind every email, every phone call, every Skype conversation, every Facebook message, every chat room conversation, every Internet search, every stored document..."
An old joke goes: "You're not being paranoid. There really are people watching you." After you read this book, you're pretty much convinced of that.
In our age of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden's release of CIA documents, and endless debate over how much we shall allow governments to operate in how much secrecy, histories like this one need telling. On March 8, 1972, the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI - really, a small group of concerned anti-war protesters - burgled the FBI building in Media, PA, taking every document they could find in the building. This amateur group of burglars' intent was to validate to themselves and others their (and others') suspicion that the FBI was using its accountability-immune power to create a sense of terror amongst the American people and spy on people who posed no ostensible threat to national security (anti-war protesters, social activists, etc). Once the documents were gotten, the Commission set out to gradually release documents to media sources so that Americans could glimpse what sorts of things the FBI was doing.
As the book states, not only were the Commission's concerns completely validated, but their "results" kicked off a huge firestorm of controversy over the (until then) quite autonomous FBI.
This is a wide-ranging book, profiling the planning of the burglary, the media's reaction to the leaked documents, the FBI's attempts to contain the PR damage as well as their unsuccessful attempts to find the burglars (who were never caught), and the nation's attempts to grapple with how to reform an agency that might need some secrecy in order to protect the country, but also clearly needed to be accountable to the nation. Perhaps the most impressive part of the book is the extent of interviews within it, from newspaper writers who decided to leak the Commission's documents against immense political pressure to hand the documents back to the FBI, to some of the burglars (on conditions of anonymity, I think).
Different audiences will find different things of interest about this book. First, it actually serves as a decent history of the FBI, and particularly J. Edgar Hoover's reign and the ensuing mission creep of the organization (from keeping America safe from international threats to spying on Americans hostile to current political agendas, like the Black Panthers or the New Left.) Others might be more interested in how the burglary was planned - as told by those who planned it - and the FBI's surprisingly bungling and failed investigations to try and catch the burglars. Still others might be more interested in the history of the debates the Commission's revelations spurred in the media, public, and congress, over things like COINTELPRO (the FBI's until-then-secret attempts to target blacks, college students, and anyone who MIGHT be associated with the New Left in order to sabotage and intimidate them).
For my tastes, the book might have been a little too long and encyclopedic. I found myself, later in the book, skimming and sometimes skipping chapters. But that is a really minor criticism. While the book is written in a fairly dry, journalistic style, I should say that it is one of the most well-staged (in terms of telling an effective story) histories I've read in quite some time. And anyone who cares about current debates over the morality of groups like Wikileaks or individuals like Edward Snowden or Bradley/Chelsea Manning really should read this account. It all started in Media PA, with the small Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI.
on January 29, 2014
Read this book. There, I've said it. Now, there are problems. It jumps around way too much. It's sweeping when it should be focused. The author has access to the people involved and leaves you hanging for more. But this is an important tale, a recounting of a time when citizens exposed government overreach and a reminder the government continues to violate Americans' civil rights regularly. The lesson: Citizens brave enough to risk their freedom to expose injustice should not be reviled; they should be celebrated.
on January 30, 2014
It is amazing, not just the degree of American Patriotism shown by "The Burglars", but how relevant the surveillance issues that they took on in the early "70's are today. The agencies are different but the government hasn't changed, along with how it's actions have the power to suppress dissent among the free citizenry of the United States. I mean it is just Amazing how much this history book reflects what is happening in our society today. And as then, there are those today who are showing the same courage to protect unadulterated Freedom of Speech. Americans need to be vigilant against the erosion of our speech protections and our freedom from government intrusion (our privacy). This book details the awakening of an American public to an erosion of liberty that had crept into their lives over generations as well as how government held information on people Will be misused.
on January 25, 2014
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said FDR. If you doubt it, read this book. It is the story of peace activists who became burglars and whistle blowers. It is also the story of a federal agency gone rogue and the threat that it posed to our rights and liberties then and now. As such, it puts the actions of Edward Snowden in a broad historical context. During most of the 20th century, American society was gripped by fear--fear of communists, Russians, Japanese, Germans, atomic bombs, foreigners, dissidents, protesters, even African Americans. And nobody was more paranoid than Mr. Hoover and his agents at the FBI, who became Stasi-like in their methods and cast a wide net. Medsger is an old-fashion newspaper reporter whose book is based on interviews with the burglars and thousands of pages of official documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It tells of a small group citizens who worked together to find out if the rumors they had heard about the FBI were true and discovered that the truth was stranger and more scary than fiction. After reading this book, I went to the FBI website ([...]) and read what it has to say for itself. Whether it offers a faithful representation of the Bureau's history, I leave to the reader to judge.
Since the awful tragedies of 9/11, we live in fear once again. And once again our federal law-enforcement agencies have turned their sophisticated surveillance instruments against the very people whose freedom and rights they are supposed to protect. Medsger's book is important for what it tells us about the recent past and more important for what it can tell us about the present and future. Besides all of that, it's a great read.
on January 11, 2014
Very well written, a real page-turner. The first large portion of the book, about the robbery of
an FBI office to get files relating to FBI harassment of US citizens reads like a novel. The
drama is terrific and all true. Finding out what this illegal act made possible in the following
review of the FBI and Hoover makes one proud of them as Americans. The burglars, very aware of
the comments in Germany after World War II that "I did not know anything" and, so, vast numbers
of individuals exculpated themselves for not having done something to fight the Nazi regime,
these Americans suspected what the FBI was doing and followed up in the most professional way
that greatly endangered them and their families..
It gives me a whole new perspective on Mr. Snowden and his stealing the NSA files, the danger
of which is clearly explained. A very engrossing book.
on January 9, 2014
I really found this hard to put down. Rarely can an author bring the people so to life their emotions are mine within the moment of the story. And that's just the writing of an obviously wonderful writer.
Then there is the subject matter which is riveting in it's own right. If you want to really know a beautiful story of people trying to make our world better under oppressive abuses of United States three-letter security [NSA, FBI, CIA\ organizations then read this. If you want to know about faith in humanity and real-world examples of people exercising it with real world consequences. If you want to know who to thank, among many, for helping end the Vietnam war, read this.
Thank you Betty for a well written story which needed to be told. Thank you Media Burglars ... you did the US a great service!
on January 18, 2014
I feel deeply conflicted about this book. It's an *important* book that raises deeply unsettling, important questions about liberty, resistance, privacy, and the nature of government. That said, Medsger's writing left me frustrated and annoyed. I've rarely encountered a book as desperately in need of an editor as "The Burglary." Not only does the published book (from Knopf, no less) have typos in it, there are some grammatical errors and awkward (though not incorrect) sentences. It is also over 500 pages long-- much longer than needed-- because there is a substantial amount of repetition and "filler" material. These limitations to the writing are doubly a shame because the story of the Media, PA burglary and the resulting changes to the FBI is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.
Medsger's book blends biographies of the people who participated in the burglary with a broad history of the FBI from its creation through 9/11 and the Edward Snowden-NSA leaks. The book is absolutely at its strongest when she writes about the burglary, her own history at the "Washington Post," and the overall concept of "resistance" as it was understood in the 1960s-1970s. Medsger's deep knowledge of the Catholic Peace Movement and Philadelphia-area peace activists makes these portions of the book especially interesting. Unfortunately, Medsger did not confine her work to the burglary and the period of reforms it ushered in. The last section of the book pivots to the 9/11-era FBI and NSA. While the issues raised by the Media, PA burglary obviously relate to Manning and Snowden's leaks, Medsger fails to directly compare the issues. At best, she alludes to the acts of resistance by Snowden and Manning without really delving into them. As a result, these portions of the book feel shallow-- almost as though Medsger backed away from the really juicy aspects of resistance in the digital age.
Left unanswered, too, is the question of "getting caught." Medsger approves of what the Media, PA burglars did-- but is part of that success the result of not getting caught? She acknowledges the difficulty that each burglar had with keeping their action a secret (emotional, personal, and political). However, she does not address why secrecy offers a kind of protective shield not afforded to, say, Edward Snowden. I think this would bother me less if the book did not close with a lengthy (though, again, fairly shallow) discussion of the NSA.
This is a story worth reading. I felt inspired by the Media, PA resistors and awed at the kinds of risks they accepted. Their actions forced me to think about the limits of dissent, resistance, and law. Medsger's book is frustrating. Ultimately, though, the importance of the story outweighed my own irritation with the book.
on January 24, 2014
I am greatly impressed with this book. Forty years of time since the burglary helps writers and historians make better sense of what happened and it's meaningfulness.
I was impressed that the FBI had intercepted three sets of copies to three different well know reporters but the reason Ms. Medsger received copies as she was less well known and the copies weren't intercepted.
I was a young adult when the burglary happened so the "noise" about Vietnam, the public demonstrations to end the war, and Watergate was routine. I didn't believe Richard Nixon was guilty of his role in the break in at Watergate until I read All the President's Men.
Other reviewers have much more detailed reviews of the book and there is no point in trying to repeat what they said.
I'm astounded by not just "dirty tricks" the FBI pulled but it appears that the FBI may have been involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King, setting up violent confrontations between various civil rights groups, the death of Fred Hampton and Geronimo Pratt falsely convicted of the murder. And the list seems to go on, and on, and on.
Finally, from Ben Franklin: People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.