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4.0 out of 5 stars The Original Wikileaks!, December 30, 2013
This review is from: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (Hardcover)
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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.
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Location: Springfield, Illinois

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