Tuesday, January 21, 2014

simply superb: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Knopf, 2014
596 pp


 "There are certain points in history where a society goes so wrong, and there are certain people who will say, 'I won't stand for that...I will risk career, life, limb, family, freedom...And I will take this risk, and I will go and do it.' "
                                                                   -- David Kairys (538)

A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV  interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time.  When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.  Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book.  Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone.  It's that good. And, with the exposure of the NSA's surveillance on ordinary American citizens that's been on people's minds lately, it's also appropriately timely.

It's not that  J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several  very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same.  However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again.  Ms. Medsger  starts her work from an entirely different place.  Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door"  of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI."   It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized)  that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures.  These files revealed that

"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI.  This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties  in the context of a free and democratic society.

If you're at all interested, you can find the  full thrust of what I have to say about this book here on the nonfiction page of my reading journal; if you don't want to read the long version, just hear me out on this point: it's a book that despite its nearly 600 pages, reads extremely quickly and packs a big wham! throughout.  It's also one I HIGHLY recommend.


  1. I had never heard of this book, Betty Medsger or the theft of the FBI files in Media, Pa., until a few weeks ago when I saw the author and some of the culprits on Democracy Now. Fascinating discussion.

    As someone who joined in the anti-war protests at the time, I knew about the Berrigans' activities and other anti-draft protests, but never heard of this caper.

    I want to read this book.

  2. Kathy:
    I have an extra copy -- do you want it? I bought two by mistake.

  3. Nancy, you are a life-saver! And somehow, coincidence has come into play, although we crime fiction readers don't believe in coincidences. My library as of yesterday only had an ebook, not a paper book, and I don't own an ebook reader. As always, I will share it.

    I thought the "culprits" and Betty Medsger were great on Democracy Now, very down-to-earth, very kind, very honest.

    Of course, I'd love this book. Is there any book I can get you? If not, what about a treat for you and Larry?

    1. Kathy -- I'll get it in the mail next week. My treat is going to be that I know you're going to love this book. You are always welcome to take anything I have to give away. You should also go weigh in on the reading roundup post giveaway of The Circle!

  4. Thank you Nancy! You are a peach! I will love The Burglary, I know it. I liked the "culprits" and Betty Medsger when I saw them on TV.

    And am enjoying Pilgrim Soul, even though I hate reading about the horrors -- who doesn't?
    I like Douglas Brodie and Samantha Campbell, the Glasgow Jewish community. I have been looking up the geography in northern Germany, the "escape route" to Scotland, googling the "ratlines," which are new to me, and looking up Scottish culinary treats so I know what the characters are eating, such as Clootie Dumpling. Who knew it's a scrumptious raisin-filled holiday dessert?

    It's definitely a stay up all night kind of read.

  5. Thank you so much, just got this book in the mail. It is quite a book. Just looking at the chapter headings is both daunting and interesting.

    I will share this one with friends who would be interested in it, including all of the information that the Media, PA 8 discovered, and the courageous writer, Betty Medsger, committed to paper.

  6. FYI: The NYT Book Review of Feb. 16 contained a letter from Betty Medsger and one from one of the Media, PA 8 It's worth looking them up.


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