What New Revelations About the Media, Pa., FBI Break-In Teach Us About Intelligence Reform Today

Then, again.
Jan. 9 2014 12:45 PM

Band of Burglars

The infamous Media, Pa., FBI break-in paved the way for the Church Committee. Can it inspire intelligence reform in our own time?

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The last act of the Media burglars was to photocopy the documents and mail them off to a handful of carefully selected recipients, including Sen. George McGovern, who had just announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Medsger herself, then a reporter at the Washington Post. With that, the burglary team packed up the farmhouse and dispersed, agreeing never to contact one another or to speak of the events again. A few violated the agreement in small ways; Davidon, for one, could not resist occasional bromides against the FBI. For the most part, however, they simply continued on with their private lives. On Tuesday, my colleague John Witt emailed me with the news that "FBI burglar Bonnie Raines was my preschool teacher" in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. "We thought she was an inspired progressive child development guru," he notes. "Really she was a wanted criminal hiding out among the blocks and crayons."

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Much of Medsger's book focuses on the FBI investigation that followed: five years, more than 200 agents, millions of dollars, and … bupkis—no arrests, no trial. The real drama happened outside the courtroom, as the stolen documents began to come to light. The burglars' decision to remain anonymous had important consequences for how the files were received. Without an individual culprit (or hero) to embody the cause, the Media story never quite achieved the legendary status of the Pentagon Papers, leaked three months later by Daniel Ellsberg. At the same time, anonymity shifted the debate away from act itself—whistle-blowing or treason?—and toward the content of the documents. Unlike Snowden or Ellsberg, the Media burglars had little ability to control how people interpreted what they had risked so much to present. In that sense, the break-in was an enormous leap of faith: The burglars committed the initial act but left it up to everyone else to finish the job.

Some of their faith proved to be misplaced. On the day the first files arrived in reporters' mailboxes, Attorney General John Mitchell issued a press release urging recipients to return the documents to the FBI, for fear of jeopardizing national intelligence capacities. His arguments will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the Snowden case: "Disclosure of information in files stolen from an FBI office in Media, PA," the press release insisted, "could endanger the lives of some federal agents and the security of the United States." McGovern complied with the request, sending the files back to the FBI. Publicly, he claimed that he supported a congressional investigation of FBI abuses but could not condone the law-breaking by the burglars, whoever they might be.

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It was reporters, rather than politicians, who took up the cause during these early weeks—most notably, Medsger herself at the Washington Post. In that sense, the Media burglary foreshadowed not only the Pentagon Papers but also the Watergate scandal, which began with another burglary a year later, in June 1972. In Watergate, as in Media, early press reports kept the story alive and revealed enough sordid details to push congressional committees to take up the issue. Of particular significance in the Media case were the efforts of NBC reporter Carl Stern, who seized upon a strange word—COINTELPRO—in one of the stolen documents and filed a successful Freedom of Information Act request to find out what it meant.

COINTELPRO turned out to be the single most important revelation to emerge from the Media files—a "counterintelligence program" of operatic proportions, still the most infamous of Hoover's many infamous violations of civil liberties. Indeed, Hoover himself had anticipated what might happen, quietly canceling the COINTELPRO in April 1971, a month after the Media burglary. It took another four years, however, for Congress to launch a full-scale investigation of the FBI. During that time, Hoover died, the Watergate investigation blew up, the Vietnam War ended, and Richard Nixon resigned from office. Given that timeline, it is something of a stretch to say that Media led directly to the Church Committee. What we can say is that the Church Committee might not have happened without the Media burglary—and without everything that happened in between.

In the end, the Church Committee (which investigated the CIA and other intelligence agencies as well as the FBI) was a mixed success. After months of research, the committee delivered a searing multivolume report, still one of the most critical government documents ever published on the subject of U.S. intelligence. From that outcry came many of the institutions that govern espionage and surveillance today, including the congressional intelligence committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. These were real changes for the time—the first substantive efforts at legislative and judicial accountability in the history of American intelligence. But as recent events have shown, they had real weaknesses and limitations.

Today, we are once again facing a legitimacy crisis within the intelligence establishment, arguably the greatest such crisis since the 1970s. As in the 1970s, this is also a moment ripe with possibilities for reform. President Obama has called key lawmakers to the White House on Thursday for a private conference to discuss what to do next about the NSA. This discussion would not be happening without the evidence provided by whistle-blowers like Snowden. But as the Media burglary suggests, whistle-blowers can only do so much. What happens next is up to the rest of us.

Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This article originally suggested that author Betty Medsger also made a documentary film about the FBI break-in. The documentary, 1971, is by filmmaker Johanna Hamilton.

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.

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