Everything old is new again. Like spying on Americans and wanting to lock them up.

THE BURGLARY: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger is a depressing reminder that very little in the 21st century debates over government surveillance is new, except the technology.
The book recounts a once-infamous 1971 incident (I’d never heard of it myself—1971 was a little before I got interested in politics) in which a handful of antiwar activists (Vietnam War) decided to see if they could learn any facts behind the rumors that the FBI was spying on left-wing activists, even those who were nonviolent and not committing any crimes. They scoped out the FBI regional office in Media, PA, organized a plan for the caper—despite nervousness about what would happen if things went wrong—and broke in the night of the Muhammed Ali/Joe Frazer fight (figuring everyone would be glued to the tube so the office complex would be more deserted than usual). They succeeded and were never captured or identified, though the book, with their consent, names them (Medsger was one of the journalists who received copies of the documents from the raid).
What they discovered was the crack in the FBI legend so carefully built up by Director J. Edgar Hoover over the years. Far from being a dauntless crime-fighting organization pitted against the sinister octopus of organized crime, Hoover’s overwhelming obsession since the FBI’s birth had been the left wing: Communists, socialists, “pinks” (people who weren’t Reds but were sympathetic), and people who were none of those but questioned the status quo anyway (Hoover seems to have been a textbook authoritarian). The documents taken in the burglary, and subsequent revelations building upon them made multiple revelations:
•Hoover had maintained a list of subversives to be locked up in the event of war or national emergency as potential threats. The list stretched to thousands of people. Several attorney generals (Hoover’s nominal superiors) had told him to drop the plan, but he ignored them.
•The FBI actively spied on anti-war protesters, civil-rights protesters and everyone else. It had infiltrated groups to an absurd extent: The Socialist Workers Party, 2,500 strong at its peak and completely legal, had been infiltrated by a total 1,600 FBI agents over the years.
•The feds also did their best to disrupt and destroy left-wing movements. Trying to push Martin Luther King to suicide. Spreading rumors actress Jean Seberg, who openly supported civil rights, was having an illegitimate mixed-race baby (Medsgers credits this with killing Seberg’s career). Much of this was under the umbrella of COINTELPRO, an organized anti-leftist FBI campaign.
•Requiring agents to develop black informants. If that was impossible—they worked in a community with no black residents—they had to file for an exemption.
None of this targeted people for violent acts, criminal acts or even conspiracy. Simply crossing the government was enough. If a magazine published an article critical of the FBI, Hoover investigated the author. If people wrote in to the magazine and said they liked the article, Hoover investigated them too. If it meant assigning people away from investigating real crimes, so be it. It makes me suspect there’s some truth to one writer’s theory I read some years back, that Hoover hated dissent much more than he did crime. Criminals, after all, were breaking laws, but not trying to change them, unlike the civil-rights activists and anti-war protesters.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Obsessive spying on anyone even vaguely suspicious, plans to detain people as enemy combatants … and much as with the Bush II and now Obama spying, very little accomplished. As Medsger notes, for all the FBI’s work, it never anticipated the Weathermen bombings and the FBI didn’t catch them (most of them turned themselves in years later).
Which is why we have a fourth amendment. Because this is what governments do. It’s what law enforcement frequently does. How we get the lawmen to start obeying the law again … I wish I knew.


Filed under Movies, Politics

15 responses to “Everything old is new again. Like spying on Americans and wanting to lock them up.

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