This is a review of Betty Medsger's book "The Burglary." Seen properly in its widest context, it is a book that tells us an important story about ourselves. It is a story about a familiar political game that our leaders continue to play on us: First they tell us what to be afraid of, and then they ask us to trust them to know how to protect us? But for us to ask questions; to seek open debate; or to make enquiries about any of this is considered disloyal and unpatriotic?
The story in Ms. Medsger's book is about how one much-revered individual acquired, and then grossly misused the power and trust "we the people" vested in him; and how he was subtly given permission to serve as a proxy for the nation's darkest inner fears. Thus, it is only in this sense that Betty Medsger's book, "The Burglary," is a story about the FBI -- as it is seen indirectly from the vantage point of being the failed institutional reflection of its creator and "leader for life," J. Edgar Hoover (JEH).
This book thus tells the story of what happens when one of our most revered heroes is allowed to lock himself behind a wall of secrecy, where he and the institution he leads is accountable to no one. And where the willfully created but bogus legends about him are allowed to grow to mythical proportions -- until, that is, the truth begins to unravel them. This narrative shows us what happens when that process, and the game of fear upon which it depends, gets played out -- as trust in our hero begins to wan, and as his image becomes darker and more tarnished as he flails, misfires, turns against us; and finally explodes and disintegrates like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July.
The national hero in question of course is none other than the afore mentioned John Edgar Hoover, a Mama's boy, who's legend, up until the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, was as pristine as Caesar's wife's bedroom linen. JEH's FBI shield, literally was the nation's collective shield against all of America's worst fears: the Communists spies, the terrorists, the anti-Vietnam war peace activists, religious pacifists, left-leaning liberals generally, but most of all it was a collective shield against the one symbol that condensed all of these fears into one: America's black population. Mr. Hoover's hatred for blacks was visceral and so virulent that by the time of the burglary, it is not an exaggeration to say that it had "gone critical."
But Mr. Hoover was more than just your regular "garden variety virulent American racist." He was also the shaper of institutional racism and the repository of the nation's racist morality as that morality is best defined by the phrase "law and (social) order." If the stress is placed on the "social order" part of that phrase, it then becomes immediately clear just how easily "we the people" gave Mr. Hoover the keys to the kingdom of our already tainted democracy, and with it, permission in our names, to further wreck it by allowing him to spread his virulent racism, his most twisted morally and politically corrupt and criminally degenerate law enforcement practices, and arguably, allowed him to become the one man who has done the most in the nation's 250-year history to destroy our democratic spirit and its institutions.
The raging but very unpopular war in Vietnam was the backdrop and catalyst that lit the fuse to a bomb that only uncovering J. Edgar's mean-spirited, but carefully targeted secret antics could explode. His smear campaign against anyone who opposed him or criticized the FBI is what made the Media Pennsylvania burglary a last ditch political imperative, as it propelled an unlikely team of seven Peace Activists to a call to arms.
They decided on the spot that a break-in to an FBI office at all cost, had to be done; that such a rash, personally costly, and illegal act would be necessary to expose and then explode Mr. Hoover's myths and lies. And indeed it came to pass that the hard data retrieved from the burglary, data that is exhibited in the narratives of this book, proved once and for all, that Hoover's brass-fronted reputation, his false preening as a virile man, and as an effective law enforcement officer, and most importantly, his charges against those who opposed him, were shattered like a piñata, and found to all be bogus.
The date of May 8,1972 was chosen because it was the night of the first Ali-Frazier fight -- itself a mini-drama that nervously straddled the racial fault line dividing the American body politic. This Madison Square Garden sports extravaganza served as an important shield for the burglary. And thus it did come to pass, that in the same kind of shadowy way that Mr. Hoover had used for nearly 50 years to shield his own crimes against the American people, the group of seven's crime too emerged from the darkness and out of strict secrecy, to reveal that the FBI emperor had no clothes. "The seven" "cased" the FBI office and carried out one of the most brazen operations against a U.S. agency since Edward Snowden's more recent in-house computer raid on the NSA. The burglary did lead to a few limp-wrist reforms and a few still much too tepid oversight measures, but not nearly enough of either to be effective.
This book chronicles how "the seven" did it, how they got away with it for 40 years, and what happened to their lives afterwards. They got away with it despite continuing to live normal lives right under the FBI's nose in the same community where the burglary had taken place, and despite Mr. Hoover having assigned no less than 200 FBI agents to find and arrest them. Only after Mr. Hoover died in 1972, did the new Director finally give up the search.
That they elected to burglarize an FBI office at a time when JEH was "completely out of control" as the self-appointed guardian of the U.S. internal surveillance state; at a time when watergate was looming in the background; and at a time when the anti-war activists had run completely out of options, surely represented a fortuitous set of circumstances, perfectively ripe and aligned for committed action from the more radical left fringe. That this committed action had to be carried out as an imperative on Mr. Hoover's own turf of darkness, secrecy and criminality, does not say much about the "cowardice of inaction" from the rest of us?
Anyone who has detested what J. Edgar Hoover has done to diminish American democracy will love this book because it carefully documents just how morally weak, scared, hypocritical, corrupt and ineffective Hoover really was for the entire 48 years he served as America's chief law enforcement officer. JEH, as is now well-known, was not only of questionable moral integrity, but also of questionable manhood.
The same person who sold himself to the American people as a paragon of masculinity and religious morality, was in fact, for most of his career, a coward and a hypocrite, who operated behind yet another screen of secrecy: He was also under the constant threat of blackmail because of his "closeted" homosexual relationship with his "boy friend-for-life" and FBI deputy in command, Clyde Tolson. At the very least, we now know that both Carlos Marcello of the mob and James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, held over JEH's head, pictures of him parading around at private parties wearing high-heeled shoes and a cheap disgustingly grotesque looking tiffany party dress, as well as having been photographed in compromising sexual positions with Mr. Tolson.
For those who still hold Mr. Hoover in high regard, this book will give them no comfort, as it forces them to witness "embarrassing-fact-after-embarrassing-fact" of just how devastatingly inept, and morally corrupt and weak the hypocritical Mr. Hoover really was. The most glaring example makes up the centerpiece of the book, as it tells us how the afore mentioned group of amateur "Peace Activists" picked the locks to the FBI's "family jewels," moved a few file cabinets away from the door, and viola!, entered unopposed into J.Edgar's bizarre kingdom of racism, fascism, and extra-legal law enforcement practices -- all in the name of Hoover's own bizarre "cover notion" of "national security."
However, the most embarrassing break-in, in my view, was not the Media, Pa. break-in, but the one that occurred when a similar group of activists entered a nearby Selective Service Office, also under Hoover's protection. Finding the door-lock to the files there, impenetrable, the burglars decided as a desperate last ditch afterthought, to leave a hastily constructed sign on the door that said: "PLEASE DO NOT LOCK THIS DOOR TONIGHT." The group was startled into ecstasy when later that night they returned to find "said door" left open just as their sign had instructed. They then of course simply entered the unlocked office and went about the business of walking away with seven suitcases of documents -- that is with everything!
So much for 48 years of "protecting" U.S. national security on JEH's watch? It simply staggers the imagination to even think about what the Russians might have been able to do over the 50 years of Hoover's tenure, to penetrate our most vital secrets with this level of pervasive incompetent leadership going on at the top of the FBI throughout the Cold War?
To their credit, the author's and "the members of the team of seven burglars'" contempt for Hoover had little to do with his hidden homosexuality or his cross-dressing ways, but everything to do with how, as a one-man "cult of personality," he sexually mauled, sodomized and then raped our democracy under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of defending our national security. The documents recovered from the burglary and that are on display in this book, show nothing if not that JEH played the game of fear on the American people, to perfection. As a result, what we find here is nothing short of the pornogratification of American law enforcement. The documents recovered, constitute a virtual X-rated movie of how law enforcement in a democracy is not to be done. I thus want to personally thank "the seven" for raiding this "FBI porn shop" and saving the entire black race from Hoover, America's personally hired serial racial predator.
This is especially true of the two most secret, most pernicious and illegal programs. Both designed and created by, and implemented under, JEH's personal instructions. By this I mean the SI and COINTELPRO programs. The first of these, the SI (secret index), served as the basis for detaining people thought to be a threat to national security in times of war, and as a result served as the basis for establishing the Japanese internment camps of WW-II. The abiding fear today is that since none of Mr. Hoover's evil creations ever go away (their names are just changed and then they are buried even more deeply within the bowels of the bureaucracy) it could be used again in the future to, among other things, set up concentration camps in the inner cities as a protection against rioting blacks, or even against an imagined terrorist threat.
The second program, COINTELPRO, was used first to brutalize, jail and then to kill blacks (including most likely the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), as Hoover announced as his goal to spread fear and paranoia so that those in the black community would "see an FBI agent behind every mailbox." He did this while pretending that the mob did not exist at all (... Hmmm, I wonder why?)
Just as Hitler was given carte blanche permission from the German people to do anything he wanted to do to Jews, so too was Mr. Hoover given the same unrestricted permission by white Americans to treat all blacks as if they too were a constant drag on, and menace to, society. And inexorably, his program of spreading paranoia throughout the black community, quickly morphed and expanded to include whites -- leftwing white activists at first, then religious pacifists, university professors, and then still later on, all whites, including a couple of conservative ones.
Instead of living up to the unearned reputation cultivated through a sensitively orchestrated PR campaign -- as being the very paragon of morality, justice, fairness, efficiency, integrity, and the keeper of law and social order -- Hoover, for almost 50 years did just the opposite: He ran the FBI as if it were his own private criminal enterprise, an extra-legal fiefdom. He "lorded over" his agents and whipped them into an "Ivy League dressed" pack of scared, salivating, rabid, wild fascist dogs, ready to pounce on any American at Hoover's beck and call. In short, this book does nothing if not show that the FBI under Hoover was a scary and chillingly ineffective anti-democratic law enforcement agency that became an "outlaw" unto itself.
In the end, the author brings the narrative full circle and back home into the present, where some of the "surveillance state tactics" Hoover invented and used so unsuccessfully, have been immensely enhanced and incorporated into the NSA in the current age of Obama: the age of super fast computers, vacuum machines for Big Data, security cameras everywhere, X-ray machines to enter any government buildings, "rent-a-cops" everywhere, "CIA and FBI stringers" on call for dirty tricks everywhere, overhead satellites and drone technology, helicopter brigades over the inner cities, the IRS gone wild, etc. which just like Hoover's FBI, all literally hover, hum and roam in the background and in the cyber alleys of our society, shielded as always, behind a wall of secrecy, unaccountability, incompetence and "complete lack of proper oversight."
Obama plays the same fear game that JEH played: He tells us that the terrorist boogeymen will get us unless we give all our power and freedoms over to him and trust that he will keep us safe? Never mind adequate oversight; never mind open democratic debate, never mind the erosion of our democratic freedoms and institutions?
During my career as a diplomat, I travelled all across the world, only to be embarrassed that the worse most crippling infringements upon individual freedoms occurred right here in the "so-called land of the free home of the brave?" According to our weak-kneed politicians, all our democracy really needs even today is another healthy increase in security measures, and further increases in the FBI's, CIA's and the military's budgets -- on out to infinity?
It is an incontrovertible fact that these technologies, combined with lack of transparency, and Barack Obama's "leading from behind the last Tea Party member" approach to leadership, are again threatening our basic freedoms in a most serious way. Couple this with an inadequate legal regime that leans heavily in the direction of more police power and less freedom of speech and freedom to dissent, and it is clear that our democracy has been fundamentally altered right before our own lying eyes? It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the problems the 1970s Peace Activists had, were nothing compared to what dissenters face today under Generalissimo Obama's Regime.
J. Edgar is still dead (isn't he?), but his debase ideas and racist ideology have morphed into a full-fledged national security state and remains alive in our political institutions -- like the Republican Party, which has now been taken over by the much more racist and virulent "Tea Party movement," who undoubtedly, to a man, remain Hoover lovers.
Is it premature or unfair to ask: Is it not again time for committed action from true American patriots, not just from those on the opposing fringes, but also from the silent majority that make up the very center of our democratic process? I believe the answer is a resounding, yes. Five stars