As FBI burglars’ tale comes to light, Mondale reflects on Hoover’s abuses

Library of Congress
Walter Mondale: "J. Edgar Hoover in his later years really completely lost his way."

When I read the amazing tale Tuesday of the men and women who burgled the FBI in 1971, and got away with it, and leaked documents revealing J. Edgar Hoover’s mad plan to spy on everyone he suspected of anything, I thought of Walter Mondale and Edward Snowden.

The burglars were never caught. The statute of limitations on their crime had long since expired. Tuesday, the identities of some of them (some dead, some still alive) were made public. Betty Medsger, the Washington Post reporter who was the first to report on the content of the documents, is bringing out a book about the case. The burglars, most of whom retired from their brief life of crime after their one great act of whistleblowing, are being photographed and interviewed.

Snowden, of course, the most recent thief of government secrets/whistleblower, has taken asylum in Russia. The New York Times recently joined the chorus of those who argue that, although he broke the law, the matters that Snowden exposed are so valuable to the public debate about the issues of citizens personal privacy and government secrecy that he ought not have to spend his life in exile.

But I thought of Mondale because of the huge role he played — as a member of the “Church Committee” — in the analogous matter touched off by the 1971 FBI burglary. The committee was chaired by Sen. Frank Church. It received the FBI documents stolen by the burglars and many others reflecting on questionable activities by the CIA (such as covert plots to overthrow foreign governments and assassinate foreign leaders).

Chaired key task force

The BurglaryMondale wasn’t just a member of the committee, which issued a famous report in 1976. He was chair of its task force on domestic spying activities (which included the FBI stuff) and then “assumed operational leadership” of the larger investigation during its late stages (according to the committee’s staff chief) after Sen. Church launched a campaign for president. So I wondered what Mondale thought about the burglars finally coming forward, and about the Snowden analogy. I reached him at his law office Tuesday.

He was reading the coverage, he said, and, like most of us, he was amazed that the burglars managed to avoid detection for 43 years, especially in the early years when the FBI was doing everything they could to find and arrest them. It took him back to what he considered the worst of Hoover’s abuses, the wiretapping and eavesdropping on the activities of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“J. Edgar Hoover in his later years really completely lost his way,” Mondale said. “He said he thought Martin Luther King was a black hate leader and Communist. Of course, he was neither. He was our greatest source of stability and nonviolence.”

As for Snowden, Mondale agreed that some analogy was there. The burglars and Snowden both committed a crime and both crimes “allowed us, as a country, to confront important issues that we couldn’t have confronted if not for what they did.”

Walter Mondale shown speaking during a 1971 Senate hearing.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Walter Mondale shown speaking during a 1971 Senate hearing.

No amnesty for Snowden

But Mondale wasn’t ready to join the campaign for amnesty. “I’m troubled by the idea of giving him a free pass. I wish he had given what he learned to the New York Times and then stayed in the country, like they [the FBI burglars] did,” Mondale said.

Openness, the public’s right to know what its government is doing, are vital and deeply rooted in the U.S. system, Mondale said. The need for the intelligence community to engage in some secret activities is also vital. The Church Committee’s work led to the establishment of the FISA laws (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), which Congress is now looking at reforming in the wake of the Snowden revelations. The CIA and the FBI have to be able to do certain things in secrecy and yet also have to be accountable to the elected government. There’s probably no perfect way to balance those conflicting needs, Mondale said.

But as we wrapped up our conversation, Mondale also stood up for the rule of law.

“What Snowden did, and what the FBI burglars did, was against the law,” he said. “Crimes were committed. I don’t know how you can just forgive what he did. The idea that laws are just general suggestions that people can just obey or not obey, depending on whether they had good motives, I can’t go that far.”

Hoover, LBJ and Nixon

Personally, I also don’t think we should all feel free to disobey laws whenever we feel like it. And I don’t think it has been established that the collection of phone records by the National Security Agency were anywhere near as bad as what Hoover was up to with the secret operation that he called COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program).

But when I think about what Hoover did in the 1960s, specifically in the surveillence of King, it’s hard to maintain full respect for the “rule of law.” As Mondale said, Hoover was completely wrong about King. But he was within the law to wiretap King. Another liberal hero, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, signed the order authorizing the wiretaps. Hoover didn’t find evidence of Communist activity. But he did pick up the sounds of King, in his hotel rooms, having sex with women other than his wife.

In a history of the FBI by the fine reporter Tim Weiner (summarized in a David Corn piece for Mother Jones), FBI intelligence operations chief William Sullivan:

had a package of the King sex tapes prepared by the FBI’s lab technicians, wrote an accompanying poison-pen letter, and sent both to King’s home. His wife opened the package.

“King, look into your heart,” the letter read. The American people soon would “know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast…There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

The president [Lyndon Johnson] knew Hoover had taped King’s sexual assignations. Hoover was using the information in an attempt to disgrace King at the White House, in Congress, and in his own home. … Worse, it seems the FBI was trying to encourage King to kill himself.

How much worse than this could it get, and how does the evil of this operation compare with the crime committed by the burglars who brought it to light? LBJ didn’t fire Hoover for harassing King. Instead, he waived the mandatory age so that Hoover could continue to lead the FBI into his 70s and into the Nixon years. Then-President Richard Nixon eulogized Hoover at his funeral for his ” long life brimmed over with magnificent achievement and dedicated service to this country which he loved so well.” The FBI building is named for Hoover.

Defenders of the NSA program that Snowden exposed emphasize that only the “metadata” of phone calls by U.S. citizens was collected, and it wasn’t reviewed or used in any way unless someone had a call to a number associated with terrorism. If you happen to trust the people in charge of the data and those in charge of the country, this should be reassuring. But, not that long ago, J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the data and LBJ, then Nixon, were his last two bosses.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2014 - 08:46 am.

    For a country made of “rugged individualists” who busted the sod and drove the native population out, we have certainly devolved into a security-seeking population.

    Like a prairie twister, the spinning together of the capture of “bad guys”, the emphasis of the increasing threats of “bad guys” and the feedback of the media frenzy on every possible threat to life and happiness, has lifted away the myth and revealed the naked “individualist”.

    It is you and I, in the name of security that created this system of governmental over-reach.

    The modern surveillance state was born under Hoover and the stash of 3×5 card cabinets in his office. The self-delusion of the idea that what one was doing was so important that laws, rules and ethics could be no obstacle to tactics and methods lead straight to James Clapper’s clear lie to Congress.

    Isn’t it curious that the Benghazi phase of congress does not find it’s way to deal with such an affront to the dignity of congress as direct lies of a subordinate agency?

    Don’t look up.

  2. Submitted by Judy Borger on 01/09/2014 - 09:53 am.

    Great piece

    Well done, Eric.

  3. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 01/09/2014 - 10:07 am.


    It was an interesting time… the abuse of power was so great and the clandestine affairs so broad that it was hard to imagine few knew of the abuses. Even as a naive young man I was being recruited by J. Edgar and the Whitehouse gang under Nixon. This story is but one of many and many were much, much worse.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 01/09/2014 - 11:48 am.

    Difficult to compare

    These 2 stories are complex as individual stories, drawing comparisons is not very useful. We may never know the full extent of the damage done to the US by the Snowden leaks. Often these intelligence leaks end up getting people killed in other countries like in the case of Aldrich Ames.

    • Submitted by Rick Ryan on 01/09/2014 - 03:01 pm.

      Not a good analogy at all.

      Aldrich Ames was a straight out traitor who betrayed his country to the Soviet Union for money, He was a classic “double agent”. On the other hand Snowden’s actions are more like Daniel Ellsberg’s in that he revealed that our government was lying to the American people. To compare Snowden to Ames is disingenuous at best. I’m not aware that Edward Snowden was motivated by money in making his revelations.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/09/2014 - 08:55 pm.

      Another point: the text of the 1917 Espionage act…

      …refers to any person who does a variety of acts of distribution of national defense information…

      “…with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury or the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation…”

      Was Snowden’s intent to harm the U.S. or to aid another nation ? How would you go about proving that intent ?

      In the cases of Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, Robert Hansen, etc. they DID intend to aid a foreign government.

      It appears to Snowden has tried to benefit the U.S., or at least its citizens (a big distinction in reality), by uncovering the extensive surveillance of its citizens by the government. This enables those citizens to try to DO something about it. Obviously, if the citizens don’t even know what’s being done to them, they cannot seek any redress of grievances.

      Then, too, there is a real question as to whether the surveillance of every word of all communications of every man, woman, and child in the U.S. has a LEGITIMATE rationale that it is done in the defense of the nation. Targeted surveillance is one thing, broad spectrum raking of all communications is another. That is why the law is going to be changed, as even extreme right wingers are concerned with the extent of these excesses.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/09/2014 - 11:55 am.

    In the bad old Hoover days of anti-war protests, even writing a letter to LBJ or Nixon against the Vietnam war, or having the FBI phootgraph you at an anti-war march, was enough to get you on the FBI surveillance list. Hoover was paranoid, but history also shows that our presidents were also afraid of him (JFK, LBJ, Nixon).

    Today, President Obama is terrified by the warning threats of the NSA that any significant curtailment of the massive and unreviewed/unchecked surveillance of Americans that agency is doing would bring about another 9/11. Obama would be blamed for such an event, especially if he made the NSA dial back its uncontrolled spying on us. (If you listen to Diane Feinstein, the whole Senate Intelligence Committee is similarly terrified of the NSA and its dire warnings to anyone who makes a noise about tighter supervision of its activities.)

    But, anyone who has read of Snowden’s insider knowledge of HOW the NSA traces us all, and his necessarily convoluted and successful means of escaping the NSA net–I refer mostly to the NYT article on Snowden, Greenberg and the Berlin-based filmmaker–realizes that Mondale’s preference for a Daniel Ellsberg-type NYT “spill” of documents and then continued free status in the U.S. was simply no longer available to a whistleblower from within our government like Snowden.

    Today, our government is a good deal nastier. Snowden obviously wants to come home, but he’d better negotiate from strength and make sure the public knows all about it. Some very powerful non-elected people are very, very angry with him for revealing their deeds.

  6. Submitted by Wilbur Ince on 01/09/2014 - 12:49 pm.

    Perhaps Mr. Mondale has also lost his way.

    Over the entire reign of our country, the US has adopted whistelblower laws to protect anyone who reports a crime. That tradition has been with us since the start, the first law whisteblower law being enacted in 1778.

    Today our government is again stretching the rule of law, to protect itself from it’s own excesses and abuses. The Snowden and Manning affairs are the clear evidence of this corruption.

    It’s agonizing to see Mr. Mondale, a lawyer himself and a former champion of justice, blinded by his own power and association with the ruling class. Mr Mondale can’t see the irony because the laws don’t apply to him. They apply to the people, like Snowden and Manning, and the hundreds of other whistleblowers that risk everything for what’s right.

    Mr Mondale won’t step over that line, he is still a player in the ruling elite. If Mr. Mondale stands up for whistleblowers, he threatens his own membership, and the power structure that keeps him there.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/09/2014 - 01:08 pm.

    Frequent conundrum

    As a society, we’ve visited this area before, and with mixed results. There’s a fine line between the secrecy necessary to maintain and project power in a world with interests that aren’t always synonymous with our own, and the transparency equally necessary to maintain enough public trust to enable a republican form of government to continue to operate with the consent of those being governed. Sometimes that fine line gets bulldozed, and sometimes there’s a tunnel being dug underneath it, but an equilibrium between transparency and secrecy will always, it seems to me, be difficult to maintain for any length of time. Monitoring is required.

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, but being paranoid is no guarantee that they *are* out to get you, either. I tend to come down on the side of transparency, being an old person who still thinks popular government has some advantages over oligarchy, but I couldn’t go so far as to advocate *total* transparency – at the national level. In local and state government, I lean quite a bit more toward the degree of transparency ideally being 100%. People trying to hide something typically *do* have something to hide, and what they’re trying to hide is often less-than-admirable. Not always, but often.

    Maybe the toughest call in these situations has to do with “the rule of law” and what appropriate punishment might be for simultaneously breaking the law and providing a public service, which is almost a dictionary definition of a whistleblower. I can’t quite get behind the notion of no punishment at all, but I also can’t support genuinely severe punishment, either, unless specific harm can be shown. If we’re going to argue that Snowden deserves hard time in prison, then I’d argue that Dick Cheney should have his final, fatal, heart attack in a prison cell. Cheney’s aide took the fall for him, but others may have noticed that frequently, and especially in business and politics, the people who make the most noise about bearing the burden of responsibility because of their position (usually in the form of “here’s why I deserve these perks or this enormous income”) often find ways to avoid that responsibility when something goes wrong. “Golden parachutes” for corporate executives and resigning/retiring “to spend more time with my family” pretty much fall into this category.

    I agree that it doesn’t seem “fair” somehow for Snowden to simply go about his daily business without some sort of negative consequence, but neither do some of the punishments being proposed for him seem “fair.” It’s a conundrum…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/09/2014 - 02:43 pm.

      If we’re talking about

      punishment for Snowden,
      then we should also be talking about fixing the system so that his initial attempts to blow the whistle from within the system would have been more effective.
      Breaking the law should not have been necessary.

  8. Submitted by Lance Groth on 01/09/2014 - 01:39 pm.

    Exactly so

    “, the emphasis of the increasing threats of “bad guys” and the feedback of the media frenzy on every possible threat to life and happiness,”

    This is what troubles me most of all about the direction the country has taken since 9/11 (and before, but most dramatically since 9/11); the herding of the populace this way and that in response to trumpeted warnings about the latest threat, the passage of massive security legislation that has not even been read by those voting, the pervasive expansion of not only foreign but domestic surveillance, the use of extreme measures such as torture and “extraordinary rendition”. Remember the color-coded threat warnings the Bush administration liked to use? When did we become a nation of scaredy-cats? The populace of the most powerful nation in the history of the world are continually told they must be afraid and must surrender rights and freedoms in order to be safe, and they tremble and go along.

    In this way, the terrorists win, though they lose every fight. It makes me sad. We are not the people we once were.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/09/2014 - 03:47 pm.

      Fear is a great motivator, & simple, like a hammer

      “…the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” – Hermann Goering

      “In January of 2003 FBI and CIA whistleblowers told Capitol Hill Blue that the White House was scripting phony terror alerts to maintain hysteria, upkeep President Bush’s approval ratings and milk extra defense funding.”

      “,,,the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H.L. Mencken

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/09/2014 - 10:49 pm.

        World Net Daily?



        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/10/2014 - 10:01 am.

          IF you read the story, you’ll see the source is given…

          …as Capitol Hill Blue.

          World Net Daily was referenced as a party who had “commented”, although it left a lot of “comment”.

          But also, the story underscored another similar report…

          “The Washington Times calmly reported,

          The Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks.”

          Don’t swallow those terror alerts whole-hog, Dennis. You’ve got to get out more.


  9. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/09/2014 - 03:14 pm.

    Mr. Mondale should apply this same thinking to…

    …those in the government who populate the security apparatus, where, e.g., a James Clapper brazenly lies to Congress (a crime for anyone else); where keeping illegal activities secret is regarded as patriotic, but exposing secret illegal activity is regarded as criminal. Or is this kind of even-handed view out of place here ?

    “What Snowden did, and what the FBI burglars did, was against the law,” he said. “Crimes were committed. I don’t know how you can just forgive what he did. The idea that laws are just general suggestions that people can just obey or not obey, depending on whether they had good motives, I can’t go that far.”

    Is Mr. Mondale railing only against the supposed criminality of whistleblowers ?? Or is he willing to take the same view of criminals in high office ??

    Mr. Snowden is not the root cause of ANY problem we have with state security. The root causes are American foreign policy, which seeks to dominate every inch of the globe, and the desire to keep the activities of the real criminals secret, so the public cannot know what their government is doing.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/09/2014 - 03:44 pm.

    Somehow this

    …discussion is drifting to whistleblowing when I think that idea is the subtext. The discussion began with the abuse of power by Hoover outlandishness. What Hoover did might be more of the same as it relates to our history. There are lots of cases out there that are consistent with the abuse of power from the birth of the country and ensconcing slavery into the Constitution to the current New Jersey bridge detour revelations.

  11. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/10/2014 - 08:41 pm.

    Long view

    I like Eric’s article for linking Edward Snowden and the NSA with Walter Mondale, J. Edgar Hoover and the 1971 FBI office break-in in a very short and informative way. It would otherwise take a book to show how what started out with a “General Intelligence Division” under J. Edgar Hoover in 1919 evolved into the National Security Agency of today.

  12. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/11/2014 - 09:45 am.

    I expected more from Mondale, yes

    Which rule of law does Mondale respect…the rule of lawlessness that destroys a citizen’s right of privacy…or the whistle blower who exposes that injustice?

    The people first…government becomes a tool broken when the rule of law which protects privacy is allowed by NSA, CIA and all in government who perpetrated this invasion of injustice on the people and the Constitution.

    Has Mondale failed to be the advocate for justice here by taking such a’ gentle’ response?

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