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
Mondale 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.”
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.