Sometimes a 'Willingness To Steal' From the Government is a Good Thing

Edward Snowden isn't the first to expose a covert, unconstitutional war against the American people.

On Monday, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden beamed himself into a packed room at the South by Southwest festival in AustinTexas, telling the crowd he broke the law to expose NSA spying because “the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale.”

Snowden shouldn't have gotten a hearing, insisted an irate Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.)—his “only apparent qualification is his willingness to steal from his own government.”

No doubt this sounds familiar to Betty Medsger, the author of a fascinating new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI.

Forty-three years ago Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves "The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into a bureau branch office in Media, Pa., making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, they were never caught, but the files they leaked proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and agents' lives.

Decades in journalism really taught Medsger how to write an arresting lede; her book begins:

“In late 1970, William Davidon, a mild-mannered physics professor at Haverford College, privately asked a few people this question:

'What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?'”

What follows is one hell of a (true) story: riveting as any heist film, and far more significant. With the statute of limitations expired, and the Citizens senior citizens, five of the original eight have come forward to tell the tale.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI helped prepare, told Congress that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights.

Two weeks later, one of the first documents Medsger published—a memo exhorting agents to “enhance the paranoia” among antiwar protesters and “get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”—gave the lie to that notion.

But the most important purloined document turned out to be a routing slip with the cryptic notation “COINTELPRO—NEW LEFT.” Americans eventually learned that “COINTELPRO” was FBI argot for “counterintelligence program”: domestic “black ops” against “subversives.” It started in 1956, to fight homegrown communists, but soon expanded to target the antiwar and civil rights movements. As an FBI deputy director later explained to a congressional committee, “this was a rough, dirty business” in which the bureau “brought home” methods used against Soviet agents abroad: burglaries, illegal wiretaps, blackmail, and disinformation designed to foment violence.

The FBI's attempts to get Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself—by sending him a “highlight reel” surveillance tape of his extramarital affairs and a letter saying: “there is only one thing left for you to do”—was just the most infamous example of these widespread tactics.

The FBI agent who led the post-Media internal reforms told Medsger that without the burglars, COINTELPRO might never have been exposed, and that if they'd been convicted, he'd have recommended “suspended sentences because of the major contribution they made to their country.” Today, the bureau's own website admits that the Citizens' “leaking of those documents to the news media … led to a significant re-evaluation of FBI domestic security policy.”

That hardly settles the Snowden controversy, of course. But as The Burglary shows, history sometimes forgives those with a “willingness to steal from their own government.”

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  • nuffcedmcgreevey||

    Willingness to steal from the people seems to be the only qualification of many politicians.

  • Shirley Knott||

    When is willingness to steal from the government a bad thing?
    Seriously, WTF?

  • GLK||

    Lincoln said the entire premise of our Government is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. If that's true then you cannot steal from yourself.

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  • David Wall||

    He's being widely reassessed as to his contributions to liberty, but still T Jefferson had this one right and I like to think he would believe Snowden's case applied:

    "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty"

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    For the majority tho...

    "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty futile"

  • David Wall||

    Here's what keeps me going. Society does not start changing by waiting for change in the majority. It starts by a very focused few, who know what they want and how to make it happen.

    Non-political example--these computers and internet we are communicating on right now. How many people actually were involved in getting this technology started. A couple hundred? Now look at it.

    Political change can happen just as fast and with just a few people. It is never futile.

  • Rob J||

    This explains why we see socialism getting retried every other decade ... regardless how badly it ends, every time. Your point may be true ... but it is more likely to small band of focused idiots working to enslave themselves and others than it is to see otherwise.

    Collective action requires collective thinking.

  • David Wall||

    Replacing 2000 years of an evil morality takes time, but until liberty lovers get completely annihilated it is not futile.

  • Rob J||

    more like 10000 - statists have around since the beginning of history.

  • Free Society||

    That depends on time and place.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Imagine a boot, stamping on a iphone, forever.

  • DenverJay||

    +1000

    All hail the Prophet Orwell!

  • brians30@icloud.com||

    What Snowden was a crime, period. Unfortunately for the U.S. Citizens, Snowden had to break the law for the Citizens of the U.S. To find out how the elected officials of the government, who swore an oath to follow the laws and the Constitution of the United States, were breaking their oaths by violating the Bill of Rights. At the present time Snowden has no chance at a fair trial, until Congress holds government workers (appointed or career) accountable for their crimes ( James Clapper is still not being charged with lying to Congress, which everyone watched his testimony knows he did) then our laws have no meaning.

  • PaulW||

    What Snowden did was equal to self defense. He chose his actions because he had no other choice in order to do the necessary and right thing.

  • Will Nonya||

    Paul, self defense? Seriously? That's the most idiotic thing I've heard in quite awhile, and I'm including the president appearance on Between Two Ferns.

    Hos actions were necessary but trying to justify them like this is just irrational hero worship.

  • wwhorton||

    I think it's important to distinguish between a violation of the legal code of the United States and an immoral or unethical action when we're talking about crime. In Snowden's case, I fully accept that he's a criminal in the former sense, and a hero in the latter.

  • Will Nonya||

    Not all immoral or unethical actions are crimes, see Washington DC for references.

    He is a criminal, he has done us all a significant service but he's hardly heroic in any of his actions.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    Actually, I think he was heroic. The greatest act of courage in a giant bureaucratic governmental monstrosity is to expose corruption, to go against the natural grain of the system. The overwhelming majority who are employed there look the other way, worry about promotion and building their power, look to gain more power at other's expense. To forgo that and risk prison takes a very strong commitment to the ideals of liberty.

  • Black&Yellow||

    Law and morality is not the same. Breaking unjust laws from an unjust entity does not make you a criminal.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Absolutely not. Snowden did NOT commit a crime. The best the govt can do is sue him for a breach of a civil contract, which is his non-disclosure agreement. An excellent case can be made, however, that that agreement is void. It is a maxim of law that it is a crime to conceal a crime. It is also settled law that a contract to commit a crime is void. NSA broke countless laws (and statutes) countless times. To NOT violate the non-disclosure agreement and inform the highest authority in the land (the people) of this treason is, in fact, a crime.

  • DenverJay||

    See: Nuremberg Defense

  • Loki||

    That hardly settles the Snowden controversy, of course. But as The Burglary shows, history sometimes forgives those with a “willingness to steal from their own government.”

    There's one major difference between Snowden and The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI: when they broke into the FBI's field office, it was at a time when the president was a Republican. Snowden didn't just steal from the government, he embarrassed a Democratic president. And that's inexcusable to most left wingers.

  • Will Nonya||

    He's managed to upset both democrats and republicans, in political terms he's pretty screwed.

  • Black&Yellow||

    fuck politics

  • Free Society||

    politics- a mechanism for distributing violent injustice.

  • AnCapNow!||

    Read "The Spartacus File" by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

  • HenryC||

    A willingness to steal is not enough. You have to be willing to turn yourself in and face the music. That is why I don't support Snowden.

  • MJBinAL||

    Yes, suicide is necessary. The price must be as high as possible so as to discourage others.

    Twit.

  • HenryC||

    Ever read on Walden Pond, or study the life of Gandi? It is not suicide to fight out the results in court, even if you are convicted you can win.

  • wwhorton||

    You just declared your antipathy towards the French Resistance, so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you haven't really thought your position through.

  • Will Nonya||

    I don't know, apparently running and hiding is heroic. I mean what's not to respect about someone who runs to coup tries that do the same things he's exposing and negotiating for protection. Sure sounds like a hero to me...

    I general support Snowden and think he should receive a fair trial. Unfortunately the politics of the coup try would make that very unlikely and he doesn't have the moral fortitude to turn himself in anyway. The only thing that I get irritated with regarding Snowden is the hero worship he receives from people who generally have never sacrificed anything for their liberty or that of others and have such low standards for courage and honor that they think He's actually heroic.

  • JParker||

    Snowden risked his property, his freedom, and his very life to obtain and disseminate this information. He has stood up against the most powerful villain in the world today -- the US Federal Government -- and his life remains in danger by a power that can effectively intimidate most countries in the world.

    That he has taken refuge in one of the few places that he could get to indicates that he is a hero [i]and[/i] not a fool or a martyr.

    Edward Snowden is one of the elite among heroes -- I cannot think of another American living today who even approaches his level of heroism, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the signers of the Declaration of Independence!

  • DenverJay||

    Preach it, Brother! It is not necessary to submit yourself to certain imprisonment/death in order to be a hero! I am so tired of hearing this argument, that if he was really a hero he would have faced a Star Chamber controlled by the people he exposed. What rot, by people who won't even vote for freedom, let alone make any type of stand themselves.

  • Black&Yellow||

    Tell that to the organizers of the Undergound Railroad. They broke the law by freeing slaves, I guess they should of turned their selves in and "face the music", right?

  • HenryC||

    To the organizers it was more important to save the slaves than to change the system. Openly defying the law and going to jail for it would have ended slavery sooner.

  • DenverJay||

    BS. Openly defying Slavery in 19th Century America would have gotten you lynched or imprisoned. It would have not hastened the end of slavery in the U.S. by a single hour. It took a bloody civil war, and then an additional 100 years of struggle to remove all the laws sanctioning slavery in the U.S. It then took an additional century to eradicate the ageless practice worldwide.

  • DenverJay||

    er... my numbers add up to the year 2065 or so... but still, is slavery completely eradicated yet? I still stand by the rest.

  • judeoconnor@mac.com||

    We have politicians stealing at unbelievable situations, Google list of federal agencies and do yourself a favor and read through the listing from A-Z. How many friends and family are there? Then Google number of staff for Congress, I'll save you the time, there are over 23,000 APPOINTED staff cleverly listed under different names but still appointed staff. If you believe anything coming out of the White House via the media, I have a few bridges to sell you on the moon.

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