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‘The Burglary’ and the theft of privacy

Espionage, a government cover-up and the erosion of privacy; it’s not the Edward Snowden case, but the topic of a new book by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger.

Photos by Gabriella Gamboa/SFBay

Medsger visited San Francisco State University Monday morning to discuss her new book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.

The Burglary exposes the untold story of a group of antiwar activists who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa. and stole documents detailing massive domestic surveillance by the government.

Weeks after the break-in — now 43 years ago — Medsger received a mysterious package containing copies of files stolen from the Media FBI office.

This was the first time in history a source had stolen secret government documents and given them to a journalist.

Medsger told a standing-room only group of SF State journalism students and faculty she wasn’t sure her story was ever going to run:

“The assumption was you don’t report on the FBI. No one reported on the FBI, they were considered heroes.”

The files were sent to her from a group calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the group of eight who had broken into the FBI office, led secretly by college professor and peace activist Bill Davidon.

The group chose the night of the first Joe Frazier-­Muhammad Ali heavyweight championship fight to execute the break-in, hoping the bout would serve as a distraction.

The activists sent copies of the stolen documents to five people, including two members of Congress and three journalists.

The two Congressmen immediately returned the files to the FBI, and the other journalist’s mail was intercepted — leaving only Medsger with the files.

Medsger said she was skeptical of the documents at first, but was convinced when her newspaper received phone calls from the government asking them not to print the story:

 “This is so extreme it made me feel this was possibly a hoax.”

Before the story went to press, the FBI and the attorney general called the Post and tried to quash the story citing national security concerns.

The parallels to the Edward Snowden case are undeniable, and Medsger’s book comes at a time when the nation is once again grappling with privacy issues.

The Guardian and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize Tuesday for their coverage of Edward Snowden and his release of top secret NSA documents.

The United States is once again caught between an overbearing government — intent on its own agenda — and a vigilant press that must push the envelope in the name of free speech.

The burglary inspired Johanna Hamilton’s documentary “1971,” which tells the story through exclusive interviews and rare documents.

Along with privacy issues, Medsger also discussed ethical issues with the group of about 50 journalism students. She noted the documents she received were the ultimate form of an anonymous source.

Medsger recounted the discussion she had with her editor in deciding whether or not to comply with the government’s request:

 “You’re faced with a heavy decision. You have the secrets they don’t want out.”

After her time at the Post, Medsger joined the Journalism faculty at SF State and became department chair. In 1990, Medsger founded the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism.

Professor of Journalism Yvonne Daley described Medsger in glowing terms:

 “It was she who made this department what it is today.”

Medsger will appear Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building in San Francisco to discuss and sign copies of The Burglary.

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