The following is excerpted and adapted from the epilogue to the paperback version of Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, out today from Vintage Books.
It was clear to Judi Feingold what she should do after she and seven other people broke into an FBI office near Philadelphia in 1971, removed every file and then anonymously distributed them to two members of Congress and three journalists:
Get out of town.
She took drastic steps. Remaining in Philadelphia seemed dangerous, so she left town and headed west, moved into the underground and lived under an assumed name, moving from place to place west of the Rockies for years, owning only a sleeping bag and what she could carry in her knapsack. As she was about to detach herself from her past geography and her personal connections, she called her parents and told them she had committed a nonviolent direct action “and was possibly being pursued by the federal government. I told them I could not be in touch by phone, and I would do my best to let them know how I was, but not where I was.”
During the forty-three years since the burglary, none of the other burglars knew anything about Feingold’s whereabouts. Efforts to find her in recent years had failed. Some even thought she might have died.
Likewise, Feingold did not know that the other burglars had not left the area and, instead, had lived in the eye of the intensive search the bureau conducted for the people who revealed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s massive, clandestine political spying and extreme, even violent, dirty tricks operations. Those revelations gave rise to the nation’s first public conversation about the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. None of the burglars was found. Only one of them made the list of final suspects. The investigation ended after five years, with the FBI never finding any physical evidence or witness with either direct or indirect knowledge of the burglary.
Immediately after the burglary, Feingold’s Philadelphia neighborhood, Powelton Village, was swarmed by dozens of FBI agents. From many parked cars, agents watched the comings and goings of residents round the clock. Everyone seemed to be regarded as a suspect. The files the burglars removed from the office—the first documentary evidence that under Hoover the FBI had subverted the bureau’s mission—had caused a sensation. For the first time, there were calls in Congress and in newspaper editorials for the bureau and its deeply admired director to be investigated. Hoover, FBI director for half a century by then, was apoplectic, one of his favorite reporters wrote shortly after the burglary. The stolen files emerged, a few at a time, the first ones in a story written by me and published two weeks after the burglary on March 24, 1971, in The Washington Post.