In her 2014 book “The Burglary,” Betty Medsger recounts the barely believable true story of the band of anti-Vietnam War activists (pretty ordinary-to-the-eye citizens, some married with children) who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and discovered some dirty secrets compiled by J. Edgar Hoover and the agency he ruled.
In interviews, members of the burglary team reveal details of the elaborate scheme that alternately bring a smile (one of the group posed as a student to case the joint), a nod to cleverness (the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight provided a perfect distraction for the heist) and a gasp of suspense (lock-breaking practice proved to be useless on the fateful night).
It was the haul that shocked many who had trusted the FBI and its vaunted reputation: proof that the government was engaging in illegal surveillance of citizens and the discovery that COINTELPRO was infiltrating and disrupting anything and anyone deemed a threat, from feminist, student and civil rights organizations to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., labeled a “dangerous Negro,” who was spied on, hounded and urged to commit suicide.
Presidents of both parties had gone along with and sometimes abetted Hoover’s illegal activities, no doubt with an ever-present fear that the powerful FBI head had something on them.
No participant in that heist was ever caught or known to the public before the statute of limitations ran out, despite hundreds of agents on the case, which probably rankled Hoover most of all.
Then Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho when Idaho still elected Democratic senators, chaired the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities in the mid-1970s, and brought more transgressions into the light, laying the groundwork for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA.
That the FBI, then most known for its practice of seeing a subversive under every bed — and placing a tape recorder there — would now be considered a haven for left-wing radicals is astounding.
Its reputation remained law-and-order conservative, up to and including Republican and former director James Comey’s October surprise, in which the bureau revealed days before the 2016 election that it was investigating some additional Hillary Clinton emails even while keeping under wraps its contemporaneous look-see into Donald Trump’s election-season dealings.
Watch: How We Got Here: A Timeline of How Comey Went from Chief to Ousted
In 2016, Rudolph Giuliani, Trump ally and no hippie, said and then denied that he had gotten a heads-up the FBI was planning the announcement, but stood fast on his intel that former FBI agents were no fans of Clinton, Barack Obama or the Justice Department under the former president. The New York agents seemed particularly at odds with Washington clearing Clinton of wrongdoing.
Now Americans are supposed to believe this same FBI is infiltrated by Clinton- and Obama-loving agents who are out to get President Trump.
It’s more than a whiplash-inducing turnaround. It’s a tale ripe for Lewis Carroll. Up is down, down is up — and we are definitely through the looking glass.
This particular fantasy fight is taking place while the U.S. government is trying to operate, if Congress can come together to avoid another shutdown. How is normalcy supposed to win when faith in the very institutions, however imperfect, that buoy government and the Constitution’s separation of powers is being chipped away and when laws to prevent overreach are being ignored by those at the top?
Trump’s State of the Union speech is a part of this fantasy, promising a compromise on the fate of DACA recipients while seeming to conflate them with truly heinous gang members committing murders, and offering an infrastructure proposal without quite indicating where the money for it will come from.
What wasn’t talked about
The speech ended without any mention of Republican special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, a rash of recent school shootings or the #MeToo movement that has prompted changes in congressional policy but might give pause to a president — even one as shameless as Trump — whose lawyers approved payments to an adult-film actress.
Watch: The State of the Union in 3 Minutes
While Trump’s own CIA director, Mike Pompeo, warns of Russia’s continued attempts to meddle in U.S. elections, including the 2018 midterms, the law-and-order party is going ahead with plans to release a memo its own Justice Department warns will compromise national security and set a dangerous precedent.
The infamous memo was prepared to discredit U.S. law enforcement agencies by staffers of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who makes no attempt to hide his fealty to the president and his willingness to follow along, no matter where the rabbit hole leads. Did congressional Republicans gulp the bottle marked “Drink me” and grow very small indeed?
The FBI, once the law-and-order representative of the country and conservatism — at one point it had a government-approved TV show — is challenging the classified document’s accuracy, worried that security and FISA regulations will prevent them from countering false claims.
And while White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says the White House is still considering whether it would back the release, the president, caught on camera after his Tuesday speech, and chief of staff John F. Kelly are proceeding like it’s a done deal.
So much for law and order. The FBI suddenly finds itself with only out-of-power Democrats to come to its rescue.
Alice might be the only one who feels at home in this particular wonderland, though one gets the feeling that Hoover and Trump would have gotten along just fine.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.