How an old story was reborn in the Edward Snowden era

This isn't just a new age of political activism, but also of story telling activism. And stories are best told when people want them

Michael Wolff

21 January 2014

I had a perplexing deja vu moment on 7 January when the New York Times [1] and other papers, including the Guardian, [2] wrote, with quite some awe and amazement, about a group of anti-war activists who, 43 years after they burgled an FBI satellite office in Pennsylvania, had stepped from the shadows to proudly own up to their crime and place in history. [3]

It was a big story and a rich one, both for how the burglars had exposed massive and systematic FBI surveillance of American citizens -- particularly relevant in this new age of Edward Snowden's exposure of vast NSA spying -- and how they had gotten away with it. And now we were being introduced to them. Well beyond the statue of limitations for any criminal charges in the US, they were coming clean.

But, oddly, I knew at least some of this already. The mastermind of the break-in had talked before. In 2003, Susan Braudy, a friend for many years, published a book called Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left . [4] It was the story of Kathy Boudin -- the former 1960s radical convicted of the killing of a guard when she and an armed gang of acquaintances, tried to rob a Brink's truck in 1981, in Nyack, New York -- and of her extended family. The book was, in effect, a history of the modern American left, with Boudin's father, Leonard Boudin, a radical lawyer at the center of many left-wing causes and fights of the time, a principal player in the drama. Boudin's clients included these FBI burglars who were now, once again, front page news.

Boudin and his law partner, Victor Rabinowitz -- also lawyers for Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker -- had been intimately involved in planning the 1971 FBI break in and the escape of the perpetrators, according to Braudy.

Braudy recalled to me the other day in a phone conversation that she was directed to Professor William Davidon of Haverford College, the master mind of the FBI break-in. Davidon recounted the details of the caper and the subsequent dissemination of the surveillance records the burglars had stolen, which helped bring to an end Edgar Hoover's long reign as FBI director, and told Braudy the names of the other conspirators.

A very nice piece of investigative journalism and forensic history. So, why, 11 years later, was I reading about this as though, mirabile dictu, the lost secrets of the past were suddenly being revealed and now making headlines everywhere? What was I missing?

Of course, it could merely be that not enough people read Braudy's book. They have short shelf lives. How much history remains unread?

On the other hand, why now? It did seem like an awfully convenient story about government spying in this new age of government spying revelations. Could old stories simply be reborn in a new climate of opinion?

The precise reason for the 7 January "scoop" was the publication of The Burglary, [5] a book by Betty Medsger, who had covered the story all those years ago for the Washington Post. According to the New York Times, Medsger had "spent years sifting through the FBI's voluminous case file on the episode," enabling her to finally break the case.

While she had not, in fact, exclusively broken the case, she had, perhaps even better, found a fortuitous publishing moment for it. In the age of Snowden, revelations about government spying are not just hot stories, but suddenly part of a vast new narrative canvas and moral tale.

The left is surely resurgent -- and so is the left-wing narrative: exposing government secrets is a noble cause.

The Braudy book is a generally dispassionate account of the making of the Boudin family and of its involvement in US radical activity -- among other touchstones, I F Stone, the legendary anti-government left-wing pamphleteer, married into the family -- culminating in the Brink's murder and Kathy Boudin's long incarceration. But in the end, its conclusions are far from positive.

The book's bias is not political, but psychological, finding Leonard Boudin to be, as Braudy described him to me, "like a rock star to the left, one out of control, manipulative, dishonest -- crazy, mean, and totally seductive".

Indeed, Braudy concludes that the Boudin law firm was itself criminally involved in the 1971 break in because of its role advising Davidon and his accomplices. In the case of Kathy Boudin, despite her murder conviction, she's largely been rehabilitated by the media and in left-wing circles since her release from prison in 2003, but Braudy paints a portrait of a destructive and deluded life. It is a shading of the narrative that veers far from noble cause.

It is possible that for this reason, a nuanced undermining of the narrative, that Braudy's account failed to find its place in left-wing history. In an increasingly strict left-wing construct and a parallel strict right-wing construct, more and more of the middle ground falls between the cracks. The blinders on these two poles are such that it is apparently possible to ignore what is known -- even in the age of Google -- and, when convenient, reposition it to be new and useful again.

In reality television, the moment when the winner or unexpected development is presented is called the reveal. If you were staging the current roll-out of the story of government surveillance, this dramatic new information about this mythic FBI break-in is an effective reveal in the ever-unfolding story. But as in reality television, sometimes you have to fudge the facts and exaggerate the surprise to get the right effect.

There is not just a new age of political activism, a la Edward Snowden, but also of story telling activism. And stories are best told when people want you to tell them.

It is too, of course, the age of short memories.