Forty Years Before Snowden, Burglars Blew the Roof Off Illegal Domestic Spying

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John and Bonnie Raines, two of the burglars, at home in Philadelphia. (Photo: Mark Makela for The New York Times)

In 1971, as opposition to the Vietnam War peaked and civil unrest rattled America, activists knew they were being watched, infiltrated and undermined by the FBI. But they didn’t know the extent of the agency’s efforts, nor how far J. Edgar Hoover’s agents would go to suppress dissent.

That would change one night in March, when eight men and women broke into an FBI satellite office in Media, Pa. They absconded with nearly every piece of paper they could find, sifted through it and anonymously sent various documents detailing the agency’s spying and dirty tricks to major media organizations.  While some outlets were initially reticent about reporting on the documents, the revelations would ultimately unleash a torrent of investigative reporting, shining a light on Hoover’s efforts to destroy Martin Luther King and the agency’s now-notorious COINTELPRO program.

The burglars then faded into obscurity until this week, when it was revealed that five of them had agreed to be interviewed for a new book by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter who was one of the first to receive the stolen documents.

“At first the media barely noticed,” Medsger said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “Two days afterwards, little two-paragraph stories began to appear in various papers. The FBI confirmed the break-in and said that just a couple of files were missing. Two weeks later, we learned that they’d taken everything.”

Medsger would soon receive a package of documents at her office. “I was surprised at what I found. For instance, a document spelled out that a core goal of the FBI was to enhance paranoia and make people think there was an FBI agent behind every mailbox. Other files described massive surveillance of African-Americans at nearly every place they gathered. Agents were required to have at least one informer reporting to them on the activities of black people every two weeks.”

Bonnie Raines was one of the burglars. She described coming to Philadelphia and meeting like-minded young people fighting to end the war. She and her husband, John, had raided a draft board office in one of a number of actions designed to disrupt the conscription of mostly poor young men in the City of Brotherly love. “Philadelphia was a center of anti-war dissent,” she told reporters. “And we realized that Hoover’s FBI was using illegal and heavy-handed surveillance and infiltration to squash dissent. That was widely known but could not be proved – no one in Washington or law enforcement could confront Hoover.”

She and her husband, along with several other activists trusted for their discretion, were then invited to the home of William Davidon, a professor of physics at Haverford College and a prominent figure in anti-war circles. Davidon had a plan to break into an FBI office and secure a smoking gun that could leave no doubt as to what the FBI was doing. The group called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. “Because my husband and I, and our three children lived in a big old house in Germantown, Pa., much of the planning and casing was conducted there,” recalled Bonnie Raines. The group would carefully stake out the office for weeks before the break-in.

John Raines told reporters that he joined the group after years of involvement in the civil rights movement. He was a Freedom Rider in 1961, took part in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 and marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. “Throughout those activities, it became clear that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was not at all interested in protecting American rights,” he said. Raines saw it all as part of the same struggle. “If Hoover had succeeded, that would have meant that legalized segregation in the South would have continued.”

Several years later, it became clear to Raines that the FBI was applying the same tactics to the anti-war movement. “All of us involved in the war resistance knew that, but we had no objective evidence to document what we knew.”

That would change after the burglary. “In the media file was the evidence that to be a subversive, all you had to do was to express mild dissent such as in a letter to the editor of your local newspaper,” recalls Medsger. “Or, to be black – to be black was to be considered dangerous in Hoover’s eyes.”

“[W]e wanted the focus of public attention to be on the documents that we found and the policies they exposed, not on us as individuals.” — Keith Forsyth
During the rest of 1971, President Richard Nixon campaigned for re-election on the promise that he’d draw down US forces in Vietnam, and journalists continued to expose the FBI’s abuses. Keith Forsyth, another burglar, said that most of the group thought that their job had been done and returned to their normal lives. He said that they kept silent about the role they’d played not only to evade prosecution, but also because “we wanted the focus of public attention to be on the documents that we found and the policies they exposed, not on us as individuals.”

Five years later, the Church Committee would investigate these and other abuses by America’s national security agencies. It would conclude that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.” The committee found that while in some instances field agents weren’t telling their superiors about all of their activities, “the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.”

Four decades later, another burglar named Edward Snowden – one whose tools were far more advanced than the crowbar with which the original burglars gained entry into the FBI’s Media field office – would again steal documents illustrating the breadth of the government’s domestic spying, and again spark a heated national debate over the issue.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
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