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 is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. 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 or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Scates Hermine

    HE IS STILL A SPY TO ME,WHY RUN, IF SOMEONE CAN ANSWER THAT WITH REAL TRUTHS,WHY RUN,CHINA,RUSSIA, ON THEIR COMPUTERS,HELL NO, THEY WILL NOT,GET ON THEIR COMPUTERS,NO, THEY HAVE BEEN USING HIM FOR A WHILE,JUST LOOK AT CHINA,HOW THEY GOT INFORMATION FROM HIM,.JUST SAYING,JUST SAYING. I AM NOT A REPORTER,JUST A BLACK WOMAN WHO TRIES TO KEEP UP WITH THE 411

  • Anonymous

    This has gone beyond being remedied with half measures and phony self imposed reforms, either the supreme court will condemn the actions of the NSA as unconstitutional or, the republic will end.

  • Anonymous

    Would you say the same things about the people in the article that exposed FBI wrongdoing and racial discrimination 40 years ago?

  • Dewey Reeves

    The difference here is that these folks didn’t run to a foreign country to hide behind the skirts of a government with a much worse record in such matters to avoid prosecution for the crimes they committed;neither did Ellsberg, Snep, or Felt. These people are heroes. Snowden is nothing more than a treasonous criminal and preening coward.

  • Anonymous

    No…the “real” difference is that these folks maintained their anonymity when they stole and disclosed documents, whereas, Edward Snowden took full responsibility for his actions and intelligently placed himself beyond the reach of those who would want to pillory him for telling us the TRUTH. I find nothing “cowardly” in his outwitting the perpetrators of a crime against all Americans and our Constitution ! As far as I’m concerned, these are all “HEROES” of equal measure !

  • Anonymous

    I believe his intentions were the same…to ‘inform’ Americans ,

  • Anonymous

    I agree with what Senator Bernie Sanders has said about the Edward Snowden disclosures and I believe that the NSA program and its’ bypassing of the FISA court is a giant step toward the dismantling of our Constitution and the basic Rights that we have as Americans. The FBI was once guilty of a similar type of illegal and broadly invasive surveillance that , when revealed, brought about public outcry and congressional hearings that resulted in changes to those secret and illegal policies.
    What the NSA is doing now is so much broader and so much worse that one wonders how true Americans can stomach this broad and invasive abuse of power or if the masses have succumbed to the plight of simply becoming “sheeple”…..no longer willing to stand up and fiercely defend their inalienable RIGHTS !
    Edward Snowden acted like a TRUE American by reminding us that this is OUR Country and not the exclusive domain of the politicians or the rich and powerful that manipulate them for their own purposes and against the best interests of ALL Americans !
    The so-called and very UNpatriotic ‘Patriot’ Act and the insidious outgrowth of the massive NSA apparatus are antithetical to our Democracy and should be struck down and dismantled before we are forced into an Orwellian “Big Brother” society where the State increasingly dictates and restricts our personal freedoms !

  • Charlotte Scot

    I disagree with your opinion of Snowden. I think his bravery parallels the “Raines gang.” (I call them the Raines Gang with the utmost respect and deepest affection.) There are tremendous differences between the 60′s and 70′s and the present day. I have lived through both. Many of us felt that the Church Commission had put an end to the government disdain for our Constitution. Edward Snowden brought focus back to the rose-colored glasses worn by many “liberals.” His disclosures PROVED little had changed since 1971. In fact many aspects of government spying are worse today than back them. I know very little about Edward Snowden (the person). I do not know what his motives are/were. I am certain he risked his life by sharing the information with the American public and for that I am grateful. As a citizen I want to know what my government is doing. I feel I have a right to know what is being done in my name with my tax dollars. If my government won’t tell, unfortunately it takes people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning to tell us the truth. I grew up believing in the truth. I don’t think anyone should ever be called a traitor or punished for telling us the truth;.

  • silent bear

    In honor of these brave whistle blowers I share this song:

  • Dewey Reeves

    Snowden has not taken responsibility for his actions. What he has done is take credit. Ellsberg took responsibility. Snowden only claimed credit when he felt safe from having to take responsibility. The only people he ‘did’ anything for is those who are now shielding him from having to “man-up” like a real culture hero. Snowden just exploits his desire to be an “outlaw-cum-hero’ If he were really brave, he’d face the fruit of his civil disobedience. He is nothing more than a coward with an overblown ego.

  • Anonymous

    I find it difficult to believe you are a black woman because most black women are fully aware of sneaky government ways.

  • buricco

    I’m not sure Snowden revealed anything. Anything that wasn’t already known was at least suspected of being true.

  • rg9rts

    It would appear that the government never learns from its mistakes. Land of the free