[News] COINTELPRO Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows
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Tue Jan 7 10:26:15 EST 2014
Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows
By Retro Report
*Stealing J. Edgar Hoover's Secrets:* One night in 1971, files were
stolen from an F.B.I. office near Philadelphia. They proved that the
bureau was spying on thousands of Americans. The case was unsolved,
By MARK MAZZETTI
Published: January 7, 2014 296 Comments
PHILADELPHIA --- The perfect crime is far easier to pull off when nobody
Afterward, they fled to a farmhouse, near Pottstown, Pa., where they
spent 10 days sorting through the documents.
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So on a night nearly 43 years ago, while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
bludgeoned each other over 15 rounds in a televised title bout viewed by
millions around the world, burglars took a lock pick and a crowbar and
broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation
office in a suburb of Philadelphia, making off with nearly every
They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed
anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would
become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks
operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.
The burglary in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, is a historical echo
today, as disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor
Edward J. Snowden have cast another unflattering light on government
spying and opened a national debate about the proper limits of
government surveillance. The burglars had, until now, maintained a vow
of silence about their roles in the operation. They were content in
knowing that their actions had dealt the first significant blow to an
institution that had amassed enormous power and prestige during J. Edgar
lengthy tenure as director.
"When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I.
was doing, nobody wanted to believe it," said one of the burglars, Keith
Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. "There was
only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it
in their handwriting."
Mr. Forsyth, now 63, and other members of the group can no longer be
prosecuted for what happened that night, and they agreed to be
interviewed before the release this week of a book
written by one of the first journalists to receive the stolen documents.
The author, Betty Medsger, a former reporter for The Washington Post,
spent years sifting through the F.B.I.'s voluminous case file on the
episode and persuaded five of the eight men and women who participated
in the break-in to end their silence.
Unlike Mr. Snowden, who downloaded hundreds of thousands of digital
N.S.A. files onto computer hard drives, the Media burglars did their
work the 20th-century way: they cased the F.B.I. office for months, wore
gloves as they packed the papers into suitcases, and loaded the
suitcases into getaway cars. When the operation was over, they
dispersed. Some remained committed to antiwar causes, while others, like
John and Bonnie Raines, decided that the risky burglary would be their
final act of protest against the Vietnam War and other government
actions before they moved on with their lives.
"We didn't need attention, because we had done what needed to be done,"
said Mr. Raines, 80, who had, with his wife, arranged for family members
to raise the couple's three children if they were sent to prison. "The
'60s were over. We didn't have to hold on to what we did back then."
*A Meticulous Plan*
The burglary was the idea of William C. Davidon, a professor of physics
at Haverford College and a fixture of antiwar protests in Philadelphia,
a city that by the early 1970s had become a white-hot center of the
peace movement. Mr. Davidon was frustrated that years of organized
demonstrations seemed to have had little impact.
In the summer of 1970, months after President Richard M. Nixon announced
the United States' invasion of Cambodia, Mr. Davidon began assembling a
team from a group of activists whose commitment and discretion he had
come to trust.
The group --- originally nine, before one member dropped out ---
concluded that it would be too risky to try to break into the F.B.I.
office in downtown Philadelphia, where security was tight. They soon
settled on the bureau's satellite office in Media, in an apartment
building across the street from the county courthouse.
That decision carried its own risks: Nobody could be certain whether the
satellite office would have any documents about the F.B.I.'s
surveillance of war protesters, or whether a security alarm would trip
as soon as the burglars opened the door.
The group spent months casing the building, driving past it at all times
of the night and memorizing the routines of its residents.
"We knew when people came home from work, when their lights went out,
when they went to bed, when they woke up in the morning," said Mr.
Raines, who was a professor of religion at Temple University at the
time. "We were quite certain that we understood the nightly activities
in and around that building."
But it wasn't until Ms. Raines got inside the office that the group grew
confident that it did not have a security system. Weeks before the
burglary, she visited the office posing as a Swarthmore College student
researching job opportunities for women at the F.B.I.
The burglary itself went off largely without a hitch, except for when
Mr. Forsyth, the designated lock-picker, had to break into a different
entrance than planned when he discovered that the F.B.I. had installed a
lock on the main door that he could not pick. He used a crowbar to break
the second lock, a deadbolt above the doorknob.
After packing the documents into suitcases, the burglars piled into
getaway cars and rendezvoused at a farmhouse to sort through what they
had stolen. To their relief, they soon discovered that the bulk of it
was hard evidence of the F.B.I.'s spying on political groups.
Identifying themselves as the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the
F.B.I., the burglars sent select documents to several newspaper
reporters. Two weeks after the burglary, Ms. Medsger wrote the first
article based on the files, after the Nixon administration tried
unsuccessfully to get The Post to return the documents.
Other news organizations that had received the documents, including The
New York Times, followed with their own reports.
Ms. Medsger's article cited what was perhaps the most damning document
from the cache, a 1970 memorandum that offered a glimpse into Hoover's
obsession with snuffing out dissent. The document urged agents to step
up their interviews of antiwar activists and members of dissident
"It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further
serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every
mailbox," the message from F.B.I. headquarters said. Another document,
signed by Hoover himself, revealed widespread F.B.I. surveillance of
black student groups on college campuses.
But the document that would have the biggest impact on reining in the
F.B.I.'s domestic spying activities was an internal routing slip, dated
1968, bearing a mysterious word: Cointelpro.
Neither the Media burglars nor the reporters who received the documents
understood the meaning of the term, and it was not until several years
later, when the NBC News reporter Carl Stern obtained more files from
the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information Act, that the contours of
Cointelpro --- shorthand for Counterintelligence Program --- were revealed.
Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on
civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and
had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of
revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his
extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.
"It wasn't just spying on Americans," said Loch K. Johnson, a professor
of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia who was
an aide to Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. "The intent of
Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations."
Senator Church's investigation in the mid-1970s revealed still more
about the extent of decades of F.B.I. abuses, and led to greater
congressional oversight of the F.B.I. and other American intelligence
agencies. The Church Committee's final report about the domestic
surveillance was blunt. "Too many people have been spied upon by too
many government agencies, and too much information has been collected,"
By the time the committee released its report, Hoover was dead and the
empire he had built at the F.B.I. was being steadily dismantled. The
roughly 200 agents he had assigned to investigate the Media burglary
came back empty-handed, and the F.B.I. closed the case on March 11, 1976
--- three days after the statute of limitations for burglary charges had
Michael P. Kortan, a spokesman for the F.B.I., said that "a number of
events during that era, including the Media burglary, contributed to
changes to how the F.B.I. identified and addressed domestic security
threats, leading to reform of the F.B.I.'s intelligence policies and
practices and the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department
According to Ms. Medsger's book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J.
Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I.," only one of the burglars was on the
F.B.I.'s final list of possible suspects before the case was closed.
*A Retreat Into Silence*
The eight burglars rarely spoke to one another while the F.B.I.
investigation was proceeding and never again met as a group.
Mr. Davidon died late last year from complications of Parkinson's
disease. He had planned to speak publicly about his role in the
break-in, but three of the burglars have chosen to remain anonymous.
Among those who have come forward --- Mr. Forsyth, the Raineses and a
man named Bob Williamson --- there is some wariness of how their
decision will be viewed.
The passage of years has worn some of the edges off the once radical
political views of John and Bonnie Raines. But they said they felt a
kinship toward Mr. Snowden, whose revelations about N.S.A. spying they
see as a bookend to their own disclosures so long ago.
They know some people will criticize them for having taken part in
something that, if they had been caught and convicted, might have
separated them from their children for years. But they insist they would
never have joined the team of burglars had they not been convinced they
would get away with it.
"It looks like we're terribly reckless people," Mr. Raines said. "But
there was absolutely no one in Washington --- senators, congressmen,
even the president --- who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability."
"It became pretty obvious to us," he said, "that if we don't do it,
/The Retro Report
video with this article is the 24th in a documentary series presented by
The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from
Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10
contributors led by Kyra Darnton, a former "60 Minutes" producer. It is
a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful
counterweight to today's 24/7 news cycle./
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