The FBI Targets a New Generation of Black Activists; The agency would put its investigative authorities to better use by holding police officers accountable for acts of brutality.
November 1, 2021
Throughout its history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has viewed Black activism as a potential national security threat. It has used its ample investigative powers not to suppress violence, but to inhibit the speech and association rights of Black activists. And its reaction to the protests following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd shows little has changed.
In October 1919, a young J Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation’s general intelligence division, targeted “Black Moses” Marcus Garvey for investigation and harassment because of his alleged association with “radical elements” that were “agitating the Negro movement”. Hoover admitted Garvey had violated no federal laws. But the bureau, the precursor organization to the FBI, infiltrated Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association with informant provocateurs and undercover agents who searched for years for any charge that could justify his deportation.
The justice department ultimately won a conviction against Garvey on a dubious mail fraud charge in 1923. Meanwhile, white vigilantes, police and soldiers targeted Black communities with violence during this period, which included the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and scores of lynchings, did not receive the same focused attention from Hoover’s agents.
FBI Tracked an Activist Involved With Black Lives Matter as They Traveled Across the U.S., Documents Show
November 1, 2021
Documents obtained by The Intercept indicate that the FBI surveilled Black Lives Matter activists — and that the Department of Homeland Security drafted a mysterious “race paper.”
At the height of 2014’s Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, FBI agents tracked the movements of an activist flying in from New York, and appear to have surveilled the homes and cars of individuals somehow tied to the protests, according to recently released documents provided to The Intercept.
The documents, which include FBI emails and intelligence reports from November 2014, suggest that federal surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests went far beyond the online intelligence-gathering first reported on by The Intercept in 2015. That intelligence-gathering by the federal government had employed open-source information, such as social media, to profile and keep track of activists. The newly released documents suggest the FBI put resources toward running informants, as well as physical surveillance of antiracist activists.
The heavily redacted records were obtained by two civil rights groups, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and are being published here for the first time. Internal communications from Department of Homeland Security officials, released through this lawsuit, also revealed the existence of a document described by DHS officials as the “Race Paper,” which was the subject of a filing by the civil rights groups on Monday.
From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out After 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)
February 6, 2014
Watch Part 2 of our extended discussion with three of the antiwar activists who broke into an FBI office in 1971 in Media, Pennsylvania. The burglars, John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth, are speaking out this week for the first time following the publication of Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.
Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we bring you part two of this fascinating discussion, the solving of a mystery during the Vietnam War era that wasn’t solved ’til this week. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So we continue our discussion looking at how activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and disclosed secrets about the FBI’s COINTELPRO program—that is, Counterintelligence Program.
AMY GOODMAN: Until this week, their identities were not known. Joining us are two of the people who broke into the FBI’s offices, John and Bonnie Raines. John and Bonnie hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglaries at their home, where they were raising three children. Bonnie worked as a daycare director. She helped case the FBI office by posing as a college student interested in becoming an FBI agent. John Raines was a veteran of the Freedom Rides movement, a professor at Temple University. He used a Xerox machine at the school to photocopy many of the stolen documents.
We’re also joined by Betty Medsger. She is author of the new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. She first reported on the stolen documents while working at The Washington Post. The activists mailed the documents to her. She was the first to reveal them; The Washington Post, the first paper to agree to publish the information in these documents. She uncovered the identities of most of the burglars in her new book. So, 40 years ago, she broke the story, and now she’s breaking the story of the identities.
And we’re joined by David Kairys, who has worked as an attorney for the activists for over four decades, a civil rights attorney and law professor at Temple University, as well.
In the first part of our discussion, we talked about how March 8th, 1971, went down, the night of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight, using that as a cover because it would be a lot of noise and the belief that the guards would be watching this in the Media offices. But there was criticism leveled—or you feared there would be, John and Bonnie Raines—of why you did this, because you could have gone to jail for many, many years. You had three kids under 10. Professor John Raines, what was your thinking process leading up to this?
JOHN RAINES: Sure, that’s a great question. We were the only ones, out of the eight, who were not only husband and wife, but father and mother of three children under 10. And we were not into the being a martyr. We were not into jeopardizing the future of our children. We were pretty sure—if we weren’t pretty sure, we wouldn’t have, in fact, gone into that office and taken out those files. So we were pretty sure we could get away with it.
But the second thing that’s important to know is that we routinely ask, as a society, mothers and fathers to take on as part of their work highly dangerous kinds of activities. We ask that of all policemen. We ask that of everybody that works for the fire department. We ask that of mothers and fathers who are stationed overseas, sent overseas to defend our freedoms in the Army and Navy. We routinely ask of people to take on jobs that risk their families. Now, we were faced back in 1971 with nobody in Washington was going to do what had to be done if we were going to reveal what J. Edgar Hoover was doing with his FBI. We were the last line of defense. So, as citizens, we stepped forward and did what we had to do because nobody in Washington would do what they should have done. Then, after we did what we did, people in Washington, with the help of Betty’s revealing stories in the Post, then they began, finally, to oversee J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and things changed.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you spoke to family members. In the event that you were caught and imprisoned, you spoke to some of your family members and asked them to care for your children. What exactly did you tell them you were about to do?
BONNIE RAINES: Well, we didn’t tell them exactly what we had planned. We did have to let them know the high level of jeopardy and that we were doing this after much careful thought and involved with other people who we thought were responsible and careful. And we asked them, if the worst happened and we were convicted and sent to prison, if they would care for our children. So we had that conversation with John’s older brother Bob and with my mother and father.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you tell your children?
BONNIE RAINES: It was later, when they were old enough, as teenagers, to put it in perspective. We’ve always been a political family and involved our children in political activities of various kinds. But we needed to wait until it could fit into what I describe as kind of the family lore. And it was very easy and very natural to tell them about it. And they were a little bit shocked, but also quite proud, I have to say.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you tell them? Can you describe the scene? Did you actually sit them down together?
BONNIE RAINES: Can you remember that?
JOHN RAINES: I’m not sure. Do you remember it? We waited until they were, I think, teenagers, so that they could understand kind of the larger political context.
AMY GOODMAN: But this makes it even more amazing that this secret has been kept for so long.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
JOHN RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: You had four children—
BONNIE RAINES: By that time.
AMY GOODMAN: —that you told.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re just two of the eight. There was also a ninth person. And if you could tell us about him, because he pulled out before the action took place, and you had further interactions with him.
JOHN RAINES: I did. He—I won’t name him, but he showed up on our front door, the door of our house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. And he said, “I need to talk with you, John.” I said, “Well, come on in.” And we went in, and he looked me in the eye, and he said, “I think I’m going to have to turn you in.”
AMY GOODMAN: When was this?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, it was the two or three weeks after, after the break-in. So, I, you know—and he knew all the names. I mean, if he had turned us in, we were going to jail.
AMY GOODMAN: He was in on all the planning meetings.
JOHN RAINES: He was.
AMY GOODMAN: He had pulled out just at the last second.
JOHN RAINES: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say when he pulled out, by the way?
JOHN RAINES: Well, he said, “I’ve been told by my girlfriend that there are files that you still have that are highly dangerous files in terms of threatening national security, that name various missile sites, anti-missile sites, around Philadelphia and so on.” And I said, “No, no, no, there’s nothing like that in these files.” Then I said to him, “Well, why did you think there was?” And he said, “Well, my girlfriend,” and so on. I said, “Have you ever thought that maybe your girlfriend works for the FBI?” And, you know, his face went like that. And then he—he left. And he kept the secret to himself.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s because then it’s not only him; it’s also his girlfriend who knew. We’re talking about 40 years of keeping this secret.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
JOHN RAINES: His girlfriend, I think, didn’t know who we were. I don’t think he said that. I think he simply—she gave him the information that was false information. It was fed, I think, by the FBI to him that there were these very dangerous files.
AMY GOODMAN: J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to get you.
JOHN RAINES: Oh—
AMY GOODMAN: He had over a hundred agents.
JOHN RAINES: Two hundred.
BONNIE RAINES: Two hundred agents.
AMY GOODMAN: Two hundred agents. It was your Xerox machine—
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —that they were—well, tell us about the Xerox machine at Temple University that you used to make Xerox—sounds a little like Dan Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, when he xeroxed the Pentagon Papers.
JOHN RAINES: Well, back then, nobody knew—or not many people knew—that every Xerox machine leaves its own fingerprint from the drum. Every drum on every Xerox machine has its own separate fingerprint. And therefore, anything that is xeroxed on that machine can be traced back exactly to that machine. Now, when we found that out, I very quickly, you know, phoned David—phoned—
BONNIE RAINES: Bill.
JOHN RAINES: Bill Davidon.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Bill Davidon, meanwhile, is being tapped, for other reasons, or—
JOHN RAINES: He’s being tapped.
AMY GOODMAN: —for very similar reasons.
JOHN RAINES: But he’s also using the Xerox machine at Haverford College. And I said, “Hey, hey, hey, Bill.” So he went and he scratched the surface of the drum at Haverford. And—
DAVID KAIRYS: You know, the main reason—
AMY GOODMAN: David Kairys.
DAVID KAIRYS: —they didn’t get caught—I mean, you’re right. There’s all these possibilities. Life is so contingent, and things could be so different than they turn out to be. But the main thing is the FBI used a typical American law enforcement approach. It was, instead of looking for who did it and investigating a range of people, the glommed onto one person, who they were sure, for whatever reasons, did it. And he was a leader of the Catholic Left, John Peter Grady. He had raided a lot of draft boards. They were sure he did it.
AMY GOODMAN: He was Camden, New Jersey.
DAVID KAIRYS: He also did Camden.
BETTY MEDSGER: He was a lot of things.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah, he did a lot of these.
AMY GOODMAN: From Camden.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah. And they thought that he did it, so they had 200 agents, but they’re all looking for the wrong thing. You see, they’re all misdirected and not—they thought there was a locksmith, so they investigated all the locksmiths in the Philadelphia area. They didn’t know all you needed was Keith.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to bring Keith Forsyth back in a minute.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But he just learned it in a course on—I can’t say online—
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —because you didn’t have the Internet at the time, right?
BONNIE RAINES: Correspondence.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, library.
AMY GOODMAN: Correspondence course.
DAVID KAIRYS: And he made his own tools rather than go to a store and buy them, which would be a record of that. So, see, they were extremely careful. And the FBI just let itself be completely misdirected.
BETTY MEDSGER: I’d also like to add that in addition—
AMY GOODMAN: Betty Medsger.
BETTY MEDSGER: In addition to focusing on John Peter Grady, they also focused on the ninth burglar. And they put him under 24-hour surveillance within 24 hours of the burglary and continued to monitor him for weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: The one who didn’t do it.
DAVID KAIRYS: Right.
BETTY MEDSGER: The one who didn’t do it.
DAVID KAIRYS: Who John just spoke of.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, yes. There were three main people that they targeted immediately: John Peter Grady—they thought he was the leader of the group—
AMY GOODMAN: And just very quickly, explain who he is. His children are well-known as activists today, especially—
DAVID KAIRYS: Yes.
BETTY MEDSGER: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —upstate New York, taking on issues of drones.
BETTY MEDSGER: That’s right. Well, he was a—he was a leader, very prominent within the Catholic peace movement. He was the person in the Catholic peace movement who moved it from the Catonsville 9 method of going in in broad daylight and walking out and waiting for arrest.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Catonsville 9 in Catonsville, Maryland, led by Dan—Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, who burned draft records, using napalm, that they had pulled out of the Catonsville draft office.
BETTY MEDSGER: Right. And John Grady was the leader of the part of the Catholic peace movement that then took things to another level, which was: Do these actions, but do them in order to actually do damage to the ability of the draft boards, so that they can’t operate and bring people into the service, and get away with it so you can go on and raid more draft boards. He was the key person in the Catholic peace movement who believed that that was needed, that things needed to be done that way. So, the FBI had not been successful in arresting many of the people. There were, you know, 350 draft board raids and hundreds of people involved in them. And they had not been very successful at finding these people. And he was somebody that they assumed was involved in many of them, and they immediately, for that reason, I think, assumed that he had led this group. So they focused on him, they focused on the ninth burglar, and they also focused on Bonnie. But they never knew Bonnie’s name.
DAVID KAIRYS: Never knew who she was.
BETTY MEDSGER: They knew her face, and they had that image, that art sketch that had been drawn based on the memories of the men in the office who saw her.
AMY GOODMAN: We touched on this in part one, but—of our discussion, but, Bonnie Raines, can you describe what you did before March 8th, the day that you all broke into the Media office? Talk about your experience.
BONNIE RAINES: Well, many of the planning meetings and the scheduling of what we called casing the building at night took place from our house. So I was involved in much of that, but not really one of the prominent members of the group, until we realized that we needed to have someone get inside the offices to look at the possibility that there would be security measures, burglar alarms over the doors, whether the file cabinets were locked. So I was elected to do that. And I was to pose as a Swarthmore College student and disguise myself, as much as I possibly could, and make an appointment to go in and interview the head of the office about opportunities for women in the FBI. And they were very cordial. They spent enough time with me to allow me to really look around to see everything, to gather all the information.
JOHN RAINES: They didn’t notice that you kept your gloves on.
BONNIE RAINES: I kept my gloves on the whole time I was taking those—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And they never asked you your name, right?
BONNIE RAINES: No.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You never gave a name.
BONNIE RAINES: No. No, they never did. I think, in the course of conversation, I was asked where I was from. And I said, I think, “Hartford, Connecticut,” or something. But the good news was that I was able to get that last important piece of information about the inside of the office, and then that allowed us to make a decision to actually plan to go ahead with it on March 8th.
AMY GOODMAN: So, they—it was from that that they got the description of you with these fake glasses and—
BONNIE RAINES: Yes, yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —a hat on.
BONNIE RAINES: I had long hair, and I tucked my hair all up inside—it was February, so I had a winter hat and looked a little shabby, like I might have been a student on a scholarship at Swarthmore. But I was very polite, and they were very cordial, and it went very, very well. And they never noticed that I never took my gloves off the whole time I was taking notes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the night of the burglary, what did you actually do on the night, March 8th?
BONNIE RAINES: My role—we each had an assigned role, and my role was to be in a car on a side street at the building, so that if a police patrol came along on that street and would then turn around to be at the front of the building and might see our four fellow companions leaving the building, I was to pretend that my car had broken down and block the street so that they couldn’t come around to the front of the building. I didn’t have to do that, as it turned out.
AMY GOODMAN: And the other people involved, Betty Medsger, some have decided to come forward, and some haven’t. Bill Davidon, who wanted to come forward, has just recently died. He had Parkinson’s. Talk—since you spoke with him a lot—and, of course, all of you knew him, a professor at Haverford—I was actually wondering if you can tell us the story of his meeting with Henry Kissinger. This is astounding. Five days—I was talking to his daughter last night, and she said he sort of had a to-do list. You know, meet with Henry Kissinger at the White House, break into the Media offices and steal the FBI documents—that was his to-do list for the week.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah, that’s quite short.
AMY GOODMAN: But how did he end up meeting with the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing to think about, that just two days before the burglary there’s the leader of the burglary in the Situation Room of the White House. Well, Bill never missed an opportunity to make the case against the war. And he really didn’t want to go to the White House that morning, particularly, but it’s—an interesting person had set it up. Brian McDonald was a young Quaker from Philadelphia who the previous—immediately after Nixon announced that we were invading Cambodia, at the end of April in 1970, Brian came to Washington and sat on the street—sidewalk in front of the White House and was fasting and—in protest of what Nixon had done. And he was there for quite some time. And during that time, I remember Shirley MacLaine came to know him, and some other people, and they quietly introduced Kissinger to Brian. And a strange combination, but they actually became real friends, a friendship that lasted until Brian died about a decade ago. But it was Brian who knew all parties involved, the three people who came to that meeting, including Bill and Kissinger. And so, he asked Kissinger to be willing to meet with them to talk about the war. And Kissinger said—because he liked Brian so much, agreed that he would.
So, the three people were Bill and two other people, Tom Davidson and Sister Beverly Bell. All three of them were unindicted co-conspirators in an indictment that had just come down that January that involved J. Edgar Hoover. It was an indictment that charged Phil Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister and a few other people. They were indicted, and then there was a series of people, including Bill Davidon, who were unindicted co-conspirators in a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and to bomb tunnels under federal buildings in Washington.
Now, the Hoover involvement comes the previous November, when Hoover, against the advice of his officials, who hardly ever spoke up to urge him to not do something, Hoover went before a committee of two people, and then—on the Hill, a congressional committee, and then immediately distributed his statement to as many press as they could get it to afterwards. And in that statement, he announced that these people were conducting this conspiracy. And it was his typical method of trying to convince members of Congress to give him more money, which always happened. But this was a very alarming thing, the idea that these people—priests and nuns and their colleagues—were—who were known for being nonviolent activists, were planning this violent thing. And the Justice Department and the FBI had investigated this, and the FBI people had decided that there was no plan, there was no real plan, and that the case should be abandoned. And Hoover knew that, but nevertheless made that public accusation. And that was enormous news at the time.
And then, the Justice Department—again, knowing that there was no such plan—in order to save Hoover’s face, went forward with a grand jury and designed it in such a way, eventually, in a superseding indictment, that people could be found guilty if they had participated in plans not only to kidnap Kissinger or to bomb tunnels under Washington, but to raid draft boards—if they had done any one of those things. Well, they all had raided draft boards. But the impact of it all, of course, on the public was: They wanted to kidnap Kissinger or set off bombs. By the way, the case, two years later, failed, and there was no conviction. But at this time, when Bill goes to the White House with two of the other unindicted co-conspirators, they are sitting there with the person that they’re supposedly planning to kidnap. So that seemed—made it even more strange.
And what they—they had a discussion for about an hour in the Situation Room, where many aspects of the Vietnam War had been planned, and something that they were quite aware of. And it was in the—ultimately, it was a frustrating meeting, where they felt that they were meeting with a—having a civil conversation with a friendly enemy, who at that time was responsible for more bombing. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Kissinger felt he was being smeared, is that right?
BETTY MEDSGER: Felt he was what?
AMY GOODMAN: Being smeared in the academic community.
BETTY MEDSGER: Oh, you mean not by them, but elsewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, yes, that’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And part of why he wanted to meet with another professor, with Bill Davidon, to change the alienation he felt from the academic community that he valued.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, I think that’s true, although I—reading from Kissinger’s biography, I think he looked at this primarily as meeting with religious people, as he spoke of their high ideals and being in a spiritual world, whereas he was in the real world, and that they couldn’t really do anything, but he had to do something, whereas in fact they did not think of it as a religious confrontation or issue with him. They, too, were very much of the real world and wanted to see negotiations taking place and to stop the war, rather than the direction that he was taking it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And after the break-in on March 8th, 1971, Bill Davidon, whose idea it actually was, was in fact never questioned by the FBI, is that correct?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, and that relates to the case that I was just talking about. The FBI was prepared to go after Bill Davidon very, very seriously. And the Justice—when the Justice Department found out about this, they put out an order that he should not be questioned—no questioning of Bill Davidon—which was quite amazing, given his situation and the fact that he was the leader of the group. And that went into effect. And for the entire length of the investigation, Bill was never questioned by the FBI.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they put this out?
BETTY MEDSGER: Oh, I’m sorry, I meant to explain it. Because—they prohibited the FBI from questioning him because they were so intent on building a successful case in the Harrisburg indictment, and they didn’t want to bring any more confusion into the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Harrisburg indictment was?
BETTY MEDSGER: And that—yes, the Harrisburg indictment was the case of the conspiracy—
AMY GOODMAN: Of the—to kidnap Henry Kissinger.
BETTY MEDSGER: —the alleged conspiracy to kidnap.
DAVID KAIRYS: And it was a big national publicity. And Hoover was being criticized for indicting people for a conspiracy that was just ridiculous.
BETTY MEDSGER: And this would have brought more attention that they did not want brought to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we bring Keith Forsyth back in to join his other co-conspirators here at the table, I wanted to ask you, David Kairys, about the legality of all of this.
DAVID KAIRYS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, they had broken the law by breaking into the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI offices. Now, the statute of limitations is over. But can the authorities get around that, say, “New evidence has been presented: We now know their names”?
DAVID KAIRYS: That wouldn’t—that wouldn’t be a legitimate ground. There are things they could try, that, given the way they’ve been interpreted in law, would just not work. There’s really nothing they could do. Now, they do have discretion and a lot of power to put people through criminal trials even though they’re not going to win—the government. So, they could—and this is something you have to weigh in a situation like this—they could bring charges and just make you get lawyers and prepare a defense and disrupt your life, try to hold you on bail. There’s all those things they could do. But—and we would be arguing that it’s not being done in good faith, because there’s—the statute of limitations has run. So, I think, ultimately, it would work out that they are not convicted of anything, because of the statute of limitations, but you can’t—you can’t be sure that the government might not make you go through—
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI’s response today?
DAVID KAIRYS: Yesterday’s statement, I thought, was very positive. I actually had anticipated that they would say something like, “We’re looking into it. We’ll have to get back to you.” Instead of that, they seemed—they almost claimed credit for it. It’s like: Things happened that caused reforms, and we like these reforms. So, they’re—you know, they’re just reformers.
AMY GOODMAN: That could bode well for Edward Snowden.
DAVID KAIRYS: You’re—instead of FBI informers, you’re FBI reformers.
BETTY MEDSGER: They also said, I understand, to one reporter, “We didn’t have very good security.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is amazing. I mean, the actual quote of Michael Kortan, FBI spokesperson, “A number of events during that era, including the burglary, contributed to changes in how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices, including the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice.” I mean, this is very significant for Edward Snowden, because it’s saying—
DAVID KAIRYS: Oh, I think it is.
AMY GOODMAN: —if what you did led to reforms, then the good outweighed what they would consider the bad of the burglary.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean for Edward Snowden? The response has been enormous in terms of calls, not only in this country, but around the world, for reform.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: David, if you would like to weigh in on that—John, if you would like to weigh in on that, John Raines?
JOHN RAINES: Well, yeah, I think that what we were trying to do back in 1971, Snowden is trying to do right now. And that is to give the information that citizens need to decide, as citizens, what their government should do and should not do. And I think that we faced an FBI with a director called J. Edgar Hoover that was furious at us, and thank goodness we got away with it. Snowden faces governments, especially CIA and NSA, who want to make decisions about this massive kind of surveillance that they have. They vacuum up all our personal information, all of our emails, all of our correspondence. They say that they’re not listening to the emails. Well, they’ve got the technology to listen. Are we supposed to believe that they’re not listening to—you know, reading what we’re saying on our emails? That’s a—anyway, Snowden is facing the same kind of retribution of people of power, and he doesn’t deserve that. I see him as a public servant who, as a public servant, did serve the public, giving us the information we have a right to know, so that we can instruct the people in Washington what we, the people, think they should do and not do.
DAVID KAIRYS: The basic similarity in Snowden and the Media burglars, I think, for those of us who would have never had the courage to do such things, either one of them—and I include myself—they took this enormous risk, a really unbelievable personal risk, so that the rest of us could find out, in this case, what our FBI was doing or to expose wrongdoing. It’s the best American tradition. I mean, to go back to a group that’s got a different meaning these days, the original Tea Party was an illegal act. They didn’t stand there and say, “Arrest me for it.” They wanted to get away.
BETTY MEDSGER: And the Underground Railroad.
DAVID KAIRYS: Underground Railroad, the violations of the Fugitive Slave Acts. The Revolution itself, the American Revolution itself, was illegal under existing law. And I still—after 40 years of knowing these folks well, it still amazes me that they took the personal risk that they did. And this is something that, to me, should be praised.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to reunite those who were involved in the burglary that night. Some might talk about the liberation of these documents; others, the stealing of these documents. David Kairys, thanks for joining us.
DAVID KAIRYS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be joined now by Keith Forsyth, in addition to John and Bonnie Raines, and Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. She is revealing this week, in this book, the names, the identities, of most of those involved with the burglary that night, March 8th, 1971. They called themselves—they, with five others—the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. And on March 8th, 1971, they broke into the offices of the FBI in Media, Pennsylvania, and got—how many documents, ultimately?
JOHN RAINES: About a thousand.
AMY GOODMAN: About a thousand documents. Did you go through them, John Raines, before you sent them off to Betty Medsger at The Washington Post and Tom Wicker—
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, we were very careful about that.
AMY GOODMAN: —of The New York Times and Jack Nelson?
JOHN RAINES: We separated the files into what were clearly legitimate files, from our point of view—that is, they involved crime. And we didn’t want to release those files, because it had names of witnesses and things like that. That was about 40 percent of those files. Sixty percent of the files were clearly political in intent, and those were the ones we began to sort through. And we began to find—even on the morning, early morning, of the night, we began to find documents that were quite exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
JOHN RAINES: Well, like the one that said, “Let’s increase the paranoia and have these folks be persuaded that there’s a FBI agent behind every mailbox.” I mean, that is—that’s not surveillance; that’s obviously intimidation. All right? Intimidation is a political act; it’s not an act of an investigative organization like the FBI.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Betty Medsger, when—one of the most damning programs that was revealed in these documents was COINTELPRO, but when you first received the documents, you had no idea what that program was. So how long after you got the documents did you find out what this program was and what it entailed?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, the document that had COINTELPRO on it was just a routing slip. “COINTELPRO–New Left” was a label at the top. We had no idea what it was. None of us who received it had any idea what it was. The FBI was watching to see if that would ever be released. And because I wrote about something that was in that document, they knew, as of that day, that it had been released, and went into high gear. Hoover said, “We’ll stop this program.” And what he meant was, as he explained to agents, was, “We no longer use that name.” The program continued, but without that name. We had no idea what it was until, thanks to Carl Stern, by the end—at the end of 1973—
AMY GOODMAN: Of NBC.
BETTY MEDSGER: Carl Stern was the NBC reporter who covered the Department of Justice at that time. And he was in an office of the Senate committee, and they said, “Have you ever seen this?” And Carl had not seen it. And he was intrigued by the fact that at the bottom of the cover—of this routing slip were instructions for FBI agents to give the attached article on the need for control of students on campuses who were protesting the war—there was a note asking FBI agents to write anonymous letters and deliver this or mail it to unfriendly administrators, or to just hand it to friendly administrators. And Carl thought, “This is very strange.” And so, within a matter of days, he asked the FBI to tell him what COINTELPRO was and provide documentation of what it was. And they turned him down.
He went through attorney generals, various attorney generals at that time, because they were changing as a result of Watergate. And then, finally, he sued, under the Freedom of Information Act. Until then, Hoover had always instructed officials to ignore any applications under the Freedom of Information Act. But Carl pursued this through the courts and won, became the first person to succeed under the Freedom of Information Act in getting anything out of the FBI.
And what he received were the documents that immediately became news and explained that these dirty tricks operations had been going on since 1956. They were harassment. They were kind of activities that would seem to have nothing to do with law enforcement or intelligence gathering. Instead, they were secret harassment, sometimes quite violent and destroying people’s reputation.
AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples. And again, COINTELPRO means Counterintelligence Program.
BETTY MEDSGER: Counterintel. One example is what they did to actress Jean Seberg.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah.
BETTY MEDSGER: Jean Seberg, at that time, was a very popular actress. And she had made a contribution to the Black Panthers in Los Angeles, something that—and because the Panthers were under great surveillance, the FBI knew that. And she was pregnant. And a way COINTELPRO operated, agents were invited to submit proposals for these dirty tricks operations, and then the proposal would go back to Washington. And Hoover would read them and decide whether or not they should be carried out. And the proposal was to plant a rumor that the baby she was carrying, that the father of the baby was a Black Panther in Los Angeles. And Hoover was so happy with this proposal, and he wrote a response saying that he thought it was terrific. But he thought that they should wait until she was more noticeably pregnant, wait a few months, so that it would have a greater impact. The plan was to plant the rumor with a gossip columnist. And the people in Los Angeles were so eager to carry it forward that they didn’t wait until she was more noticeably pregnant. And what a freelance reporter, Allan Jallon, later revealed in the Los Angeles Times was that the FBI actually planted that rumor with editors of the Los Angeles Times, who then gave it to a gossip columnist.
AMY GOODMAN: And they knew they were getting this from an FBI source.
BETTY MEDSGER: They knew they were getting it from an FBI source. And they planted—they gave it to a gossip columnist. She wasn’t named, but the description was so obvious that people, especially in Los Angeles, knew, and she knew, that they would—I mean, Jean Seberg knew that it was she who everyone realized was the object of this. And the result was quite tragic. She was so upset when this was published in the Los Angeles Times that she gave birth very soon to a premature baby, who died very soon after birth, a white baby girl. And then, years later, on the anniversary of the birth of that dead child, Jean Seberg committed suicide. And at that time, Director Webster put out a statement that said, “We are out of this business forever. No more COINTELPRO.” But it is a dramatic illustration of how extreme many of the COINTELPRO operations were. And they were all kinds of people, not everyone well known.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. He’s Institute Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2011, Chomsky spoke to Democracy Now! about COINTELPRO.
NOAM CHOMSKY: COINTELPRO, which you mentioned, is actually the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government. It maybe compares with Wilson’s Red Scare. But COINTELPRO went on from the late ’50s right through all of the ’60s; it finally ended, at least theoretically ended, when the courts terminated it in the early ’70s. And it was serious.
It started, as is everything, going after the Communist Party, then the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Then it extended—the women’s movement, the New Left, but particularly black nationalists. And it ended up—didn’t end up, but one of the events was a straight Gestapo-style assassination of two black organizers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, literally. I mean, the FBI set up the assassination. The Chicago police actually carried it out, broke into the apartment at 4:00 in the morning and murdered them. Fake information that came from the FBI about arms stores and so on. There was almost nothing about it. In fact, the information about this, remarkably, was released at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, as compared with this, Watergate was a tea party. There was nothing, you know?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, speaking to Democracy Now! Keith Forsyth, could you talk about the significance of what Professor Chomsky said? And also, Noam Chomsky was part of the group Resist, which was one of the groups to which those FBI documents had been sent by you.
KEITH FORSYTH: Correct. So, at some point in the process after the initial mailing, Bill eventually hand-delivered all of the political documents that we had selected for distribution to the Resist office in Boston.
AMY GOODMAN: This was Bill Davidon—
KEITH FORSYTH: Bill Davidon, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —the Haverford professor and well-known antiwar activist.
KEITH FORSYTH: Yes. And one of the examples that Mr. Chomsky cited was the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, which we all knew about, but we didn’t know the extent of the FBI involvement. That came out later. As it turned out, the FBI had an informant in the Chicago Black Panther organization who provided a map of the apartment where the Panther leadership was staying, including a big X on the location where Fred Hampton slept.
BETTY MEDSGER: Fred’s bed.
KEITH FORSYTH: Fred’s bed, yeah, Fred’s bed. This map was provided to Hanrahan, the—I believe he was a district attorney in Chicago, and a—had a special unit of police whose focus was to target the Panthers. And Fred Hampton was drugged one night and was sleeping very soundly when the police broke in early in the morning. And they—they killed Mark Clark, and they shot and killed Fred Hampton—excuse me—in his bed, while he was sleeping.
JOHN RAINES: He wasn’t dead.
KEITH FORSYTH: Oh, right. That’s right.
JOHN RAINES: He wasn’t dead.
AMY GOODMAN: John Raines.
JOHN RAINES: He was shot, he was wounded, but he wasn’t dead. And then his girlfriend, who was pregnant, was in the same room, in the bedroom. Two policemen came in—two Chicago policemen came in. And they said—and she heard them say, “Well, it looks like he’s going to make it.” And one of the guys took out his revolver, put the revolver on the back of Fred’s head and blew him away, and said, “Now he’s good and dead.”
AMY GOODMAN: This was December 4th, 1969, a year and a few months before you raided the FBI offices—
KEITH FORSYTH: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —in Media.
KEITH FORSYTH: And later on—
JOHN RAINES: That’s the kind of thing that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was involved in—I mean, radically unconstitutional, illegal. They—assassination, as Keith said.
BONNIE RAINES: Horrifying, horrifying, horrifying.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
KEITH FORSYTH: Later on, there was an FBI document discussing, evaluating this raid. And I no longer recall the exact wording, but it was words to the effect of: “The result was very satisfactory. We got the result that we wanted.”
AMY GOODMAN: You, Keith, had a wrench. You had tools to break in, and that’s what you used to get into the offices. Forty years later, Edward Snowden, you know, uses his digital skills in order to get these documents. Do you identify with him?
KEITH FORSYTH: I do. His skills are far more difficult to master than mine.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn?
KEITH FORSYTH: I started with a correspondence course in locksmithing, which I took originally to assist in the draft board raid movement, to try to facilitate getting in and out of draft boards. And then—then, I also—I was actually working part-time as a locksmith on the side, in addition to driving a cab, so I got some practice there. And then we practiced—I practiced quite extensively at John and Bonnie’s house, made up a little sort of fake door with a whole—five or six locks in it, so you could, you know, work different ones, and just practiced fairly diligently to try to get the time down. So…
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Betty Medsger, can you talk about FBI Agent Welch?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes. Neil Welch played a number of important roles at that time and was an agent quite different from most FBI agents. While the culture of the FBI was dominant—dominated by Hoover’s personality and many offices of the FBI were dominated also by COINTELPRO demands and actions similar to those kinds of operations, political spying and so forth, there were a few agents who didn’t like that culture. It was very hard to resist it. But Neil Welch was an agent, a special agent in charge at various places, and he was, I think, the only special agent in charge in the FBI who refused to carry out Hoover’s orders that COINTELPRO programs take place. He refused to let his agents participate in them, and at times was placed on probation because of this.
A couple things about him later on. First of all, he happened to be the agent in charge of the Philadelphia office five years after the burglary, when the statute of limitations expired on the burglary. And it is he who signed the document closing the case. He claims—and I’m sure this is true—that it was a matter of routine; it was time to do that, since the burglars had not been found and there was no hope that they would be. I think he was also happy to do so, because he, years later, when I interviewed him, told me that although he doesn’t think that people should burglarize FBI offices, that he nevertheless thought that these people had done a heroic thing that was very important.
And something else that he did that shows the change that took place in the years immediately afterwards, Clarence Kelley became the director of the FBI, the first full director after J. Edgar Hoover. It was a—he came in at a critical time, when people in the Justice Department and Congress were first starting to look at the FBI and raise questions. And he at first defended COINTELPRO, later apologized for it. But at one point, he finally—he ordered Welch to come to Washington to go into the domestic intelligence files and go through every single one of them and test whether or not they should be held open. Very few were held open. Most of them were closed by Welch. And that was not reported at the time. It was not known. But it really symbolizes the dramatic change that did take place.
AMY GOODMAN: John Raines, can you—what did you teach at Temple University? And—
JOHN RAINES: Well, I taught Christian social ethics.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his significance, who he was?
JOHN RAINES: Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. And he spent a year or two at Union Theological Seminary, which is where I would later get my theological training. The Second World War was on, just beginning, and he decided he had to go back to Germany. He would be safe in this country, but he had decided that he was not going to choose safety. He would go back to his country, where his people were. And Hitler was very much against, of course, this theologian, this marvelous man. And finally, they decided, a group within this kind of religious underground, that they should undertake the assassination of Hitler. And his name was associated with that effort, and he was killed after that assassination failed.
AMY GOODMAN: And his influence on your decision to do what you did May 8th, 1971, with your wife Bonnie and the others?
JOHN RAINES: Well, it was a—it was an example of, one, significant identity with his nation; two, taking on grave personal risks in order to save that nation from what was happening to Germany under Hitler. And he paid the ultimate price for that. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for that. And that was a significant kind of inspiration for those of us, just like Martin Luther King was also, taking a risk for what you know to be right and following that risk, if you have to, all the way to the cross.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Betty Medsger, his influence on Bill Davidon?
BETTY MEDSGER: Well, I would just like to say something I learned about his—how both John and Bonhoeffer were influenced in their move toward resistance by African-American people. I didn’t realize, until I did the research for the book, that Bonhoeffer, after he returned to Germany and wrote about his move toward resistance, attributed his ability to decide to resist the government to what he learned here in Harlem from African Americans and about their struggle and their willingness to resist. And I found—when I discovered that, I mean, even his language in describing it was so similar to the way John described that working with African Americans, resisting with them in the South, was what gave John courage to resist.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: John, I was wondering if you could read the statement you read the morning after the burglary to a Reuters reporter. Now, this was what? March 9th, 1971.
BONNIE RAINES: About 5:30 in the morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe it. Bonnie, what was going on? You were in the farmhouse?
BONNIE RAINES: No, we were headed back to our home in our car, and it was early morning. We had decided that the statement that the group had written should be released the very same day, if possible. And so, we stopped in our car headed back into the city at a public phone, and John called a reporter from Reuters whom we’d—I think Bill Davidon had arranged that—called him, woke him up and read the statement to him over the phone.
JOHN RAINES: OK, the statement is, that I read: “On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society; two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate, instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs; finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers.”
It goes on: “As this study proceeds, the results obtained along with the FBI documents pertaining to them will be sent to people in public life who have demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to democratic values which are necessary to effectively challenge the repressive policies of the FBI.
“As long as the United States government wages war against Indochina in defiance of the vast majority who want all troops and weapons withdrawn this year, and extends that war and suffering under the guise of reducing it, as long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a small clique not subject to democratic scrutiny and control, then repression, intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected. We do not believe that this destruction of democracy and democratic society results simply from the evilness, egoism or senility of some leaders. Rather, this destruction is the result of certain undemocratic social, economic and political institutions.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to comments that Glenn Greenwald wrote on Tuesday about—Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who first broke the story about Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations. He wrote a piece yesterday, Tuesday, responding to the revelations about the 1971 FBI break-in. Greenwald writes, quote, “Just as is true of Daniel Ellsberg today, these activists will be widely hailed as heroic, noble, courageous, etc. That’s because it’s incredibly easy to praise people who challenge governments of the distant past, and much harder to do so for those who challenge those who wield actual power today.”
So, Betty, I’d like to ask you: How were your reports received then? How did people writing in response to the documents, the articles that you wrote, respond to the fact that these activists had broken into the FBI, taken these documents, and that The Washington Post had made the decision to publish them?
BETTY MEDSGER: Well, the letters to the editor were mixed. I think the majority were positive. People were shocked. They were also glad that evidence had been presented to them, that they had no idea of what existed. There were other—I mean, this was a time of Cold War attitudes still being very—so there were many people who accused us of being communist and trying to serve a communist purpose by making these documents public. There also was a very strong response among a few people in Congress that the adulation of Hoover in Congress needed to stop and questions needed to be asked for the first time—very strong effort to press for an investigation. Also, newspaper editorial writers at papers that had only written positive things about Hoover also called for investigations. I mean, that turned out to be a relatively long process, but those investigations did take place in 1975, when there was a buildup of additional revelations, including coming to understand what COINTELPRO was, and then Sy Hersh’s article in December 1974 that revealed that the CIA, in violation of its charter, was also engaged in massive domestic surveillance. That sort of was the tipping point. There was this string of things, and then Congress did. But this all started with the Media file release and the reaction.
AMY GOODMAN: And you, really, in pushing for your piece to be published, you laid the groundwork—though Katharine Graham first didn’t want to and then ultimately did—for Watergate, because the same thing was taking place with Woodward and Bernstein, but now she had the experience of releasing—releasing your piece.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, I mean, I like to think that there was a buildup of—as she became more experienced with this through time. And certainly it was—she was making very tough decisions. I mean, it’s easy for those of us who are simply finding the stories and thinking, “Boy, this is a story there’s no way they could refuse to publish,” to realize that there were pressures. And in the instance of the press—I mean, of The Washington Post, the fact that they owned television stations and the Nixon administration could threaten them with loss of those licenses was a very real thing.
AMY GOODMAN: John and Bonnie Raines, so your name is known; Keith Forsyth, your name is now known. What are your thoughts about people knowing who you are?
BONNIE RAINES: Well, I can judge most immediately by the things that came in on my phone, my emails and responses from so many people who either read the Philadelphia story or The New York Times, overwhelmingly saying, “Wow! You did an amazing thing and never talked about it, never shared it all these years. And thank you very much for what you were able to accomplish.”
AMY GOODMAN: These are your close friends.
BONNIE RAINES: These are all colleagues, work colleagues. And I’m hopeful, too, that these are people who will want to see the film, as well, 1971, because it’s a wonderful documentary and very well done. But I just—it was a flood of responses that were overwhelmingly positive.
AMY GOODMAN: And John?
JOHN RAINES: Well, the same.
BONNIE RAINES: Former students.
JOHN RAINES: Former students, yes, and all of them saying, “You did a good job, Raines. Thank you for standing your watch.”
AMY GOODMAN: And how will you deal with the glare of the media spotlight?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, lights are a funny thing. They come on, and they go off. And knowing that that’s the way lights are, it helps you get ready when the lights go on, knowing that someday they’ll go off again. And that’s fine by me.
AMY GOODMAN: And those who are not named, maybe you could address this, Betty. Someone who is named is Bob Williamson. Tell us what happened with him.
BETTY MEDSGER: Bob Williamson was a defendant in the Camden trial after the Media burglary and then moved to New Mexico. And Bob has gone through many changes. He was eager to move away from total engagement with the movement, as he knew it, in Philadelphia and to get on with a new life. And he eventually did that. He was quite happy to recall his memories of what happened and what was a very important experience in his life. He’s become a Republican and stands in very different position from the rest of the burglars today, but he still looks back on that as a very important thing and regards it as something that caused positive change. And he came to New York yesterday to see the documentary and be with his fellow burglars and brought his adult daughter to share in the sense of celebration that they all felt.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was fascinating to see him, because now he became a Republican speech writer, among other things. And with his daughter in the audience, he said, “I wanted her to know who I was before I was her father.”
BETTY MEDSGER: Right. He’s told her about some of the things that he did. I was fairly surprised to learn yesterday at lunch that he hadn’t told her about breaking into an FBI office until they were on the plane leaving Albuquerque on Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: And Bill Davidon died in November. He knew that his name would become known, but he was not shy about his antiwar activism, and he was out there all the way. Why didn’t he speak out before? Was it part of the vow you all took together?
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah.
KEITH FORSYTH: Yes.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah, sure.
BONNIE RAINES: Yeah, it was. That was so, so important that we—we were going to trust each other to maintain a silence about it. And I think we knew that Bill would do everything possible to get the word out, but not as one of the burglars. He was—he was very anxious to continue to push for the changes that he thought were so important.
BETTY MEDSGER: I’d like to say something about Bill and the keeping of secrets. Bill’s personality was—he was a very humble, modest person, while at the same time being a very strong leader. And to some extent, that’s a reflection of the qualities of the other members of the group, and one of the things that I think made it possible for them to keep the secret all these years. I’ve covered a lot of people and a lot of different kind of movements, and there tend to be some pretty dramatic egos in movements of all kinds, where I think for most people, once that five-year period passed, it would have been very tempting to want to get credit. And I was amazed when I met them and to find out that they did not have that kind of ego need.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Keith Forsyth, before we conclude, how is it—how is it for you now that your name is out, after all these decades of secrecy?
KEITH FORSYTH: I’m the kind of person that’s not really comfortable talking about myself in public. And so, it’s been—it’s been a little difficult for me. But I was persuaded that, you know, by sharing our names, it helps give the story more weight, and it makes it more difficult for people who may not share our political views to dismiss it out of hand. You know, a book like this, with all unsubstantiated sources, unnamed sources, would be, I think, a different book, both as a historical record, which I think is important, and also in terms of the effect it can have to spark a political discussion. So, I’m not anxious to be even a little bit famous, but if it—if this will help spur the discussion that we need to have in this country, then I’m willing to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I mean, what is so astounding about this—and, Betty, you touched on this—is when the FBI set its sights on someone, as they did on John Grady, thinking he headed this plot, they’re blind to everything else—and maybe that woman they had a sketch of who ended up being Bonnie Raines. But as you show on page 150 of the book, The Burglary, there is a front-page headline, Delaware County Daily Times, a picture of Bill Davidon—this is five days after the break-in—with the headline, “Davidon Unveils Plot Against FBI.” Public remarks by William Davidon about the burglary reported in a front-page banner headline in a local newspaper four days, that is, after the burglary. “As guest speaker at a meeting of clergy in Swarthmore, he read the commission’s statement”—that’s your Commission to—Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—”explaining why they broke into an FBI office.” In those five years, he was never investigated for this.
BETTY MEDSGER: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Betty.
BETTY MEDSGER: That amazing article sort of points to two things. First, the FBI was under orders at that point not to question him, his incredible immunity as a result of being investigated for Harrisburg.
AMY GOODMAN: Which protected you all in many ways.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
BETTY MEDSGER: Right, right.
BONNIE RAINES: Definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: Except for the one who dropped out. That’ll teach him. He becomes the suspect.
BETTY MEDSGER: But it also shows Bill, although I described him as this humble, unegotistical person, he also was so determined that this information become public. And the fact that the office had been burglarized wasn’t even getting attention. There were these tiny stories just saying, “Yes, not much was taken. Just a little burglary.” And he wanted it to be known that something had happened, and he was willing to go this far, but always standing back, never acknowledging that he was involved in it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Betty Medsger has written the book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. And the activists themselves—professors, taxi cab drivers, a director of daycare—who were involved with this break-in, John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, they called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
John Raines, participated in the 1971 FBI break-in and helped photocopy many of the stolen documents. He and his wife Bonnie hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglary by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. He was a professor at Temple University.
Bonnie Raines, participated in the 1971 FBI break-in and helped survey the office prior to the burglary. She and her husband John hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglary by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. She was a mother of three at the time and worked as a daycare director.
Keith Forsyth, served as designated lock-picker in the 1971 FBI break-in by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. He was working as a cab driver at the time.
Betty Medsger, author of the new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. She is the former Washington Post reporter who received an anonymous package in 1971 that contained secret documents obtained by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. Her new book about the saga has just been published.
David Kairys, civil rights attorney and a law professor at Temple University. He has represented the activists for more than four decades.
Find this story at 8 January 2014
Democracy needs whistleblowers. That’s why I broke into the FBI in 1971
February 6, 2014
Like Snowden, we broke laws to reveal something that was more dangerous. We wanted to hold J Edgar Hoover accountable
I vividly remember the eureka moment. It was the night we broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971 and removed about 1,000 documents from the filing cabinets. We had a hunch that there would be incriminating material there, as the FBI under J Edgar Hoover was so bureaucratic that we thought every single thing that went on under him would be recorded. But we could not be sure, and until we found it, we were on tenterhooks.
A shout went up among the group of eight of us. One of us had stumbled on a document from FBI headquarters signed by Hoover himself. It instructed the bureau’s agents to set up interviews of anti-war activists as “it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
That was the first piece of evidence to emerge. It was a vindication.
Looking back on what we did, there are obvious parallels with what Edward Snowden has done in releasing National Security Agency documents that show the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans. I think Snowden’s a legitimate whistleblower, and I guess we could be called whistleblowers as well.
A look back at what happened
I was 29 when my husband John and I decided to join six other people to carry out the break-in. I was a mother of three children, aged eight, six and two, and I was working on a degree in education at Temple University, where John was a professor of religion.
We had both been heavily involved in the civil rights movement. John had been a freedom rider, and in Philadelphia we participated in anti-war protests against Vientnam. Through that activity we knew that the FBI was actively trying to squelch dissent, illegally and secretly. We knew that they were sending informants into university classrooms, infiltrating meetings, and tapping phones. The problem was that though we knew all this, there was no way to prove it.
A physics professor at Haverford College named Bill Davidon called a few of us together at his home. Bill, who died last November, floated the idea of doing something to obtain evidence. He just came out with it: “What do you think about breaking into an FBI office to remove the files?” If it hadn’t been for Bill, who was so smart and strategic, I’m not sure we would have taken it seriously. But we did.
Bill articulated for all of us the frustration over the foment of those times, and the feeling that we all had of being compelled to do something as ordinary citizens because no one in Washington was holding Hoover accountable. We started looking into the feasibility of a break-in. Right away, we found out the main FBI office in Philadelphia was in a high-rise in the center of the city, and that it was impregnable. Then we learned there were other field offices in the suburbs, and that lead us to Media.
John and I lived in a big old house in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, and we set aside a room in the third floor to be our base of operations. We lined the walls with maps of Media. We had to tell our elder children not to talk to anyone about the maps on the walls. Even though they knew nothing of our plans, we worried the detail might give something away.
We cased the FBI office in Media for about three months. Two of us would go and watch activity in and around that building, record people going in and out and the patterns of police patrols.
I was chosen to carry out the last piece of casing, which involved getting into the office during business hours to check out its security systems. I called and made an appointment to interview the head of the office, under the ruse that I was a Swarthmore College student researching opportunities for women in the FBI.
I tried not to arouse suspicions, tucking up my long hippy hair in a hat, wearing glasses and gloves throughout the interview even though I was taking notes. Through that visit I learned there was no security, none at all, in the office – even the filing cabinets were left unlocked.
I think it was Bill Davidon’s idea to choose 8 March 1971 as the operation’s date. It was the night of Muhammad Ali’s fight against Joe Frazier, and we thought people would be listening on their radios and that the police would perhaps be a little less vigilant.
As the day approached, we both grew anxious. We had three children, there was a lot at jeopardy. We knew that if things went wrong and we were convicted, we could go to federal prison for a long time. We talked to my husband’s brother and to my parents, without telling them the details, and asked them to take care of our children if the worst happened.
John wasn’t sleeping well. I was a little more bold and determined, a little gung-ho I guess. My association with good people in the movement gave me strength, and the idea that citizens have to take responsibility for when our rights are being abused.
Four of us broke into the FBI office. Keith Forsyth had trouble picking the lock, which was daunting. My job that night was to distract any patrolling police cars by pretending my own vehicle had broken down. Luckily, no police drove by.
We spent a week going through the documents and then mailing them out anonymously to congresspeople and some progressive journalists. All the journalists, including the New York Times, returned the documents to the FBI under pressure from the Nixon White House. Everyone was afraid of Hoover, except the Washington Post. After the Post published the documents, everyone else jumped on board.
We were so happy that, finally, the right kind of information was getting out, and that it was accurate information that could stir things up. It had that effect, too – it really did stir things up. When the Church Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church from Idaho, was set up to look into FBI and intelligence operations and policies, we felt our work was done.
Democracy needs whistleblowers
Democracy needs whistleblowers. Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.
On our part, you could accuse us of being criminals – and Hoover did just that: he was apoplectic and sent 200 agents to try and find us in Philadelphia. “Find me that woman!” he screamed at them.
But to us there didn’t seem to be an alternative at that point. No one was going to be hurt. We hoped for the outcomes that we wanted. We knew, of course, that we were breaking law, but I think that sometimes you have to break laws in order to reveal something dangerous, and to put a stop to it.
For five years we lived under the threat of arrest. There was a sketch of me that the FBI circulated from when I impersonated a Swarthmore student, though I didn’t know it at the time. And the FBI interviewed John, luckily while I was out of the house. After five years, the statute of limitations fell for the burglary, and we were relieved. We didn’t celebrate on the fifth anniversary, though after that we were more relaxed. We now know they closed the case in 1976 for lack of any physical evidence.
Eventually, we told the children, and the story became part of family lore. We wanted them to know about that chapter in our history, and besides, you can’t ask your children to act according to their conscience unless you show them what you have done in your life, too.
I still worry a great deal about the state of our democracy. Back in 1971, the country was so divided, there was so much foment, but there was also much determination to change things, and people felt empowered to do so.
Nowadays, the country is divided once again, but I don’t see much concern about the abuses that are happening today, like the surveillance of mosques in America, using agent provocateurs. I hear people say, “I don’t care,” the government can do what it needs to do as long as it protects me from terrorism …” To me, that’s giving the authorities blanket permission to cross the line again.
Dissent and accountability are the lifeblood of democracy, yet people now think they just have to roll over in the name of “anti-terrorism”. Members of government thinks it can lie to us about it, and that they can lie to Congress. That concerns me for the future of my children and grandchildren, and that too makes me feel I can talk about, at my age, doing something as drastic as breaking-in to an FBI office in the search for truth.
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 18.22 GMT
Find this story at 7 January 2014
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Remembering an earlier time when a theft unmasked government surveillance
February 6, 2014
(Henry Burroughs/ AP ) – In his office in the Executive Office Building, President Richard Nixon meets with Attorney General John N. Mitchell, left, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in Washington on May 26, 1971.
On March 24, 1971, I became the first reporter to inform readers that the FBI wanted the American people to think there was an “FBI agent behind every mailbox.” That rather alarming alert came from stolen FBI files I had found in my own mailbox at The Washington Post when I arrived at work the previous morning. ¶ It was the return address on the big tan envelope that prompted me to open it first: “Liberty Publications, Media, PA.” I had worked at the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia before coming to The Post in January 1970, so I knew of Media, a small town southwest of Philadelphia. ¶ The letter inside the envelope informed me that on the night of March 8, 1971, my anonymous correspondents — they called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI — had broken into the Media FBI office and stolen every file. They did so, I learned later, in the dark and as the sounds of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing match filled the streets.
“Enclosed you will find,” the letter said, “copies of certain files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI which were removed by our commission for public scrutiny. We are making these copies available to you and to several other persons in public life because we feel that you have shown concern and courage as regards issues which are, in part, documented in the enclosed materials.”
I wasn’t aware of having shown any courage, but I was, to put it mildly, eager to read those files — 14, as it turned out, of 1,000 files that they had taken.
For 43 years the people who sent those files to me then have remained unknown to the general public. This week, five of the Media FBI burglars — a group that pulled off an act that led to congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies, congressional oversight and significant reforms in the FBI — are coming forward for the first time.
In a book I have written and in “1971,” a documentary film by Johanna Hamilton, the burglars tell their story — the ultimate result of a chance encounter I had at a dinner party in 1989 with acquaintances in Philadelphia, who told me they were involved in the Media burglary.
There were eight of them. Seven have now explained why and how they broke into an FBI office, with five of them revealing their names: William C. Davidon, then a physics professor at Haverford College and the leader of the group, who died in November; John C. Raines, then and until recently a religion professor at Temple University; Bonnie Raines, a day-care center director then and since the director of organizations that advocate for children; Keith Forsyth, then a cabdriver and now an electrical engineer; Bob Williamson, then a social worker and now a life and business coach based in Albuquerque. The other surviving burglars who came forward live in Philadelphia.
‘Enhance the paranoia’
When I first looked at the contents of that envelope from Liberty Publications, I had no idea who might have done such a thing.
The first file I read grasped my attention. In it, FBI agents were encouraged to increase interviews with dissenters “for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
If the FBI had paranoia as a goal of its intelligence operations, it was significant news.
Every document told a story about FBI power that was unknown to anyone outside the FBI. One, signed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on Nov. 4, 1970, had two subject headings — “Black Student Groups on College Campuses” and “Racial Matters.” It was the first of numerous FBI files I would receive from the anonymous burglars over the next two months that revealed Hoover’s programs targeting African Americans. The files revealed that African American citizens were watched by FBI informers everywhere they went — the corner store, classrooms, churches, bookstores, libraries, bars, restaurants. Every FBI agent was required to hire at least one informer to report to him regularly on the activities of black people. In the District, every agent was required to hire six informers for that purpose. On one campus in the Philadelphia area, Swarthmore College, every black student was under surveillance.
In these documents, Hoover conveyed a sense of urgency about the need to monitor black students: “Initiate inquiries immediately. I cannot overemphasize the importance of expeditious, thorough, and discreet handling of these cases. . . . Increased campus disorders involving black students pose a definite threat to the Nation’s stability and security.”
When I finished reading the files I received that day in March, I knew I held in my hands either a cruel hoax or information the American public needed to know about its most powerful law enforcement agency and the FBI director it had long adored.
Within an hour, the FBI confirmed that the files were, indeed, copies of the ones stolen from the Media office.
By late afternoon, when I submitted my article, I was surprised to learn that it might not make it into the paper. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who would later serve time in prison for his role in the Watergate affair, had called two editors, executive editor Ben Bradlee and national managing editor Ben Bagdikian, multiple times that afternoon urging them not to publish.
Two members of Congress — Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) — and the Washington bureaus of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times had also received the files. All four of those recipients immediately handed them over to the FBI.
Late that afternoon, Mitchell called the publisher, Katharine Graham, and again demanded that The Post not publish an article. Finally, at 6:45 p.m., he released a statement urging “anyone with copies of the records to neither circulate them further nor publish them.” Disclosure of the files we possessed, he said, could endanger lives, disclose national defense information and give aid to foreign governments.
Tough words, especially for an attorney general who, I discovered years later from the 33,698-page record of the FBI’s official investigation of the Pennsylvania burglary, had neither read nor been briefed on the files before he issued those dramatic claims.
At first, Graham did not want to publish the article. The Post’s legal counsel, Tony Essaye, also opposed publication. After hours of heated discussion on the unprecedented question of whether to publicize secret government documents stolen by people outside the government, Graham approved publication at 10 p.m. The story was immediately released on The Post’s wire service and appeared the next day on the front pages of many papers, including The Post.
The editors had convinced Graham that the responsibility to reveal this information far outweighed concern about how it became available to us. It was important for people to have access to the information — even if it were the fruit of a burglary — that the FBI engaged in practices that had never been reported, probably were unconstitutional, and were counter to the public’s understanding of Hoover and the FBI.
The reaction to the story was swift and angry. Members of Congress who had never expressed anything but kind words for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI now issued unprecedented calls for a congressional investigation of the bureau.
Covering up COINTELPRO
One of the most important Media files was a mere routing slip. On the top of it was the then-unknown term COINTELPRO. That program included clandestine efforts that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his closest associates interpreted at the time as a blackmail threat intended to persuade King to commit suicide. Hoover desperately wanted to keep the operation secret.
Because I wrote about the document attached to the routing slip, Hoover and his top aides knew on April 6, when that article was published, that the term COINTELPRO was known outside the department. Hoover immediately wrote to the heads of all field offices conducting these top-secret counterintelligence operations and ordered them to stop submitting status letters, apparently in an effort to increase security. At the same time, he told them they must “continue aggressive and imaginative participation in the program.”
Three weeks later, fear that the operations would one day become public convinced Hoover to take the more extreme step of eliminating the code name COINTELPRO. Officials were to say the program had been closed. Actually, it continued, but with no name.
The nature of the program was first revealed in 1973 by NBC journalist Carl Stern, who successfully sued the FBI for documents that defined the purpose of COINTELPRO, which was initiated by Hoover in 1956. Numerous such operations were revealed during the 1975 hearings of the Senate select panel known as the Church Committee, the first congressional investigation of all intelligence agencies.
A surprise at dinner
Many years after the Media burglars opened the door to Hoover’s secret FBI, I accidentally found two of them, John and Bonnie Raines. On a trip to Philadelphia in 1989, I had dinner at their home one evening. I had known them as acquaintances when I worked in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and had not seen them for many years. Their youngest child joined us briefly. John turned to her and said, “Mary, we want you to know Betty because many years ago, when your dad and mother had information about the FBI we wanted the American public to know, we gave it to Betty.”
That statement didn’t mean anything to Mary, but it almost knocked me off my chair. When she left the room, I asked the obvious question: “Are you saying you were the Media burglars?”
They happily admitted they were. John Raines had not planned to tell me, he says. He just happened to blurt it out. Among the many things I learned that night was that the eight burglars had all agreed to take the secret to their graves. A few weeks later, I asked them if they would find the others and together consider breaking that vow so that this important gap in history could be filled. Shortly after that, on a part-time basis while I continued to teach journalism, I started my research about them, the investigation into the burglary and the impact of what they had done.
As the Media burglars came forward this week, inevitably people have linked them to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who last year began releasing documents showing massive government surveillance.
There are similarities in their stated motivations: They all sought to give important information to the public about overreaching intelligence agencies.
Davidon, the leader of the Media group, thought that suppression of dissent was a crime against democracy. If documentary evidence was presented to Americans, he was confident they would take action to stop it. He was right. The burglars found the evidence and the public acted.
In the case of the Snowden files, it is not clear what action the public might demand that Congress take.
It is clear, though, that twice in the past half-century, Americans have had to rely on burglars — not official oversight by Congress, the Justice Department or the White House — for crucial information about their intelligence agencies’ operations.
Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of “The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.”
By Betty Medsger, Published: January 11 E-mail the writer
Find this story at 11 January 2014
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NBC reporter recounts breaking FBI spying story
February 6, 2014
On the Dec. 6, 1973 “Nightly News,” Carl Stern becomes the first reporter to expose COINTELPRO, a now-notorious FBI program that infiltrated and disrupted civil rights, anti-war and other political dissident groups.
The files stolen from an FBI office outside Philadelphia in 1971 were stunning, describing secret efforts to spy on student protestors and infiltrate civil rights groups.
But one document proved especially interesting to the NBC News correspondent who would later break the news of the FBI’s most notorious secret program of nationwide domestic surveillance. It discussed a proposal from bureau headquarters that agents send letters “anonymously” to college professors who had “shown a reluctance to take decisive action” against left-wing protestors. And it included a cryptic acronym he’d never seen before: “COINTELPRO.”
“The first question that popped in my mind was, ‘By what authority do FBI agents write anonymous letters?’” recalls Carl Stern, who covered the Justice Department for NBC News for nearly 30 years. He also wanted to know what “COINTELPRO” stood for. But when he pressed those questions with top DOJ officials, “nobody would talk to me about it.”
Stern recalled his efforts to learn more about the document—and the mysterious reference to “COINTELPRO” — on Tuesday after the confession by three former peace activists that they had committed the unsolved burglary of the Media, Pa. office in order to document what they were convinced was “massive illegal surveillance” by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The identities of the burglars are revealed in a new book, “The Burglary,” by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, and were reported Tuesday on the “Today” show.
Read the NBC News report on the burglars who came forward.
In the bombshell book, “The Burglary,” journalist Betty Medzger exposes the robbers behind the momentous theft from an FBI office outside Philadelphia over 40 years ago. The perpetrators have come forward in an interview with NBC News.
The burglars cracked open the door to exposing illicit FBI snooping by stealing the files and sending them to select journalists, but it was Stern who opened it all the way. Using a then-novel tool called the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents from the government, Stern uncovered the long-running surveillance program known as COINTELPRO, a now-infamous effort at political intimidation and disruption that may have been Hoover’s biggest secret.
As Stern recalled it, when his initial inquiries about COINTELPRO were rebuffed, he refused to take no for an answer and sought an explanation over lunch with L. Patrick Gray, who had become acting director of the FBI after Hoover died in 1972. He got back a terse letter in Sept. 1972. “This matter involved a highly sensitive operation,” it read. “It has now been discontinued” and any further disclosures “would definitely be harmful to the Bureau’s operations and to the national security.”
So Stern filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. And with the help of a sympathetic judge, the late Barrington Parker, he finally got the first documents describing what COINTELPRO was, and broke the story on NBC’s “Nightly News” on Dec. 6, 1973. “Secret FBI memos made public today show the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered a nationwide campaign to disrupt the activities of the New Left,” said John Chancellor that night introducing Stern’s report. “He ordered his agents not only to expose New Left groups, but to take action against them to neutralize them.”
Those documents opened the floodgates to hundreds more over the years as Congressional investigations followed. They showed that Hoover had started COINTELPRO in 1956, first targeting the Communist Party and then expanding the program over the years to include the Socialist Workers Party, black nationalists, New Left groups and the Ku Klux Klan. Agents were directed to harass and intimidate leaders, plant false stories and write anonymous letters aimed at discrediting them. In one case, the bureau planted a false story that film star Jean Seberg, known to have financially supported the Black Panther Party, had been impregnated by one of its leaders. In another, it sent a tape to Coretta Scott King, wife of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. containing secretly made audio recordings of her husband’s extramarital affairs.
“It was a very abusive program, it had no law enforcement purpose,” said Athan Theoharis, a leading scholar of the FBI’s history and a professor emeritus at Marquette University. “Clearly, what the bureau was doing was trying to contain organizations whose politics the FBI viewed as abhorrent.”
Stern agrees. “They made a decision about which individuals and organizations were doing things that they regarded as un-American and harmful,” he said, “and that’ s not the bureau’s job.”
Ironically, Hoover quietly terminated COINTELPRO shortly after the Media, Pa. break-in, afraid details of the program would come to light. Within a few years, prodded by the bad publicity and the findings of a Senate committee headed by the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the Justice Department issued new guidelines prohibiting the bureau from engaging in any such activities and barring investigations based on First Amendment-protected political activity.
By then, a later FBI director, Clarence Kelley, would do something Hoover is not known to have ever contemplated. He formally apologized for COINTELPRO. “We are truly sorry we were responsible for instances which are now subject to such criticism,” Kelley said in a 1976 speech at Westminster College in Missouri. “Some of those activities were clearly wrong and quite indefensible.”
Theoharis said those changes might never have taken place if the Media burglars had not stolen the FBI’s secret files — and Stern had not followed up on what they did.
Wednesday Jan 8, 2014 2:00 AM
By Michael Isikoff, NBC News National Investigative Correspondent
Find this story at 8 January 2014
How to Burglarise the FBI The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did it back in 1971
February 6, 2014
For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules – even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: they would raid an FBI office.
On the 8th of March, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burgled the FBI.
Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader, William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in federal prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.
John and Bonnie Raines’s wedding photo, 1962
As they ate, Davidon outlined his plan. We are going to break into an FBI office, steal every document, mail the internal FBI files to the press and expose the FBI’s crimes to the nation. He was neither loud nor flashy. His was a leadership that came with the spark of conviction, the sensibilities of a lifelong educator.
But to attack the FBI meant directly confronting J Edgar Hoover, one of the most powerful men in America. For nearly five decades, Hoover had shaped the FBI to his liking, personally deciding who was a true American and who was an enemy of the state. “When Hoover was director, there were no guidelines. He was the guideline and he told agents what they can do and they can’t do,” said former FBI Special Agent Wes Swearingen, who was active from 1951 to 1977. “He did not ask any president or any attorney general what he could do. In fact, he kept it secret. That gave him a lot of power because everything was so secretive.”
Hoover used FBI agents to draw up a list of tens of thousands of “subversive” Americans to be rounded up and arrested in the event of a national emergency. He organised nationwide programmes to harass and disrupt political activists. “We used to set up Black Bag Jobs which were actually illegal searches because we did not have search warrants… and I did or knew about approximately 500 [of these] in the Chicago area alone,” Swearingen told me. “Hoover was very abusive because we were talking about innocent people being put in jail and people being assassinated, like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark [leaders of the Black Panther Party] in Chicago. That was a definite arrangement by the FBI for the Chicago Police to go in and kill all the members. And I was told personally by an agent that I used to work with, that that’s what happened.”
Despite his reign of abuse, no one in Washington dared challenge the man who knew too much. “Somebody had to do it. And those of us who referred to ourselves as the ‘Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI’ took that task as our task in the early months of 1971,” says John Raines, a professor of religion at Temple University and, along with his wife Bonnie, a former member of the Citizens’ Commission. “If we did not do it, it would not get done. And J Edgar Hoover would have continued to turn his FBI into a kind of proto-Gestapo.”
It had been Davidon’s idea that burglering the FBI would show how the venerated bureau was out of control, running illegal operations, ignoring the US Constitution and disrupting fundamental democratic rights. Secrecy was a must. They each knew that if even one of them talked, slipped up or got caught, the entire group was going down.
The FBI office was located on the second floor of the County Court Apartments in Media, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Betty Medsger)
An FBI office in the small town of Media, Pennsylvania caught Davidon’s attention. Media was just outside of Philly, and when he drove by the offices, Davidon was convinced that the three-story brick office building was vulnerable. These smaller FBI offices, known as “Resident Agencies”, often housed less than a half-dozen agents and had less sophisticated security measures. The Citizens’ Commission now had their target.
Throughout January and February of 1971, the Raines’s third floor attic morphed into a command centre. Sheetrock was hung on one wall and quickly filled with handwritten notes and operational details. Escape routes were planned. A large map of Media was hung on the wall and a diagram of the FBI office slowly took shape. Brainstorming sessions led to a chart with questions: How long does it take the courthouse guard to make rounds? Is it predictable? Are there regular police patrols?
Davidon wanted no detail left unstudied. He assigned each team member a specific set of tasks. John Raines was chosen to drive the getaway car – the family station wagon. He would wait in a parking lot miles from the operation, ready to receive the stolen goods. Once the documents were squirrelled away in a safe house, it would be John and Davidon who would write up the analysis. They were both in their early 40s, long-term strategic thinkers, men who had joined the Civil Rights Movement long before it was hip and risked their life by travelling to rural Mississippi in the early 1960s as part of a movement known as “The Freedom Riders”.
Keith Forsyth, part-time cabbie and lock picker
Forsyth was the one-man entry crew. While the others sat around a table up in the attic, Forsyth installed a board with multiple locks lined up like a hardware store collection. While the others debated entry strategies, escape routes and how to avoid being arrested, Forsyth picked locks. “Every lock is an individual, they all behave differently so I would go up and down practicing. I would do all [the locks] clockwise, rotating and going up and then back counterclockwise. Every so often I would either swap out a lock or I would take a lock out, take it apart and put a new combination in it. When I was really good, I probably could do most locks in about 30 seconds.”
As the burglary plan took shape, Forsyth was given another task: he would help with surveillance. The burglars began night operations, staking out the Media FBI office in pairs. They developed a formal routine. Every weeknight from 7PM to midnight the crew spied, took notes and honed the details of the operation.
“It was boring. You’re watching out the door, constantly waiting for a cop car to go by. A cop car goes [by] and then you wait another hour before you see the next one,” said Forsyth. “You have two people sitting in the back of a van with curtains over the windows in the dark, for hours at a time. It would be pretty hard to explain that if a cop actually saw your eye move behind the curtain.”
The activists were clear that the raid had to take place at night, after the agents had left but not so late as to raise suspicions. They found an ideal date. On the 8th of March, 1971, Joe Frazier was scheduled to fight Muhammad Ali. Millions would be watching and listening. While Ali and Frazier fought inside Madison Square Garden, the burglars could use the noise of the radio and TV broadcasts as cover.
After two full months of casing the FBI by night, the team understood well the outside routines. But what was happening inside the FBI offices? The Citizens’ Commission agreed that someone needed to spend some time undercover in the offices.
Bonnie Raines with her daughter, Lindsley, in 1971, the year of the robbery
Bonnie Raines volunteered. She looked younger than her 29 years, had a bubbly Midwestern charm and was extremely attractive. In late February, she disguised her long hair by carefully tucking it inside a woollen hat. She wore oversized glasses that were not part of her normal getup. A pair of leather gloves allowed her to take notes without leaving fingerprints. Under the guise of investigating work opportunities for women at the FBI, Bonnie set up an appointment to interview an agent inside the office. While Bonnie kept the conversation on track, she made a handful of mental notes. The filing cabinets did not appear to have sophisticated locks, and there was no visible alarm. There was also a second entryway, a door barricaded by huge filing cabinets. Loaded with information, Bonnie left the office surer than ever that the operation was possible.
As plans began to solidify, Jonathan Flaherty, one of the burglars, got cold feet. With little explanation, Flaherty left the group, hardly explaining his fears or motivations. The group was stunned. Flaherty could sink them all with a single phone call. Davidon pushed on. He tried to ignore the possibilities of the defector. He’d already hurdled dozens of challenges.
At 7PM, on the 8th of March, the burglars gathered at a Holiday Inn several miles from the FBI office. They arrived in separate cars and waited. Forsyth was sent to pick the locks. He had already scouted the premises, found a pair of locks he could pick, and figured his well-practiced routine would take approximately 30 seconds. He approached the office in a Brooks Brothers suit and tie, clean-shaven and confident, but when he saw the door, he panicked. A second, far more sophisticated lock had recently been added, one that would be impossible for him to pick. “I was very upset, because immediately my plan had been to go up there, open those two locks, make sure there was no alarms and leave. I planned to be out of there in five minutes or less. And so my immediate instinctive reaction was that this whole thing was down the tubes.”
Forsyth returned to the Holiday Inn, “I can’t do it,” he bluntly told the gathered crew. Davidon marshalled the frustration and began to think aloud. What other ways might work? Do we have a second door? During her casing mission, Bonnie had seen another door, but it was barricaded by a huge filing cabinet. Davidon thought it would work, while also warning that knocking over the file cabinet meant near-sure arrest. They decided to go for it and headed back to the office.
Now Forsyth’s bragging rights were tested. He found the barricaded door, which had just one lock. He picked that in his standard 30 seconds. Then using a crowbar and part of a car jack he painstakingly inched the massive file cabinet away from the door. Instead of a quick 30-second entry, it was closer to an hour of painstaking work. “My feet are braced up against the wall and I am pulling the jack very, very slowly trying to feel what is happening on the other side. Trying to feel whether this thing is slipping or tipping or not,” said Forsyth. “I was trying to stay calm but, you know, what are you going to say if somebody walks up and says, ‘By the way, young man, why are you laying on the floor with a four-foot steel bar in your hands stuck inside the FBI’s door?’”
While he strained, Forsyth silently thanked Ali as sounds of the heavyweight fight echoed throughout the building. Then he panicked. “I heard this sort of banging, a bang sound from inside, and of course I froze instantly. It was an old building. Was this the steam heat? Or was it an FBI agent who tripped over something? I had no way of knowing. “
Forsyth finally wedged the door open far enough to slip his skinny frame into the FBI offices. “I had this little moment where I thought, ‘Well, if they’re in there I’m going to find our right now.’ I squeezed through and tried to be as calm as I could. I looked around and there was nobody there.”
Next, a two-man, two-woman team entered the FBI offices carrying empty suitcases. They worked stealthily in the dark. A flashlight dimmed with tape was used sparingly. The “inside crew” methodically wrenched open desk drawers and file cabinets. Careful not to make noise or leave the slightest evidence, they quietly filled up their oversized suitcases with documents. They also grabbed an autographed photo of J Edgar Hoover as a trophy. The well-dressed burglars then strolled out to waiting cars in front of the offices, loaded up two vehicles with suitcases and were driven off.
The Quaker farmhouse 40 miles outside of Philadelphia, where the burglars reconvened after the robbery to examine the stolen documents. (Photo by Betty Medsger)
Davidon had long before decided that the documents should be kept at a central location, preferably rural. He didn’t want to risk an FBI raid in Philadelphia, so he quietly asked a friend to lend him the farmhouse at Friendship Farm, a Quaker retreat. Once the burglars reconvened at the farmhouse they immediately opened the suitcases and began sorting documents. From the onset they had agreed to destroy any legitimate criminal records – alerting bank robbery suspects that the FBI was after them was not part of the plan. They wanted evidence the FBI was harassing political activists. As Davidon had repeatedly stated to the group, if Hoover was trying to squash dissent in the United States, the documents would prove it.
The group spread the documents across the kitchen table, counters, a dining room table and even atop chairs as they began sorting. Within an hour they found evidence. In an internal FBI document, agents were taught that harassing and infiltrating legitimate political organisations was a particularly effective technique. It might help, the document suggested, to “enhance the paranoia… get across the point there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.
Another document was a routing slip with the word COINTELPRO – short for Counter Intelligence Programme – a top secret programme little known outside the FBI, which was at the heart of the Bureau’s dirty tricks and harassment campaigns versus political activists.
“We discovered very quickly that we had not acted in vain. Now we had documentation that proved our suspicions to be accurate,” said John Raines. “And then, with those documents, we were able to get the proof on what J Edgar Hoover was making his agents do.”
The burglary had literally turned the FBI inside out. The masters of covert entry and burglaries had themselves been targeted. “I don’t think anyone [at the FBI] ever thought anyone would have guts enough to try to break into the FBI,” said Swearingen, the former agent. “The frame of mind in the FBI was ‘Nobody’s going to break into an FBI office. They’ve got to be crazy.’ But hey, people break into banks all the time.”
Hoover’s paranoia flourished. Was Media the first of many attacks? Would all his secrets be revealed? Already weakened by age and losing his grip on power, he panicked. He ordered armed agents to sleep inside FBI offices nationwide. “I would go to the Santa Barbara [FBI] office and lock the door at night and I would sleep in there overnight. We had old army cots…and that was nationwide,” said former FBI agent Swearingen. “They spent millions of dollars putting in a security system for all these different resident agencies around the country. It’s like they locked up the barn after the horse was stolen.”
The next hit on Hoover, however, came not from the burglars but from The Washington Post. The Citizens’ Commission sent the Post a packet of 14 government documents. Attorney General John Mitchell got wind and pressured executive editor Ben Bradlee to keep the information secret. Bradlee refused, citing the public interest in the FBI’s activities. It was clear to Bradlee and young reporter Betty Medsger that the original documents mailed to the Post were the tip of a far larger scandal. Medsger poured her energy into the story – the documents had been addressed to her, and she quickly figured that her previous job writing about anti-war activists for Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin was directly connected to the burglars choosing her.
The Burglary, by Betty Medsger, published through Alfred A Knopf
The Post supported her work with front-page exclusives and a harsh editorial condemning the FBI. For Medsger, it would be the story of her life. In her recently released book The Burglary, Medsger weaves together the tales of the burglars and the long history of Hoover’s disdain for democracy.
For Hoover, the lack of investigative leads in the burglary was infuriating. Particularly galling to the FBI director was the lack of arrests. Despite a six-year investigation and a file that stretched to 33,000 pages, no member of the Citizens’ Commission was ever charged. The case was eventually closed, but the FBI was never the same. “It brought the FBI to its senses. Up until that time, they were just kind of free-ruling and doing whatever they felt they might want to do or maybe should do,” said Swearingen, the former agent. “But [the Media break-in] brought that to a screeching halt.”
RetroReport just put out a short documentary on the Citizen’s Commission. Watch it right here.
Jonathan Franklin is an independent reporter who writes often for the Guardian. He can be followed @Franklinblog. Email inquiries, news tips and secret documents can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Franklin
Find this story at 9 January 2014
© 2014 Vice Media Inc.
Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows; Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets
February 6, 2014
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, until now.
PHILADELPHIA — The perfect crime is far easier to pull off when nobody is watching.
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 document inside.
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.
“Heroes. And a reminder to those who naively believe that the government can be trusted with the power to run a surveillance state. How quickly we forget Hoover and Nixon.”
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 Hoover’s lengthy tenure as director.
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John and Bonnie Raines, two of the burglars, at home in Philadelphia with their grandchildren. Mark Makela for The New York Times
“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
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Keith Forsyth, in the early 1970s, was the designated lock-picker among the eight burglars. When he found that he could not pick the lock on the front door of the F.B.I. office, he broke in through a side entrance.
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.
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Mr. Forsyth today. Mark Makela for The New York Times
“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.
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At The Washington Post, Betty Medsger was the first to report on the contents of the stolen F.B.I. files. Now, she has written a book about the episode. Robert Caplin for The New York Times
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 student groups.
“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.
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The F.B.I. field office in Media, Pa., from which the burglars stole files that showed the extent of the bureau’s surveillance of political groups. Betty Medsger
silentbear 28 days ago
In celebration of these folks actions, I’d like to share this song:http://youtu.be/4JIbCZen1Tg
Pat Shea 28 days ago
People in the movement knew they were getting spied on anyway. At UW – Madison, the COINTELPRO photographers would lurk in the alleys along…
Paul Lerch 28 days ago
Two thumbs up to the Rainses’, Keith Forsyth and the five others who had the courage to really put themselves at risk in order to take an…
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“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,” it read.
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 expired.
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 of Justice.”
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.
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Afterward, they fled to a farmhouse, near Pottstown, Pa., where they spent 10 days sorting through the documents. Betty Medsger
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, nobody will.”
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.
A version of this article appears in print on January 7, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe
By MARK MAZZETTIJAN. 7, 2014
Find this story at 7 January 2014
© 2014 The New York Times Company
“It Was Time to Do More Than Protest”: Activists Admit to 1971 FBI Burglary That Exposed COINTELPRO
February 6, 2014
One of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era has been solved. On March 8, 1971, a group of activists — including a cabdriver, a day care director and two professors — broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They stole every document they found and then leaked many to the press, including details about FBI abuses and the then-secret counter-intelligence program to infiltrate, monitor and disrupt social and political movements, nicknamed COINTELPRO. They called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. No one was ever caught for the break-in. The burglars’ identities remained a secret until this week when they finally came forward to take credit for the caper that changed history. Today we are joined by three of them — John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth; their attorney, David Kairys; and Betty Medsger, the former Washington Post reporter who first broke the story of the stolen FBI documents in 1971 and has now revealed the burglars’ identities in her new book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.”
Click here to watch the one-hour Part 2 of this interview.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today, we will spend the rest of the hour unraveling one of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era. On March 8th, 1971, a group of eight activists, including a cab driver, a daycare director and two professors, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every document they found. The activists, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, soon began leaking shocking details about FBI abuses to the media. Among the documents was one that bore the mysterious word “COINTELPRO.”
AMY GOODMAN: No one involved in the break-in was ever caught. Their identities remained a secret until this week. Today, three of the FBI burglars will join us on the show, but first I want to turn to a new short film produced by the nonprofit news organization Retro Report for The New York Times. It’s titled Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets.
NARRATOR: It’s the greatest heist you’ve never heard of and one of the most important.
HARRY REASONER: Last March, someone broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, stole some records and mailed copies of them around to the several newspapers.
NARRATOR: Those records would help bring an end to J. Edgar Hoover’s secret activities within the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: He ordered his agents not only to expose New Left groups, but to take action against them to neutralize them.
UNIDENTIFIED: Many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI.
NARRATOR: The burglars were never caught, and the details have remained a mystery until now. A new book, The Burglary, reveals for the first time who did it and how they used a crowbar to pry open one of the best-kept and darkest secrets in American history.
JOHN RAINES: We were early whistleblowers before whistleblowers were known as such.
NARRATOR: The burglars are stepping out of the shadows just as new revelations about secret intelligence operations have many people asking, “How much is too much when personal privacy is at stake?”
In the spring of 1970, the war in Vietnam was raging.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: American battle deaths in Vietnam now number 40,142.
NARRATOR: And at home, antiwar protesters and law enforcement officers were violently clashing.
BONNIE RAINES: It felt like a nightmare was unfolding. I took what was outrage and horror about what was going on, and I realized that I had to take it somewhere.
NARRATOR: Bonnie Raines worked at a daycare center in Philadelphia. Her husband John taught religion at Temple University. They were the very picture of a golden couple.
BONNIE RAINES: We had an eight-year-old, a six-year-old and a two-year-old. We were family folks who also wanted to keep another track active in our lives, which was political activism.
NARRATOR: That activism attracted the attention of the FBI. Its director, the powerful and feared J. Edgar Hoover, perceived the antiwar movement, which ranged from radical revolutionaries to peaceful protesters, as a threat to national security.
BONNIE RAINES: At one rally, I had one of my children on my back, and not only did they take my picture, but they took her picture.
NARRATOR: Protesters like the Raines became increasingly convinced the FBI was conducting a covert campaign against them, tapping their phones and infiltrating antiwar groups.
JOHN RAINES: We knew the FBI was systematically trying to squash dissent. And dissent is the lifeblood of democracy.
NARRATOR: Determined to get proof, the FBI was crossing the line, fellow activist and Haverford physics professor William Davidon hatched a plan. He reached out to the Raines and six others, including a social worker, a graduate student and a taxi driver named Keith Forsyth.
KEITH FORSYTH: We agreed to meet someplace where we could talk. And he says, “What would you think about the idea of breaking into an FBI office?” And I look at him, and I’m like, “You’re serious, aren’t you?” I was pretty vehement in my opposition to the war, and I felt like marching up and down the street with a sign was not cutting it anymore. And it was like, OK, time to—time to kick it up a notch.
NARRATOR: The crew decided to break into a small FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania.
KEITH FORSYTH: Once I got over the shock of thinking that this was the nuttiest thing I’d ever heard in my life, I’m like, this is a great idea, because we’re not going to make any allegations; we’re going to take their own paperwork, signed by their own people, including J. Edgar Hoover, and give it to the newspapers. So, let’s see you argue with that.
NARRATOR: In the Raines’ third-floor attic, the team divvied up responsibilities and assigned tasks. They hung maps to learn about the neighborhood, planned escape routes, and they took extensive notes on the comings and goings in the building.
KEITH FORSYTH: I signed up for a correspondence course in locksmithing. That was my job, to get us in the door. Practiced several times a week. After a month, you get pretty good.
NARRATOR: Bonnie was assigned the job of going inside and casing the office.
BONNIE RAINES: I was to call the office and make an appointment as a Swarthmore student doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI. So they gave me an appointment. I tried to disguise myself as best I could, and I went to say goodbye, and I acted confused about where the door was, and that gave me a chance then to check out both rooms and know where the file cabinets were.
NARRATOR: Bonnie discovered there was no alarm system and no security guards. She also found a second door leading inside.
JOHN RAINES: When she came back with that news, we became convinced, yes, I think we can get this done. We had more to lose than anybody else in the group, because we had these kids.
BONNIE RAINES: We faced the reality of, if we were arrested and on trial, we would be in prison for very many years. He had to make some plans for that.
NARRATOR: With a solid understanding of how they would conduct the break-in, they now needed to figure out when.
JOHN RAINES: March 8th, 1971, Frazier and Ali were fighting for the championship of the world. And we had the feeling that maybe the cops might be a little bit distracted.
NARRATOR: While the crew waited at a nearby hotel, Forsyth arrived at the office alone.
KEITH FORSYTH: Pull up, walk up to the door, and one of the locks is a cylinder tumbler lock, not a pin tumbler lock. And I just about had a heart attack. Bottom line is, I could not pick that lock.
NARRATOR: They almost called it off. But that second door that Bonnie noticed gave them another chance.
KEITH FORSYTH: At that point, you know that you’re going to have to wing it. Knelt down on the floor, picked the lock in like 20 seconds. There was a deadbolt on the other side. I had a pry bar with me, a short crowbar. I put the bar in there and yanked that sucker. At one point, I heard a noise inside the office. And I’m like, “Are they in there waiting for me?” Basically said to myself, “There’s only one way to find out: I’m going in.”
NARRATOR: Next, the inside crew walked into an empty office wearing business suits and carrying several suitcases. They cleaned out file cabinets and then made their way downstairs to the getaway car and drove off unnoticed. The group reconvened at a farmhouse an hour’s drive away and started unpacking.
KEITH FORSYTH: We were like, “Oh, man, I can’t believe this worked.” We knew there was going to be some gold in there somewhere.
JOHN RAINES: Each of the eight of us were sorting files, and all of a sudden you’d hear one of them, “Oh, look! Look at this one! Look!”
NARRATOR: After several long nights digging for documents that looked the most revealing, the burglars sent copies to journalists, including Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger.
BETTY MEDSGER: And the cover letter was from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, and the first file that I read was about a group of FBI agents who were told to enhance the paranoia in the antiwar movement and to create an atmosphere that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox.
NARRATOR: Attorney General John Mitchell asked the Post not to write about the stolen documents, saying it could endanger lives.
BETTY MEDSGER: The attorney general called two key editors and tried to convince them not to publish.
NARRATOR: But the Post did publish the story, on the front page. It was the first of several reports and told how agents turned local police, letter carriers and switchboard operators into informants.
BETTY MEDSGER: There were very strong editorials calling for an investigation of the FBI.
NARRATOR: Another stolen document would prove even more explosive: a routing slip marked with a mysterious word, “COINTELPRO.” While reporters tried to uncover its meaning, the FBI was desperate to find the burglars. The bureau put nearly 200 agents on the investigation. Hoover’s best lead was the college girl who had visited their office.
BONNIE RAINES: His command was “Find me that woman!”
NARRATOR: Agents actively searched for Bonnie, but there were many antiwar activists who fit her description.
JOHN RAINES: We could hide within, you know, thousands of people. There were so many of us who were active.
NARRATOR: Two years later, NBC reporter Carl Stern figured out the meaning of that word, COINTELPRO.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Secret FBI memos made public today show that the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered a nationwide campaign to disrupt the activities of the New Left without telling any of his superiors about it.
CARL STERN: Many of the techniques were clearly illegal. Burglaries, forged blackmail letters and threats of violence were used.
NARRATOR: The FBI initially defended its actions.
CLARENCE KELLEY: The government would have been derelict in its duty, had it not taken measures to protect the fabric of our society.
NARRATOR: But the bureau’s techniques were worse and the targets more far-reaching than the burglars ever imagined.
DAVID BRINKLEY: Diplomats, government employees, sports figures, socially prominent persons, senators and congressmen.
WALTER CRONKITE: The FBI at one time sought to blackmail the late Martin Luther King into committing suicide.
UNIDENTIFIED: Marriages were destroyed. Violence was encouraged. Many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI, and their tax returns used illegally.
AMY GOODMAN: An extended excerpt from Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets, a short film produced by Retro Report for The New York Times. To watch the full video, visit RetroReport.org.
When we come back, three of the activists join us in studio—Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raines—as well as the former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who first broke the story of the stolen FBI documents in 1971. This week, she revealed the identities of the burglars in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. We’ll go back in time and talk about today, as well. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joining us now in our studio are three of the activists who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8th, 1971. The break-in led to revelations about the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program that targeted activists across the country.
None of the burglars were ever caught. On Tuesday, their identities were revealed for the very first time. Keith Forsyth, Bonnie Raines and John Raines all lived in Philadelphia in 1971. Forsyth was working as a cab driver. He was chosen to pick the lock at the FBI office. Bonnie and John Raines hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglary at their home, where they were raising three children. Bonnie, who worked as a daycare director, helped case the FBI office by posing as a college student interested in becoming an FBI agent. John Raines was a veteran of the Freedom Rides movement and a professor at Temple University. He used a Xerox machine at the school to photocopy many of the stolen documents.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Betty Medsger, author of the new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Medsger first reported on the stolen documents while working at The Washington Post. She uncovered the identities of most of the burglars in her new book.
And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Keith, I want to begin with you. Talk about the time and how you ended up going into the FBI office. What spurred you on?
KEITH FORSYTH: So, at that time, we had just, within a few years, gone through the sort of peak of the civil rights movement, and many of the laws, like the Voting Rights Act, had been passed some years before, but the reality of racial justice was still far from complete. There were—the war in Vietnam was raging at that point in time. And so, there were many, many people who were working for change in those areas, in particular.
My main focus at that time was the antiwar movement. I was, you know, spending as much time as I could with organizing against the war, but I had become very frustrated with legal protest—didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. The government wasn’t listening. The war was escalating and not de-escalating. And I think what really pushed me over the edge was, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia, there were four students killed at Kent State and two more killed at—at Jackson State. And—I’m sorry, I’d think I’d have this down after all these years. And that really pushed me over the edge, that it was time to do more than just—than just protest and just march with a sign. And I joined the so-called Catholic Left, which is where I met John and Bonnie and also Bill Davidon. And from there, the next step was the Media action.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Keith, could you also talk about how you were invited to join this plan to break into—by William Davidon?
KEITH FORSYTH: If memory serves, he called me on the phone and asked—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who William Davidon was.
KEITH FORSYTH: Oh, I’m sorry. Bill Davidon, at that time, was a professor of physics at Haverford College, and I knew him mainly as a fellow activist in the peace movement. He was very prominent in Philadelphia in both the legal and the illegal peace movements. And he called me on the phone one day and asked me if I wanted to come to a party, which was code for an action. And I believe I said, “Sure, I’m always up for a party.” You can check the FBI transcript, because they were tapping his phone at the time. And so, we met at an outdoor location, where we couldn’t be bugged, and he presented the idea to me then.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Bonnie Raines, talk about your involvement. What motivated you? You were a young mother of three.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: How old were your children?
BONNIE RAINES: They were eight, six and two at that time. We’ve since had a fourth child. I became involved, as Keith said, beginning with the civil rights movement and when we lived in New York and were students. Then we moved to Philadelphia, very much opposed to the war in Vietnam, and found a whole community of activists in Philadelphia. We became acquainted with the—what was called the Catholic Left at that time. And the Berrigan brothers, Bill and Dan, were the leaders in that. And we participated with that group, called the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, in a draft board raid. We went into a draft board in the middle of the night as part of the draft resistance movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Where was that?
BONNIE RAINES: In North Philadelphia, a draft board in North Philadelphia. We targeted that draft board because it was in one of the poorest sections of the city, where they were bringing many, many, many young, poor young men into the armed forces to be sent as cannon fodder to Vietnam. Our government was lying to us about the casualties, both civilian and military casualties. So I participated, along with John, in going into a draft board and removing files and destroying those files so those young men could not be drafted.
AMY GOODMAN: And you mentioned the Berrigan brothers, the priests.
BONNIE RAINES: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Phil, the late Phil Berrigan—
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —and Father Dan Berrigan—
BONNIE RAINES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —who’s still alive. Catonsville, how significant in 1969 was this for you? I wanted to go to a clip right now—
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —of the Catonsville action. That was Catonsville, Maryland, where a group of activists, led by Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, burned draft cards with napalm. They stole hundreds of draft records and torched them. They were sentenced to three years in prison, their action helping ignite a wave of direct actions against the draft in the Vietnam War.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We do not believe that nonviolence is dead, and that we don’t believe in interposing one form of violence for another, and that we believe that an action like this will still speak to our fellow Americans and bring home to them that a decent society is still possible, but it’s totally impossible if these files, and what they represent, are preserved and honored, and even defended, as those poor women tried to.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Father Dan Berrigan, as they stood around in a circle and burned, with napalm—napalm being used in Vietnam—draft records.
BONNIE RAINES: Yes, mm-hmm. That was a very dramatic moment for all of us, I believe. It took civil disobedience to another level and really brought us, clearly, to another level of protest against the war in Vietnam. And we followed their lead in targeting the draft as one of the real evil systems of that war. And that’s how we became involved in covert actions with draft boards in Philadelphia.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, John Raines, can you talk about your sense that the antiwar movement itself had been infiltrated by FBI informants?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, sure. I mean, that was obvious, for any of us who were involved in the civil rights movement, because it happened in the civil rights movement. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was all over the civil rights movement with infiltrators and surveillance, intense surveillance, and people that would report back on meetings and so on. And, of course, we’d all know that J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI went after Martin Luther King, tried to discredit him—indeed, even sent him a note suggesting that because of his activities with other women besides his wife, he now had no option but to commit suicide. That note was sent to Dr. King, suggesting—and it was from the FBI, suggesting that Dr. King commit suicide. So that we knew, from the civil rights actions, that J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI were very much against anything that promised significant social change. We brought that information, that knowledge, north with us when we came to the antiwar movement. And it became clear that the tactics he used to disrupt and destroy—try to destroy the protest movement in the South, he was using once again against the protesters against the war in Vietnam.
The problem was, J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable. He was a national icon. I mean, he had presidents who were afraid of him. The people that we elected to oversee J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI were either enamored of him or terrified of him. Nobody was holding him accountable. And that meant that somebody had to get objective evidence of what his FBI was doing. And that led us to the idea that Bill Davidon suggested to us: Let’s break into an FBI office, get their files and get what they’re doing in their own handwriting.
AMY GOODMAN: You and Bill Davidon were professors.
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: He a professor at Haverford, you a professor at Temple University.
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you feel about the risk that you were taking? Were you concerned about getting caught?
JOHN RAINES: Well, Bonnie and I were parents, and we had three kids under 10, and that was a very serious consideration. We had to be persuaded that we could get away with this. And we had learned nice burglar skills from priests and nuns. And we had cased the FBI office in Media very carefully.
AMY GOODMAN: You had thought about Philadelphia, but thought it was too secure?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yes, it was a big building downtown, as—you couldn’t touch that. But Media, you could. And we felt quite confident that if we could get in there and get out without leaving any physical evidence behind, that we could then disappear into the very, very large antiwar movement, thousands of people in the Philadelphia area.
AMY GOODMAN: You had prepared, in case you were caught, to have your children taken care of?
BONNIE RAINES: We had. We had. We knew the risks. We knew the jeopardy. We weren’t going to be reckless. We weren’t going to move ahead with our involvement except with the leadership of Bill Davidon, who we all had so much admiration and respect for. But we did feel that it was necessary to speak to John’s older brother and his wife and to my mother and father about caring for our children if—should the worst happen and we would be convicted and sent to federal prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Keith Forsyth, you chose the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight—
KEITH FORSYTH: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —to break in. Why? Why was this so significant, March 8th, 1971?
KEITH FORSYTH: Well, it was just—you know, there were many steps that we took to try to avoid getting caught, and this was one of them, because whoever suggested it—and I have no idea who it was—thought that it would add to the distraction, not only of the police, but of just people in general. The building in which the office was located had a live-in supervisor, and his apartment was directly below the FBI office. So, he was going to be on the next floor down while we were inside walking around opening cabinets. So, anything that could keep his mind off of the ambient sounds sounded like a good idea.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did you know that you would find what documents you would find, or did you know?
KEITH FORSYTH: We didn’t know. We were—we were pretty sure. You know, bureaucracies are the same everywhere. They love to keep records. But we really—we were taking a shot. So, in that sense, we got lucky that they did keep records.
AMY GOODMAN: This brings Betty Medsger into the story, whose book this week, The Burglary, reveals the identities of the activists involved in this burglary. Looks like J. Edgar Hoover found his match in this group of people. Talk about receiving in the mail the documents. You were a reporter at the time for The Washington Post.
BETTY MEDSGER: OK. I’d just like to say something about Bill Davidon, if I might, first, that the idea was Bill’s. And Bill participated in preparations for the book and the documentary that’s been made, 1971. And we should note that we’re all very sorry that Bill’s not with us. Bill died in November. But he was sort of a genius in coming up with this idea, because although many people in the various movements at that time thought that there was—there were FBI informers in their organizations, there was no evidence of that, and the public didn’t know. And Bill had this deep commitment that if the public could be presented with evidence, they would be very upset. Even though there—Hoover was an iconic figure, that if they knew that there was massive surveillance of the—political surveillance, that they would care and do something. And that’s what happened.
I was a reporter. And one day this envelope appeared in my mailbox. And it said it was from Liberty Publications—that was the return address—Media, Pennsylvania. That didn’t mean anything to me. But when I opened it, there was a cover letter, said it was from Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. That was a new organization to me. And there was—the letter explained that a group of eight people had burglarized an FBI office on the night of March 8th, and that enclosed were some of the files that they had removed from the office.
And some of those files were very shocking. I think the one—and you showed the excerpt from this on the Retro Report—the first shock—and this also resonated very much with the public when it was published and discussed—was the one that instructed agents to enhance the paranoia and then also make people think that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox. And that was a pretty stunning statement and said so much. And the burglars were—themselves, were shocked, I understand, when they found that the first—saw that document the first night after the burglary. So that stunned me.
And I guess the other files—there were many about individuals, and they were all serious, but the—one of the things that I remember most from those files was the truly blanket surveillance of African-American people that was described. It was in Philadelphia, but it also prescribed national programs. And it was quite stunning. First, it described the surveillance. It took place in every place where people would gather—churches, classrooms, stores down the street, just everything. But it also specifically prescribed that every FBI agent was supposed to have an informer, just for the purpose of coming back every two weeks and talking to them about what they had observed about black Americans. And in Washington, D.C., at the time, that was six informers for every FBI agent informing on black Americans. The surveillance was so enormous that it led various people, rather sedate people in editorial offices and in Congress, to compare it to the Stasi, the dreaded secret police of East Germany.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about how the editors at The Washington Post responded when you showed them these documents?
BETTY MEDSGER: The editors responded very positively to them. I should point out that—two things. First, this was the first time that a journalist had ever received secret government documents from a source who had—from the outside, an outside source who had stolen the documents. So that tended to pose a different kind of consideration as to what you would do—in their minds, as to what you’d do with the documents. But it was a particularly tough decision for Katharine Graham, who until this time had never faced anything like this.
AMY GOODMAN: The publisher.
BETTY MEDSGER: The publisher, Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, because it was the first time that she had been faced with a demand from the Nixon administration that she suppress a story. And she did not want to publish. And the in-house counsel, the lawyers, also did not want to publish. But two editors, from the beginning, realized it was a very important story and pushed it—Ben Bradlee and Ben Bagdikian. I was just back there innocently writing my story, talking—I had been a reporter in Philadelphia and was talking to sources from the past, confirming information. Didn’t know until 6:00 that there was a question as to whether or not they would publish. By 10:00 that night, she decided to publish.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the reaction, and the reporters who did not get to publish the story, because you weren’t the only person that these activists sent the documents to.
BETTY MEDSGER: They sent them to five people. These are the first files that they released. They sent them to Senator George McGovern and Representative Parren Mitchell from Baltimore. And they immediately returned the files to the FBI when they received them and didn’t make them public. They sent them to three journalists. In addition to sending them to me, they sent them to Jack Nelson at the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times —
AMY GOODMAN: The great crusading reporter who wrote Terror in the Night about the Klan in the South.
BETTY MEDSGER: Right, and Tom Wicker, columnist then at The New York Times. Now, it’s also important to keep in mind, in addition to the fact that we didn’t really know—the public didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI, that very few journalists ever wrote investigative work or critical comment about the FBI. And Jack Nelson and Tom Wicker were two of about three or four who had, up until that point. At the L.A. Times, Jack never received the envelope, even though it was addressed to him, and it was delivered to the FBI immediately. I didn’t know this until years later, when I read the investigative report on the FBI’s investigation. It’s a little less clear what happened at the Times as to whether Tom Wicker received, and what they did do was the same thing: They immediately gave the files to the FBI. And—but they apparently kept them and copied them, unlike the L.A. Times, because the day after we broke the story, then they wrote stories on the same files.
AMY GOODMAN: Keith, before we go to break, can you talk about parallels to today? It is hard to look at—and for a moment, I want to turn to the Church Committee hearings that took place a few years later. Senator Frank Church of Idaho led this investigation. The Senate’s Church Committee investigated the CIA and FBI’s misuse of power at home and abroad. The multi-year investigation in the mid-’70s followed the exposure of COINTELPRO, which stands for Counterintelligence Program—and it was the first time people had seen that word, was in the documents you released—examining the FBI and CIA’s efforts to infiltrate and disrupt leftist organizations, the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, and much more. This is Senator Frank Church speaking during one of the committee’s hearings.
SEN. FRANK CHURCH: We have seen today the dark side of those activities, where many Americans, who were not even suspected of crime, were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited, and, at times, endangered.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Frank Church. The Church Committee hearings led to major changes in what the FBI could do, and also dealing with the press, as well. You listen to Frank Church, you could be hearing possible hearings today, though they haven’t started, to do with Edward Snowden.
KEITH FORSYTH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on Edward Snowden today?
KEITH FORSYTH: I think there are some parallels. It’s not an exact parallel. But, to me, one of the most significant ones is that not long before Edward Snowden released these documents, James Clapper went in front of Congress and the American public and was asked a direct question whether the NSA was engaged in this kind of surveillance, and he said no, which was obviously a lie. And I think if he had said, “Oh, we can’t talk about that because that’s national security,” I might have had some respect for that answer. But to come out and lie to the public about it—and, of course, not suffer any punishment as a result—so, to me, Edward Snowden—I’ve seen no evidence, personally, that Edward Snowden has released anything that was actually harmful to our national security. You know, certainly has been embarrassing, but, to me, the young man is definitely a whistleblower and has performed a great service by enabling us to have the conversation. You know, we couldn’t—we couldn’t have the conversation about whether this is right or wrong before, because we were not told about it. So he’s made that conversation possible, and I think—I think we owe him something, a debt for that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this conversation. Our guests are Keith Forsyth and Bonnie and John Raines. They were part of the—what they called themselves, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, activists during the Vietnam War era who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and took the documents they got and sent them to The Washington Post and other publications to let people know what the FBI was doing. We’re also joined by the woman who has revealed the names of these activists—and we’ll talk about why they decided to come forward—Betty Medsger, former Washington Post reporter, author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our discussion looking at how activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and disclosed secrets about the FBI’s COINTELPRO program—that’s Counterintelligence Program—first came to public attention with the release of these documents. We are joined, as well as Bonnie and John Raines, who were among those who broke into the FBI office that day, March 8th, 1971, by the reporter who broke the story then and now, released the names of those involved with this break-in, Betty Medsger. She wrote The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. We’re also joined by David Kairys, who has represented this group until this day for what, more than 40 years?
DAVID KAIRYS: Forty-three years.
AMY GOODMAN: Forty-three years. But, John Raines, why have you decided to come forward 43 years—what, 42 years later?
JOHN RAINES: Well, the simple answer is: A book came out. And, of course, that’s not accidental. We decided years ago that we would trust Betty with this story. And she’s done a wonderful job, spending years of research writing a very substantial book. It tells a very interesting story.
We decided that it was time to, once again, come forward with the question of government surveillance, government intimidation, and the right of citizens to vocally dissent. I think that the gasoline of democracy is the right to dissent, because wherever there’s power, wherever there’s privilege, power and privilege are going to try to remove, insofar as they can, from public discourse anything they want to do. That leaves the citizens’ right to dissent as the last line of defense for freedom. Now, that’s what we were faced with back in 1970s. I think that’s what we’re faced with once again today. It should not surprise us. I mean, it should not surprise us that those in power in Washington want to make the decisions that really count off stage, out of sight from the rest of us. But democracy depends upon the rights of citizens to have the information they need in order for them, the citizens—who are the sovereigns—for them to decide what the government should be doing and should not be doing. They must have that information so that they can make up their minds.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that moment that night when Betty Medsger came over and you revealed who you were. What year was it?
JOHN RAINES: I think that was in 1988. We had known Betty when she was a reporter there in Philadelphia.
AMY GOODMAN: That was more than 20 years ago.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, more than 20 was ago. And Betty was then living in San Francisco, but she was on a trip to the East Coast. And we invited her for supper, and Betty was nice enough to say, “Sure, I’ll come.” And I think it was—we had had supper, and finally, our youngest daughter, Mary, came down. She was, I think, 12 or 13, something like that. And without thinking about it, I just said, “Mary, come on in. We want you to meet Betty Medsger, because she was the one that we sent those FBI files to.” And Betty’s chin dropped down to her chest, and it was out of the bag. That’s how it started.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: David Kairys, as the attorney who has worked on this case for so long, could you talk about the significance of the statute of limitations on the case, as well as what you saw as the illegality—what was indeed the illegality of what these documents exposed about what the FBI was doing?
DAVID KAIRYS: Well, sure. The statute of limitations, by any fair reading, is five years. The FBI themselves closed the file in 1976, because five years had elapsed and there was no charges. Excuse me. There are arguments one can make, but there’s really no legitimate or good-faith basis to bring any legal—any legal charges at this point.
As for the illegality of the FBI, they’re supposed to enforce the law. Here they are interposing themselves as almost a political counterforce to stop certain movements. And it had a direction to it: They were stopping left-liberal movements. And they were using techniques that we usually associate with state police in countries and systems that we usually think of as alien.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how did you come to become involved in the case?
DAVID KAIRYS: Well, I was regularly doing civil rights work, and I was—I would represent demonstrators of all kinds. And so, two of them checked with me before, what’s my home number. And they—Keith kids me that he’s still got my phone number from back then on his arm. And so, that was the beginning. I didn’t know then exactly what they were going to do, but then two of them got arrested in the Camden 28 case, where I was lead counsel.
AMY GOODMAN: And, in fact, remarkably, five days before this break-in, Bill Davidon met with Henry Kissinger at the White House, the national security adviser for Richard Nixon.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We don’t have time for the story, but we’re going to talk about it in our post-show interview, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. How was this secret kept for so many decades? It’s not just the two of you, John and Bonnie Raines; there were nine of you. One person dropped out. There were eight of you. This is decades later. How did you keep this secret?
BONNIE RAINES: Well, we—
AMY GOODMAN: A hundred FBI agents looking for you. And, Bonnie, you had gone into the FBI office in Media to case it out and pretend you were a young woman looking for an FBI job and sat with the official there.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm, and did not know, following that, that there was a sketch that was then circulated of me by the FBI. It was—we knew—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.
BONNIE RAINES: We knew that we had to pull the curtain down, not meet after we did our work, and just not talk about it with anybody at all, because our work was done at that point, and we were not looking for anything more than for the general public and Congress to follow suit in a way that we hoped they would.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel it accomplished what you wanted?
BONNIE RAINES: I think, in certain ways. In certain ways, it did. We were encouraged when there was a Church Committee that was—that was taking their task seriously, and there were reforms that did take place.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for all being with us, and also thank Johanna Hamilton. Her film, 1971, on the same subject, is just coming out. We’ll be interviewing her. The book is The Burglary. Thanks so much, all, for joining us.
Find this story at 8 January 2014
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