NBC NEWS: Forty-three years after the mysterious theft of up to 1,000 documents from an FBI office outside Philadelphia, three former political activists are publicly confessing to the brazen burglary, calling it an act of “resistance” that exposed “massive illegal surveillance and intimidation.” “We did it … because somebody had to do it,” John Raines, 80, a retired professor of religion at Temple University, said in an interview with NBC News. “In this case, by breaking a law — entering, removing files — we exposed a crime that was going on. … When we are denied the information we need to have to act as citizens, then we have a right to do what we did.” Raines, his wife, Bonnie, and Keith Forsyth, a former Philadelphia cab driver, said they were part of an eight-member ring of anti-Vietnam War protesters that — while much of the country was gripped by the so-called “Fight of the Century” in New York between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — broke into the FBI’s Media, Penn., office on March 8, 1971. Members of the burglary team, armed with little more than a crowbar and wearing suits and ties, then walked off undetected with suitcases stuffed with sensitive bureau files that revealed a domestic FBI spying operation known as COINTELPRO. The heist enraged the bureau’s legendary Director J. Edgar Hoover, who launched a massive but ultimately futile manhunt.
The identities of the burglars are revealed in a book being published Tuesday, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter. The book, as well as a new film, “1971,” by documentarian Johanna Hamilton, portray the break-in as a story with new resonance in light of the recent revelations of National Security Agency surveillance of American citizens by ex-contractor Edward Snowden. Much like Snowden, the FBI burglars selectively leaked the stolen files to journalists. They produced months of headlines about FBI surveillance of anti-war and civil rights groups — including the first references to COINTELPRO, a secret program started years earlier by Hoover and aimed at smearing the reputations of perceived enemies such as Dr. Martin Luther King. This is a clip from the film “1971,” which includes reenactments and interviews with the people who stole documents from an FBI building in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971.
Among the stolen files: plans to enhance “paranoia” among “New Left” groups by instilling fears that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Another instructed agents in the Philadelphia area to monitor the “clientele” of “Afro-American type bookstores” and recruit informants among the “the Negro militant movement.” “These documents were explosive,” said Medsger, who was the first reporter to write about them after receiving a batch of the files anonymously in the mail. Her book traces how the stolen files led to a landmark Senate investigation of intelligence and law enforcement agency abuses by the late Idaho Sen. Frank Church, and eventually to new Justice Department guidelines that barred the bureau from conducting investigations based on First Amendment protected political activity. After the burglary, said Medsger, “The FBI was never the same.” MORE