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'Burglars' Revealed: Sixties Activists Who Stole FBI COINTELPRO Files

'On March 8, 1971, a group of eight Vietnam War protestors broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole hundreds of government documents that shocked a nation.'

- Jon Queally, staff writer

John and Bonnie Raines, two of the burglars, at home in Philadelphia with their grandchildren. (Photo: Mark Makela for The New York Times)In an exclusive with the New York Times on Tuesday, published to coincide with a new book about a fateful plan more than four decades ago that helped bring down J. Edgar Hoover and expose the dark nature of the FBI's obsessive targeting of the dissident and anti-war left, the original burglars who broke into a bureau field office in 1971 have now stepped forward to discuss the meticously planned theft that altered the course of modern history.

As the Times reports:

They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.

The burglary in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, is a historical echo today, as disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden have cast another unflattering light on government spying and opened a national debate about the proper limits of government surveillance. The burglars had, until now, maintained a vow of silence about their roles in the operation. They were content in knowing that their actions had dealt the first significant blow to an institution that had amassed enormous power and prestige during J. Edgar Hoover’s lengthy tenure as director.

“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” said one of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”

The new book, entitled 'The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI' and written by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, traces the history of the time that surrounded the event and explores the motivations of the FBI, led by Hoover, and the anti-war and social justice movements of the late 60's and 70's whose members became targets of the law enforcement agency's clandestine COINTELPRO program.

As the Times article notes, the stolen 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."

And continues:

Neither the Media burglars nor the reporters who received the documents understood the meaning of the term, and it was not until several years later, when the NBC News reporter Carl Stern obtained more files from the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information Act, that the contours of Cointelpro — shorthand for Counterintelligence Program — were revealed.

Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.

“It wasn’t just spying on Americans,” said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia who was an aide to Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. “The intent of Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations.”

The story is wonderfully summarized in this short documentary produced by Retro Reports as a companion to the Times reporting and the new book:

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