[Marxism] The burglars who uncovered Cointelpro

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 7 12:22:57 MST 2014


NY Times January 7, 2014
Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows
By MARK MAZZETTI

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.

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.”

Mr. Forsyth, now 63, and other members of the group can no longer be 
prosecuted for what happened that night, and they agreed to be 
interviewed before the release this week of a book written by one of the 
first journalists to receive the stolen documents. The author, Betty 
Medsger, a former reporter for The Washington Post, spent years sifting 
through the F.B.I.’s voluminous case file on the episode and persuaded 
five of the eight men and women who participated in the break-in to end 
their silence.

Unlike Mr. Snowden, who downloaded hundreds of thousands of digital 
N.S.A. files onto computer hard drives, the Media burglars did their 
work the 20th-century way: they cased the F.B.I. office for months, wore 
gloves as they packed the papers into suitcases, and loaded the 
suitcases into getaway cars. When the operation was over, they 
dispersed. Some remained committed to antiwar causes, while others, like 
John and Bonnie Raines, decided that the risky burglary would be their 
final act of protest against the Vietnam War and other government 
actions before they moved on with their lives.

“We didn’t need attention, because we had done what needed to be done,” 
said Mr. Raines, 80, who had, with his wife, arranged for family members 
to raise the couple’s three children if they were sent to prison. “The 
’60s were over. We didn’t have to hold on to what we did back then.”

A Meticulous Plan

The burglary was the idea of William C. Davidon, a professor of physics 
at Haverford College and a fixture of antiwar protests in Philadelphia, 
a city that by the early 1970s had become a white-hot center of the 
peace movement. Mr. Davidon was frustrated that years of organized 
demonstrations seemed to have had little impact.

In the summer of 1970, months after President Richard M. Nixon announced 
the United States’ invasion of Cambodia, Mr. Davidon began assembling a 
team from a group of activists whose commitment and discretion he had 
come to trust.

The group — originally nine, before one member dropped out — concluded 
that it would be too risky to try to break into the F.B.I. office in 
downtown Philadelphia, where security was tight. They soon settled on 
the bureau’s satellite office in Media, in an apartment building across 
the street from the county courthouse.

That decision carried its own risks: Nobody could be certain whether the 
satellite office would have any documents about the F.B.I.’s 
surveillance of war protesters, or whether a security alarm would trip 
as soon as the burglars opened the door.

The group spent months casing the building, driving past it at all times 
of the night and memorizing the routines of its residents.

“We knew when people came home from work, when their lights went out, 
when they went to bed, when they woke up in the morning,” said Mr. 
Raines, who was a professor of religion at Temple University at the 
time. “We were quite certain that we understood the nightly activities 
in and around that building.”

But it wasn’t until Ms. Raines got inside the office that the group grew 
confident that it did not have a security system. Weeks before the 
burglary, she visited the office posing as a Swarthmore College student 
researching job opportunities for women at the F.B.I.

The burglary itself went off largely without a hitch, except for when 
Mr. Forsyth, the designated lock-picker, had to break into a different 
entrance than planned when he discovered that the F.B.I. had installed a 
lock on the main door that he could not pick. He used a crowbar to break 
the second lock, a deadbolt above the doorknob.

After packing the documents into suitcases, the burglars piled into 
getaway cars and rendezvoused at a farmhouse to sort through what they 
had stolen. To their relief, they soon discovered that the bulk of it 
was hard evidence of the F.B.I.’s spying on political groups. 
Identifying themselves as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the 
F.B.I., the burglars sent select documents to several newspaper 
reporters. Two weeks after the burglary, Ms. Medsger wrote the first 
article based on the files, after the Nixon administration tried 
unsuccessfully to get The Post to return the documents.

Other news organizations that had received the documents, including The 
New York Times, followed with their own reports.

Ms. Medsger’s article cited what was perhaps the most damning document 
from the cache, a 1970 memorandum that offered a glimpse into Hoover’s 
obsession with snuffing out dissent. The document urged agents to step 
up their interviews of antiwar activists and members of dissident 
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.

“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.

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.




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