After 43 years, activists admit theft at FBI office that exposed domestic spying
by Michael Isikoff, 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.
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.”
Advance word that the book and film might portray the burglars in a positive light has angered some former FBI agents, including Pat Kelly, who worked in the burgled office at the time. Along with a fellow agent, Kelly was the first to discover the break-in – a scene he still vividly remembers.
“Pat, someone got in our pants,” he recalls his colleague saying as they entered the office. “We found the office in total disarray. Files were all over the place. Paperwork discarded. All the drawers of the desks were ransacked. … I was in a state of shock.”
Kelly said he remains “incensed” by the crime and frustrated that, despite a wide-ranging investigation that at one point involved 200 agents, failed to find the thieves. As far as he’s concerned, the burglars “are criminals, not patriots.”
“I don’t believe such people have the right to take it upon themselves and make decisions’ about what should be made public,” said Kelly, who served as an FBI agent for 32 years until his retirement in 2001. “These are the same type of people that would look upon Snowden as perhaps a patriot when … in my opinion, he was a traitor.”
In response to a request for comment from NBC News, FBI spokesman Michael Kortan emailed this statement: “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.”
With the five-year statute of limitations on burglary long since expired and the case officially closed, Raines, his wife and Forsyth said they have few fears about revealing their identities now. To the contrary, they spoke with pride about their roles during several interviews.
“We should have a plaque right up there,” said Raines, standing outside what is now a real estate office across from the Delaware County courthouse, and pointing to the second floor where the FBI office was located. “This is where it happened.”
The burglars were committed political activists during a turbulent era: John Raines was a civil rights “Freedom Rider” who marched in Selma, Ala., and got arrested in Little Rock sitting with African Americans at a segregated lunch counter. Later in the 1960s, they turned their protest efforts to stopping the Vietnam War.
“I was horrified that our government was lying to us about what was actually happening in Vietnam,” said Bonnie Raines, who later worked as a child care advocate. “And all the usual things we always did — picketing, marching, signing petitions — didn’t make any difference whatsoever.”
Their frustrations led them to acts of civil disobedience, including breaking into Philadelphia area Selective Service offices and destroying draft cards. In pulling off those raids, they got assistance from a fellow protester, Forsyth, who said he developed a skill at picking the locks on the draft board office by taking a correspondence course.
In the fall of 1970, an informal leader of their protest group , the late Bill Davidon, then a physics professor at Haverford College, proposed a more risky operation: breaking into a local FBI office in order to get proof of FBI surveillance of the peace movement.
Davidon’s daughter, Sarah, confirmed her father’s role, telling NBC News he first told her about it more than 25 years ago. “He didn’t call it a burglary. He always referred to it as ‘the Media action,’” she said. “He didn’t do this as an anarchist to break the law. He did this because he felt strongly about civil liberties.”
The team of burglars, calling themselves “the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” cased the Media office for hours in what John Raines described as a “hippie” van, monitoring when agents came and left. Then, Bonnie Raines was dispatched to get a closer look by posing as a college student seeking to interview the agent in charge for a school paper about job opportunities for women in the FBI.
“I tried to disguise my appearance as much as I could,” said Bonnie Raines. “I had long, dark, hippie hair at that time and I stuffed it up inside of a winter hat.” She was careful to leave no fingerprints. “What (the agent) didn’t notice during the whole interview was that I never took my gloves off,” she said.
After the break-in, the FBI developed a sketch of the college student, but agents were unable to come up with a real name.
”We quickly realized that this was just a ‘send-in’ to try to ascertain what kind of security devices there were,” said Kelly, the former FBI agent.
The burglars chose the evening of March 8, because of the national fixation with the Ali-Frazier fight, figuring that any security guards on duty would be glued to their radios.
Forsyth entered first. “I picked door B and busted the deadbolt off in one go with a crowbar,” he recalled. “And I held my breath.”
Next, the team’s “inside crew” entered and started cracking open file cabinets and rifling through desk drawers for documents. Forsyth acknowledges they left the office a mess. “I don’t think we spent a lot time cleaning up,” he laughed. “I think we wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.”
John Raines drove the getaway car to a Quaker farm outside of town, where the team immediately began poring over the documents, getting excited as they found evidence of FBI surveillance. But even while sending out their anonymous mailings, they kept their secret, telling no one — not even their children — for years.
But Raines said he now feels emboldened. And he also feels a special kinship with Snowden, the NSA leaker and current fugitive: “From one whistleblower to another, ‘Hi,’” he said, waving to a camera.
And he’s got a message for the FBI agents who looked for him for years.
“Aren’t you glad you failed?” he said. “… Aren’t we all glad you failed?”