Members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a burglary team, that liberated secret counterintelligence documents code-named COINTELPRO came forward after nearly 43 years of silence. On Jan. 7, 2014, the biggest mystery in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was solved with the publication of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter who first published stolen FBI documents two weeks after their theft.
Medsger told NBC, “These documents were explosive….The FBI was never the same.”
In a scene worthy of a Hollywood thriller, on March 8, 1971, an eight-member team wearing suits and carrying suitcases, broke into a satellite FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and carted off hundreds of pages of COINTELPRO documents revealing a lengthy list of dirty tricks and surveillance by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover was furious over the break-in and shut down dozens of satellite offices as a result. Hoover assigned his Inspector General, Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, to investigate the theft. Hoover was certain that anti-war activists Daniel and Phillip Berrigan were responsible. Over two hundred FBI agents were dispatched in a massive investigation, the largest in Bureau history up to that time. The investigation spanned five years until the FBI moved on. Until now the break-in was never solved.
One member of the Citizens’ Commission was John Raines who told NBC that they exposed ongoing crimes by the FBI. Raines said, “We did because somebody had to do it.”
The burglary was the idea of William C. Davidon, a professor of physics at Haverford College. Davidon assembled a team over the summer of 1970. They spent months studying the office building, clocking the activities of tenants and plotting getaways. Davidon died in 2013.
Bonnie Raines posed as a Swarthmore student and cased the inside of the office two weeks before the break-in while visiting with the Special Agent-in-Charge. Raines told the agent she was studying employment opportunities in the FBI for women.
Keith Forsyth was the team lock-pick but was unable to open a new office lock so he took a crowbar to another entrance. Forsyth told NBC, ““When you talked to people outside the movement about what the FBI. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it. There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”
Bob Williamson was the fifth member of the team to go public. Three members of the Citizens’ Commission have decided to remain unidentified. All eight were anti-war activists.
The team ransacked the FBI office like clockwork and quickly stuffed their suitcases with confidential files, unaware of the full scope of COINTELPRO and its wide sweep of individuals as targets for counterintelligence measures. Holed up for ten days in a farmhouse in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the team poured over the mass of documents selecting material for release. Then the group dispersed never to meet again. It would take several years of litigation by NBC reporter Carl Stern to pry out the details of COINTELPRO only hinted at in the Media documents.
J. Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO in 1956 against the Communist Party. By 1971 the clandestine counterintelligence operation consumed vast amounts of FBI resources and targeted thousands of individuals. The most lethal operations of COINTELPRO were directed at the Black Panthers.
A spokesman for the FBI said that “a number of events during that era, including the Media burglary, contributed to changes to how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices and the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice.”
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