Anti-War Activists Confess to 1971 FBI Break-In

Image: Anti-War Activists Confess to 1971 FBI Break-In Muhammad Kenyatta, president of the Black Economic Development Conference in Philadelphia, waves copies of records stolen from the FBI office in Media, Pa. on March 23, 1971.

Tuesday, 07 Jan 2014 04:06 PM

By Lisa Barron

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Three former political activists have admitted they burglarized an FBI office outside Philadelphia 43 years ago, stealing up to 1,000 documents revealing the agency's secret surveillance programs.

John Raines, 80, a retired religion professor at Temple University, his wife, Bonnie, and Keith Forsyth, a former Philadelphia cab driver, confessed to being part of an eight-member ring of anti-Vietnam war protesters who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa. on March 8, 1971. The break-in occurred on the day the country was fixated on the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in New York, NBC News reported Tuesday.

"We did it…because somebody had to do it," John Raines, who had traveled south as a Freedom Rider and marched in Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday, told the network.

"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."

Members of the burglary ring reportedly broke into the office with a crowbar and left with suitcases filled with bureau files detailing the FBI's surveillance of anti-war and civil rights groups. Materials were also taken detailing information from COINTELPRO, a secret program started by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 to infiltrate domestic political groups considered subversive.

The burglars then leaked the stolen documents anonymously to a select group of journalists. Although Hoover launched a massive manhunt to find those responsible, they were never caught.

Their identities 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 who was the first to write about the files after she received a package anonymously in the mail.

"The country learned for the first time that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was almost completely different from what the country thought it was," Medsger told National Public Radio.

"I think most striking in the Media files at first was a statement that had to do with the philosophy, the policy of the FBI. And it was a document that instructed agents to enhance paranoia; to make people feel there's an FBI agent behind every mailbox," Medsger added.

In her book, Medsger details how her revelations and reports by other journalists gained widespread attention and led to a landmark congressional investigation by the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and eventually to new Justice Department guidelines for the FBI.

"It seemed that no one else was going to stand up to Hoover's FBI at that time and we knew what Hoover's FBI was doing in Philadelphia in terms of illegal surveillance and intimidation. And we thought somebody needed to confront Hoover and document what many of us knew was happening," Bonnie Raines also told NPR.

With the five-year statute of limitations on burglary having passed long ago, the Raines' and other members of the burglary ring calling themselves the "Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI" finally decided to break their silence.

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