MEDIA— At present, there appears to be a new story each year that identifies government secrets and/or the publication of supposed private communications and information that draws rapturous attention.
Look at Edward Snowden in 2013 who revealed the mass surveillance practices of the National Security agency, a particular case about domestic surveillance that renewed interest in the burglary of an FBI office in 1971.
But back in the 1970s, publishing any documents that were stolen or passed along without authorization to the press was new territory to traverse.
A group of eight Philadelphia-area activists had a raised hunch that the FBI was surveilling them. It was easy to tell when people like Bonnie and John Raines would attend protest rallies in Philadelphia and were photographed by suspected FBI agents. They were certain, especially Bill Davidon, that there would be documentary evidence in an FBI office to support their theory.
The burglars found the evidence they needed in a bureau office located in Delaware County. Releasing some of these documents were sent to the public and opened up a new chapter in the country’s history, reeling in the unchecked power of domestic security and intelligence agencies that allowed illegal practices to occur for so long.
A historical marker recently approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is one way this event will stay embedded in our local history.
“A marker is like tearing a page out of a history book and pasting it up for the world to see. If you put it up, it could lead them to find out more,” local historian Robyn Young said. She has had more than 20 markers approved over the years, including one last year for the Slinky Toy in Clifton Heights.
Historical markers are those familiar tall, blue fixtures with the gold lettering that dot the roads and neighborhoods throughout the Commonwealth to commemorate pertinent people, places and events. They are approved on application by the commission, and more than 2,000 markers have been placed since the historical marker program began in 1946.
More than 60 of these markers have been placed around Delaware County to commemorate people, such as Chester actress Ethel Waters and, in Upper Darby, Dr. George Smith, the true creator of public education as we know it.
Existing markers show passersby the little pieces of history that slip through the cracks. There are a myriad of markers yet to be planted in Delaware County.
On the walkway near the front steps of the Delaware County Courthouse, there is a marker in recognition of Delaware County, incorporated in 1850.
What happened just across the street from the courthouse almost 50 years ago was an event that appeared to have eclipsed from our county’s memory.
During the first semester of my masters program at West Chester University I had to do an hourlong group presentation about domestic surveillance. It was during my research on the subject that I found out about the burglary of an FBI office in 1971. I was watching a Retro Report video published by the New York Times where it was dubbed the “the greatest heist you’ve never heard of,” and not long into the video did I realize the burglary took place in no place other than Media, Pennsylvania.
I was absolutely stunned to find out that the burglary took place in my own backyard. The Media FBI office was in an apartment building located at 1 Veterans Square, just across the street from the courthouse. It was one of more than 500 resident agencies located throughout the country. In these offices were files that circulated from the FBI headquarters in D.C. by then-director J. Edgar Hoover, who was, then, the first and only, head of the agency since his appointment to the role in the mid-1920s.
The eight would-be burglar knew there must be evidence in this office to support their belief that the FBI was watching people, particularly activists who spoke out against the Vietnam War or expressed other dissenting views of the government. This band of outsiders coordinated and executed a burglary of the FBI office on March 8, 1971, pulling over 1,000 files, almost half of them documenting political surveillance operations. One such filed had the term COINTELPRO listed on it, a term used for Counter Intelligence Program that the FBI operated from 1956-71.
The documents taken from the office were photocopied and mailed to news outlets and members of Congress.
Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger was the first to report on the stolen Media files.
Medsger’s first story on the documents ran on the front page of the Washington Post on March 24, 1971, and a month later, COINTELPRO was officially dissolved as a domestic surveillance program, or so the public thought. But the program continued, "in deeper secrecy" according to Medsger, without the name as was common for Hoover to do with a number of secret operations he oversaw.
It was the introduction to a decade-long story that started the first congressional hearings of federal intelligence agencies, an expansion of the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act and reforms of domestic surveillance operations that are still questioned today.
The burglars were never caught for their act of civil disobedience. Some of them came forward publicly for the first time in 2014 when Medsger released her book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” documenting in detail the burglary and its impact on the country, and a documentary on the subject was released that same year.
For the way it reformed the intelligence agencies and served as case studies for the press to publish stolen documents and free speech of political dissent, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission approved last month to have a historical marker commemorate the event.
“It feels rewarding that this act that happened over 45 years ago still seems to be important to people, the significance of it is important,” said Bonnie Raines, one of the dissenters who took documents from the FBI office, during a phone interview, “I’m just happy to have a message go out to anyone who reads that marker that we as citizens need to be vigilant. We have to be vigilant about protecting our democracy and sometimes as regular citizens we have to step up and take action. I’m hoping some people will be inspired by our story.”
Raines and her late husband, John came out of the shadows to tell their story. Keith Forsyth was another member of the group to come forward.
“I was afraid you’d ask me that,” he laughed when asked how he felt about the historical marker. “It certainly felt important at the time. It’s a reminder of what can happen when we let it, the fact that people need to step up and try to do something about an injustice.”
That an unsolved burglary happened just across the street from the courthouse shows that not all justice starts inside a courtroom.
“The symbolism of this grand courthouse and everything it stands for, and then across the street a revelation of real injustice, is profound,” said Temple University Klein College of Media and Communications Dean David Boardman, “As a journalist and resident of Media I’m thrilled about it. I think it’s something that people in Media can, and should, feel quite proud of. This was an important moment in American history.”
The lead-up to the burglary all started with Bill Davidon, then a physics professor at Haverford College who was known in the anti-war circles of the Philadelphia region for speaking out against the Vietnam War and for nuclear disarmament. Bonnie and John Raines had known Davidon for years due to activism, participating in draft board roads and attending rallies, when they were asked to do take part in what proved to be their most memorable act of civil disobedience yet.
“We got a call from Bill inviting us to his house in Haverford to talk about… the code was, ‘would we like to come to a party?’ and that was code for ‘would we like to talk about a possible action?’” recalled Bonnie Raines. “He proposed this idea that we needed a strategy to expose Hoover’s FBI and what the FBI was doing to squash dissent against the world.”
“Bill had this brilliant idea that this could be documented and proven, and that was to get FBI documents to release to the American people.”
Forsyth met Davidon at a meeting to plan draft board action, but couldn’t recall exactly how he was asked to take part in the burglary.
“He got in touch and said he had something he wanted to talk about. The only thing I remember with any clarity was we talked about it outside to try to eliminate the possibility of electronic surveillance,” he said. “We went for a walk some place and he told me what he was thinking.”
“It was a surprise,” he added, “but it seemed like a completely logical extension. It was pretty common knowledge the bureau was spending a lot of its energy surveilling the legal peace movement and tried to gather information on these people who were exercising their First Amendment rights. We considered the bureau to be an enemy of the movement… I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it on my own.”
After the Raines and Forsyth, five others were brought in the mix – one eventually bailed before the burglary, leaving eight. They staked out the downtown Media office for months before the proposed burglary date of March 8, when the Ali vs. Frazier boxing match was sure to keep everyone preoccupied on something other than a quiet burglary.
Forsyth’s task in the operation was to pick the lock and get the door open to the office located on the second floor of the County Court Apartment building on Veterans Square. He said he got so good at picking he could pick a pin tumbler lock in 20 seconds. In the days before the burglary he knew there were pin tumbler locks on the FBI office doors so he knew his job for the operation.
Bonnie Raines was the only person to actually get into the office before the burglary. She disguised herself as a Swarthmore College student and met with an agent in the office to inquire about opportunities for women in the bureau. She used that fake interview to scope out the office, relaying back to the group that there was no alarm system or guards, but was able to find the cabinets and locate a second door from the office that led out to the main hallway.
The image of Raines was the only visual clue the FBI had in finding the burglars. A sketch of her circulated as the bureau searched ardently in the months and years to follow for the burglars. The image she left them with and immortalized in the sketch, “didn’t look like me on an everyday basis,” according to Raines.
On the night of the burglary, a mysterious switch-up on the office door lock left Forsyth flumoxxed, almost wanting to call off the burglary until he met with the rest of the group at a nearby motel that served as a meetup point.
“We talked it out and somebody suggested the secondary door,” said Forsyth. “It became obvious that we had to try that.”
He returned to Media and tried the second door, which happened to be blocked by a heavy cabinet on the other side.
“It was definitely more nerve-wracking,” said Forsyth about going the second visit to the office. “We had a new plan that we came up with on the fly and I knew I could open the lock but I didn’t know how I would get the case moved enough to open the door.”
He picked the door’s lock, pried off a deadbolt on the door and then slowly coaxed the door inch-by-inch (breaking open the door would have made the heavy piece of officeware behind it tip and crash, possibly alerting the building manager who lived right below the office). Forsyth used a jack post in his car to slowly get that door open. The whole time, not a single soul walked the hallway or come up or down the building steps.
“I got lucky,” said Forsyth. He managed to open up enough of a crack for somebody to get into the office, in fact, for a number of people who came armed with suitcases to take all of the documents, over 1,000 pieces.
After the office was ransacked, they reconvened at a farmhouse outside of Pottstown to sort out the documents. John Raines took the liberty the next morning to alert a reporter from Reuters about the burglary. John was also responsible for mailing off photocopies of the stolen files to three news publications and two Congressmen, doing so from a Princeton, New Jersey post office.
Betty Medsger of the Washington Post was one of the reporters to receive the files.
“It never occurred to me to turn them into the FBI, never,” she chuckled during a March 22 phone call. “And no one asked me to, either.”
She thought it may have been a hoax, but as she kept reading through the small package of files she realized the names of sources she had back when she was a reporter with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. To boot, the bureau was eager to insure their authenticity.
The Post was the first of the three newspapers who received the stolen Media files to run a story about their contents (The New York Times made copies of the copies they received before handing them to the FBI and a package sent to The Los Angeles Times' Jack Nelson but was intercepted by an editor and sent back to the bureau.).
“That to me represents a real scare of that era. The culture was that the intelligence of law enforcement agencies in Washington could keep whatever secrets they wanted to keep, they weren’t like other government institutions,” said Medsger. “We didn’t hold them accountable and there wasn’t official oversight. Journalists were very much a part of that.
“That’s the culture that started to change because of this (the stolen files), and The Pentagon Papers three months later.”
This was the first time a major publication considered writing about stolen government documents, and at a time when Katharine Graham was still settling in to her position as publisher of The Post.
“This was the first time that she was confronted in making a decision on whether to publish government secrets that the government didn’t want published,” said Medsger. “It was rare, anywhere, for people to be making these kinds of calls on stories. That was not a dominant thing in my experience at the time.”
Publication of Medsger’s story, co-written with Post reporter Ken Clawson, would serve as a catalyst to rebuff a court order to halt the Times’ publication of The Pentagon Papers, the volumes of documents stolen by Daniel Ellsberg provided to the news that showed America losing the Vietnam War despite executive level assurance that we were winning. Graham, with then-Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, defied the courts and ran their copies of the papers just months after Medsger’s writing about the stolen FBI files.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Times’ right to publish The Pentagon Papers, and, in turn, any other publication to print about stolen government documents they receive.
“Before the Pentagon Papers and Watergate this was a period of The Washington Post where Bradlee and Graham first exhibited their courage,” said Boardman. “That has become a real bedrock of American journalism practice and of American jurisprudence as well because the courts have recognized that no matter how the material was originally obtained, if it’s passed on to journalists they have a right to publish it.”
Beyond this, congressional hearings to provide guidance on future regulation and oversight about surveillance practices of the FBI and CIA convened for the first time in what became known as the Church Committee. In 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was signed into law that established a court system so these agencies must obtain a warrant for domestic surveillance operations. The limitations established in this act gave way to the Patriot Act, the bill signed into law less than two months after 9/11 to broaden surveillance tactics in the country in an effort to prevent future acts of terrorism.
“The government has all kinds of electronic tools that were not available to the FBI and CIA back in 1971, so the kind of surveillance and invasion of peoples’ privacy that is happening today is massive, and mostly secret,” said Raines about the current state of surveillance tactics. “I think we can agree that there are enemies out there that we need to be aware of and protect ourselves from, but it doesn’t justify the massive surveillance that is going on today in the name of national security.
“Anything can be done, pretty much anything can be carried out in the name of national security after 9/11. It takes another generation of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and others to reveal the extent of the problem and the extent of the secrecy, deception the government is carrying out.”
Though Raines and Snowden were both responsible for being the respective sources of dispersing documented government surveillance actions to the media, Raines and the rest of the Media burglars were not caught, leaving the substance of the documents to be left to public scrutiny. Snowden, who evaded capture by seeking asylum in Moscow, was front and center in the news to be painted as either a traitor or patriot for his action.
“Bill (Davidon) was a very determined and resourceful guy, but the bureau was really a closed society, a closed society where the main rule was that you did whatever Hoover said,” noted Forsyth. “The institutional culture was very much that of a one-man show. I think it would have been hard to find a leaker inside the FBI.”
No one from inside the bureau would leak to the press what the agency was doing, especially with COINTELPRO, the bureau’s most guarded secret that the Media field shed a light on publicly for the first time.
Created in 1956 to keep tabs on the Communist Party, COINTELPRO expanded to include anyone Hoover disapproved of, which mostly ran along the lines of persons with liberal ideologies, African Americans, anti-war activists, or anyone else who disrupted the moral fabric of America. In Delaware County, employees at Swarthmore College were cited as “established” sources to keep tabs on certain professors, the borough’s police chief even helping the bureau with this task. The Black Student Union at the Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University) had a file created against them by the bureau despite being “peaceful and loosely knit.”
Under the program the FBI sent an anonymous letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964 asking him to kill himself before he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. The bureau even submitted gossip to a columnist at The Los Angeles Times saying a white actress was pregnant by a member of the Black Panther Party. That actress, Jean Seberg, lost her baby two days after birth, and the emotionally draining experiencing inflicted by the FBI has been noted as probable reason for her suicide in 1979 at age 40. Even future Secretary of State John Kerry had a 3,000-page file for being an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War (he earned three Purple Hearts for his service in the U.S Navy for his involvement in the war).
COINTELPRO was a program focused solely on the harassment of people the bureau did not like, for whatever reason. All of the time spent surveilling people across the country yielded almost no criminal convictions from the bureau from all of the information they gathered. It was part of a culture that one Media file said would “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
“We knew the bureau was doing this kind of thing, and of course people were sure that that’s all they were doing,” said Forsyth. “Just to have that revealed that half of the bureau’s investigation was devoted to things they legally shouldn’t have been doing at all was pretty striking.”
Bonnie Raines said breaking in to the office confirmed what they saw going on.
“It confirmed it because you could claim that you saw this sort of surveillance and intimidation going on, depriving people of their constitutional rights,” she said. “You could say that, but it was all just anecdotal. To be able to prove it and get the truth out there validated what we had known. We felt that it was so important to get that information and that truth out to the American public so they would know the nature of Hoover’s FBI.”
The Citizens Commission accomplished their goal of getting information out there. But after sending it to the press, it was out of their hands what the reaction would be.
“Political change is a very messy, unpredictable process and you never know when something is going to fizzle and die, and when something else is going to catch fire and spread,” said Forsyth. “I know at the time the reaction seemed muted and slow because I was only 20 years old. The time between the burglary and the Church Committee meetings (in 1975) seemed interminable.
“I really didn’t know what to expect.”
Raines said the reaction is just what she wanted from the burglary.
“We had to depend on newspaper and investigative journalists to carry the ball forward. We couldn’t do anything more in terms of controlling that; we just had to hope that it would seem so important to the newspapers that they would do their job, and to call for serious reforms of the FBI and CIA,” she said. “We wanted all of that to happen as a result of our actions, but we had to hope that it would.”
Almost 50 years later Medsger has formed relationships with most of the burglars, and yet she is still impressed by what they accomplished.
“Despite how many years I’ve worked with them, I’m still, over and over again, amazed, first, that they did it. It was such an incredible thing to do,” she said. “And then, the impact is so enormous. If you’re looking at it from the point of view of the individual in society, I think it’s such an important story that what individuals do can matter.”
According to Medsger, most of the burglars now live in the west. Forsyth and Bonnie Raines are still local. Bill Davidon died in 2013, about four years before John Raines.
An unveiling ceremony for the FBI Office Burglary historical marker has not yet been set.