On Tuesday, one of the biggest unsolved cases in FBI history burst wide open. In a new book, investigative journalist Betty Medsger revealed the identities of the anti-war activists who broke into the FBI's office in Media, Pa., in March 1971 and made off with the agency's secret files.* They were, it turns out, ordinary middle-class people: "a religion professor, a daycare center worker, a graduate student in a health profession, another professor, a social worker, and two people who had dropped out of college to work nearly full-time on building opposition to the war,” Medsger writes. On March 8, 1971, they pried open the FBI office door with a crowbar, stole hundreds of files, and shook the intelligence establishment to its jackboots.
News coverage of the book and a related documentary, 1971 by filmmaker Johanna Hamilton, has focused, understandably, on their astonishing personal story: how the burglars planned and carried out the break-in and why they felt they had to act as they did. The parallels with Edward Snowden are obvious. Here, too, are people who risked their freedom to expose government secrets they believed to be damaging American democracy. One of the Media burglars, former Temple University religion professor John Raines, made the connection explicit in a recent appearance on the Today show. Asked what he would say to Snowden, he offered a self-conscious smile, then a modest shout-out: "From one whistle-blower to another whistle-blower, 'Hi!' "
The idea that one brave whistle-blower can make a difference is compelling, and it's true as far as it goes in the Media case: The burglars did take serious risks, and they did expose important secrets about FBI civil liberties abuses. But it's what happened after the burglary that really made the Media theft matter—and provides a model for anyone hoping to see genuine intelligence reform today.
It's because of Media that we first learned about COINTELPRO, the FBI's secret counterintelligence program aimed at domestic dissenters. The Media theft also fueled calls for reform that led to the creation of the Church Committee in 1975 and the restraining of the intelligence establishment that followed. Neither of these outcomes, however, was the direct result of the burglars' actions. The perpetrators came and went, committing their dramatic act then disappearing back into private life for the next 43 years. It was up to everyone else—journalists, activists, senators, and representatives—to take what they had exposed and to turn it into something meaningful.
The burglary itself was the brainchild of William Davidon, a physics professor at Haverford College and a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1966, Davidon had traveled to Vietnam with the left-wing Reverend A. J. Muste and earned the dubious honor of being expelled by South Vietnamese officials. By 1970, Davidon had begun to entertain more radical tactics for ending the war. Working with the nonviolent Catholic peace movement, he helped to carry out raids on draft-board offices around Philadelphia, in which activists would steal and often destroy selective service files. This gave him an even more ambitious idea: What if he could break into an FBI office and steal the documents there? It was conventional wisdom on the left that the FBI was spying on anti-war activists, but director J. Edgar Hoover held his files sacrosanct, refusing to provide raw FBI material even to congressional committees. As Medsger tells it, Davidon saw direct theft as the only way to find out what was really happening.
Not everyone he approached was enthused about the plan. "You know, somebody says to you, 'Let's go break into the FBI office,' " Media participant Keith Forsyth recalled. "So you look at them and say, 'Yeah, okay, let's go break-in. Then, after we finish that, let's go down to Fort Knox and steal a few million.' " By early 1971, though, Davidon had assembled an eight-member team, including Forsyth; Raines; Raines's wife, Bonnie; and a Philadelphia-area social worker named Bob Williamson. (Medsger's book identifies five burglars by name and two by pseudonym; she did not locate the final participant.)
As the story has been told ever since, the break-in itself always came across as a last-minute, amateur-hour job in which the burglars simply lucked out. In fact, as Medsger shows, they planned carefully for months, casing the FBI office night after night, holding dozens of logistical meetings, even setting up a fake door for lock-picking practice. When the big night came, they found that the FBI had put a new high-security lock on the main door, requiring the deployment of a crowbar on an alternate entrance rather than those hard-won lock-picking skills. Other than that, things went more or less as planned. Working quietly in near-total darkness, they stole every file in the office, then retreated to a Pennsylvania farmhouse to sort through what they had gathered.
The revelations went well beyond anything the activists had imagined. The FBI was, indeed, spying on the anti-war movement, just as it was spying on a vast range of civil rights, New Left, and student groups. But it was also seeking, in the words of one stolen document, to "enhance the paranoia" of anti-war activists through repeated interviews and harassment. It is worth noting that many of these efforts were far more intrusive than the passive National Security Agency surveillance recently documented by Snowden; the FBI was planting rumors, intimidating activists, and using agents provocateur. On the other hand, Hoover's FBI never had access to truly mass surveillance technology, and even its most aggressive programs never reached anything like the indiscriminate data-gathering of today's NSA.