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.
The last act of the Media burglars was to photocopy the documents and mail them off to a handful of carefully selected recipients, including Sen. George McGovern, who had just announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Medsger herself, then a reporter at the Washington Post. With that, the burglary team packed up the farmhouse and dispersed, agreeing never to contact one another or to speak of the events again. A few violated the agreement in small ways; Davidon, for one, could not resist occasional bromides against the FBI. For the most part, however, they simply continued on with their private lives. On Tuesday, my colleague John Witt emailed me with the news that "FBI burglar Bonnie Raines was my preschool teacher" in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. "We thought she was an inspired progressive child development guru," he notes. "Really she was a wanted criminal hiding out among the blocks and crayons."
Much of Medsger's book focuses on the FBI investigation that followed: five years, more than 200 agents, millions of dollars, and … bupkis—no arrests, no trial. The real drama happened outside the courtroom, as the stolen documents began to come to light. The burglars' decision to remain anonymous had important consequences for how the files were received. Without an individual culprit (or hero) to embody the cause, the Media story never quite achieved the legendary status of the Pentagon Papers, leaked three months later by Daniel Ellsberg. At the same time, anonymity shifted the debate away from act itself—whistle-blowing or treason?—and toward the content of the documents. Unlike Snowden or Ellsberg, the Media burglars had little ability to control how people interpreted what they had risked so much to present. In that sense, the break-in was an enormous leap of faith: The burglars committed the initial act but left it up to everyone else to finish the job.
Some of their faith proved to be misplaced. On the day the first files arrived in reporters' mailboxes, Attorney General John Mitchell issued a press release urging recipients to return the documents to the FBI, for fear of jeopardizing national intelligence capacities. His arguments will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the Snowden case: "Disclosure of information in files stolen from an FBI office in Media, PA," the press release insisted, "could endanger the lives of some federal agents and the security of the United States." McGovern complied with the request, sending the files back to the FBI. Publicly, he claimed that he supported a congressional investigation of FBI abuses but could not condone the law-breaking by the burglars, whoever they might be.
It was reporters, rather than politicians, who took up the cause during these early weeks—most notably, Medsger herself at the Washington Post. In that sense, the Media burglary foreshadowed not only the Pentagon Papers but also the Watergate scandal, which began with another burglary a year later, in June 1972. In Watergate, as in Media, early press reports kept the story alive and revealed enough sordid details to push congressional committees to take up the issue. Of particular significance in the Media case were the efforts of NBC reporter Carl Stern, who seized upon a strange word—COINTELPRO—in one of the stolen documents and filed a successful Freedom of Information Act request to find out what it meant.
COINTELPRO turned out to be the single most important revelation to emerge from the Media files—a "counterintelligence program" of operatic proportions, still the most infamous of Hoover's many infamous violations of civil liberties. Indeed, Hoover himself had anticipated what might happen, quietly canceling the COINTELPRO in April 1971, a month after the Media burglary. It took another four years, however, for Congress to launch a full-scale investigation of the FBI. During that time, Hoover died, the Watergate investigation blew up, the Vietnam War ended, and Richard Nixon resigned from office. Given that timeline, it is something of a stretch to say that Media led directly to the Church Committee. What we can say is that the Church Committee might not have happened without the Media burglary—and without everything that happened in between.
In the end, the Church Committee (which investigated the CIA and other intelligence agencies as well as the FBI) was a mixed success. After months of research, the committee delivered a searing multivolume report, still one of the most critical government documents ever published on the subject of U.S. intelligence. From that outcry came many of the institutions that govern espionage and surveillance today, including the congressional intelligence committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. These were real changes for the time—the first substantive efforts at legislative and judicial accountability in the history of American intelligence. But as recent events have shown, they had real weaknesses and limitations.
Today, we are once again facing a legitimacy crisis within the intelligence establishment, arguably the greatest such crisis since the 1970s. As in the 1970s, this is also a moment ripe with possibilities for reform. President Obama has called key lawmakers to the White House on Thursday for a private conference to discuss what to do next about the NSA. This discussion would not be happening without the evidence provided by whistle-blowers like Snowden. But as the Media burglary suggests, whistle-blowers can only do so much. What happens next is up to the rest of us.
Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This article originally suggested that author Betty Medsger also made a documentary film about the FBI break-in. The documentary, 1971, is by filmmaker Johanna Hamilton.