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Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows
January 7, 2014 11:37 AM   Subscribe

One night in 1971, files were stolen from an F.B.I. office near Philadelphia. They proved that the bureau was spying on thousands of Americans. The case was unsolved, until now. (article + video interview) The perfect crime is far easier to pull off when nobody is watching. So on a night nearly 43 years ago, while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier bludgeoned each other over 15 rounds in a televised title bout viewed by millions around the world, burglars took a lock pick and a crowbar and broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in a suburb of Philadelphia, making off with nearly every document inside. They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups. The case was unsolved, until now.
posted by revikim (46 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
One of the burglars, Bonnie Raines, in her own words about it
posted by revikim at 11:41 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


This is framed strangely. Between the random bolding, the lack of indication that most of this is a quotation, and the mixing of quotation and random additions, it's very hard to parse.
posted by OmieWise at 11:43 AM on January 7


[Added italics to make it clear this is a pull-quote.]
posted by cortex at 11:45 AM on January 7 [3 favorites]


As a former Philadelphian who's dating a Haverford graduate, all I can think is that of course it was a Haverford professor who came up with this plan.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:04 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]


“It looks like we’re terribly reckless people,” Mr. Raines said. “But there was absolutely no one in Washington — senators, congressmen, even the president — who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability.”

“It became pretty obvious to us,” he said, “that if we don’t do it, nobody will.”


It's an exciting time to live. The heroic efforts of individuals like these, like Manning, Assange, Kiriakou, Wilson, Snowden, not only underscore the purpose and importance of whistleblowing in uncovering atrocities and abuses, but also that it can really come down to just a few people saying No to evil.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:05 PM on January 7 [47 favorites]


I heard this on the drive this morning. So very brave of them - I'm glad they're speaking in support of snowden.
posted by rebent at 12:10 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]


From the deleted post:
Background info on COINTELPRO (which, for all intents and purposes, is still going strong under other names)

Glenn Greenwald compares the 1971 revelations with those of the present
posted by anemone of the state at 12:19 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]


NPR link.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:20 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


A TPM commenter imagines what Talking points Memo might have said about the Citizen's Commission in 1971

More info on the FBI's entrapment and 'anticipatory prosecutions' of American Muslims
posted by anemone of the state at 12:22 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]


> it can really come down to just a few people saying No to evil.

Absolutely. Which is why evil is working on mass surveillance, the better to hear the tiniest digital whisper of "No".
posted by anthill at 12:30 PM on January 7 [15 favorites]


I also heard the story on the radio this morning, and spent the remainder of my commute muttering "burglary" to myself so I'd remember to look it up online when I got to work. I've grabbed the sample from Amazon and and I don't even know why I didn't just buy it. I'll go do that now.
posted by rtha at 12:32 PM on January 7


As a former Philadelphian who's dating a Haverford graduate, all I can think is that of course it was a Haverford professor who came up with this plan.

Haha, yeah, it's definitely making the rounds of Bi-Co alum groups today.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:33 PM on January 7


I'll take this as another opportunity to recommend Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives. Hoover, Reagan, Kerr and Savio. Made me feel better about the current NSA shizzle and worse about the american experiment in general. He drew on the '71 break-in papers, for sure, but also sued the FBI for 30 years to unblock FOIA requests.

Also, it's mentioned in the linked articles, but not directly here yet, so: Betty Medsger's new book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI is the source of the revelations.
posted by morganw at 12:59 PM on January 7


Caught this story earlier today. It's worth watching the NYT video, if only for the interview with former FBI Director William Webster, who served in that role from 1978 to 1987:
"You can say the information might be useful, but the method is hardly justifiable. There's a way to take on the unjust law in the courts, and deal with it in that way."
This is such a strong echo of what so many people are saying about Snowden — that the revelations are prompting an "important discussion", but that what he did is unjustified and worthy of punishment — and that argument makes very little sense to me.

How do you get the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of secret programs? When the DOJ keeps secret its interpretation of certain laws, how do you challenge their execution? How do you prove you have legal standing?

Until the Snowden leaks, we did not know the extent of NSA surveillance, nor did we know that they actively encouraged security vulnerabilities in American tech exports. Until the Snowden leaks, the DOJ did not release their interpretation of the Patriot Act. Until the Snowden leaks, affected parties (e.g., Verizon customers) could not demonstrate legal standing. In 2008, an ACLU lawsuit on NSA surveillance was dismissed by the Supreme Court for exactly this reason.

In other words: The legal remedy suggested by William Webster is, practically speaking, impossible without illegal activism.

That fact alone speaks bounds about the legitimacy of our current surveillance programs. And it is the single most important element they share in common with COINTELPRO and other abuses revealed by the 1971 break-in.
posted by compartment at 12:59 PM on January 7 [42 favorites]


Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.
posted by JHarris at 1:07 PM on January 7 [10 favorites]


Two things that I'm curious about, which one might have to read the book to learn. What did they know which convinced them in the first place that a regional FBI office was worth breaking into, and would have smoking gun documents? And second, the text of the article says Betty Medsger persuaded five of them to end their silence. How did she learn their identities? Had they revealed themselves to her as a reporter at the time and she'd been keeping their secret?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:08 PM on January 7


JHarris, til the day she died my mother griped about MLK because of his affairs and his causing riots and I don't know what-all. It always confused me, having grown up with MLK Day and I Have a Dream posters everywhere.

But as a youngster of course I didn't know that the smear campaign against him in the 60s was intense, not that white people in a segregated southern town needed much prompting.
posted by emjaybee at 1:11 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]


(Ah, in answer to my above question, it's in the video: she didn't know; one of the burglars revealed himself to her.)

> former FBI Director William Webster: "[...] There's a way to take on the unjust law in the courts, and deal with it in that way."

Um, and which "law" would that be, Mr. Webster?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:18 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


George_Spiggott: " What did they know which convinced them in the first place that a regional FBI office was worth breaking into, and would have smoking gun documents?"

Addressing this point only... if you were an antiwar activist, it seems reasonable that any field office near activist hotbeds (big cities, especially) would likely contain evidence of how the government was hunting and trapping their prey. In fact, the fact that they stole everything supports this: "I bet if we just grab ALL the files in that place, we'll find something incriminating" (followed by rob, run, read: "HOLY SHIT, MOTHERLOAD!")
posted by IAmBroom at 1:24 PM on January 7


What did they know which convinced them in the first place that a regional FBI office was worth breaking into, and would have smoking gun documents?

George_Spiggott, the Bonnie Raines editorial in the Guardian describes their firsthand knowledge of abuses they could not actually prove:
"We had both been heavily involved in the civil rights movement. John had been a freedom rider, and in Philadelphia we participated in anti-war protests against Vientnam. Through that activity we knew that the FBI was actively trying to squelch dissent, illegally and secretly. We knew that they were sending informants into university classrooms, infiltrating meetings, and tapping phones. The problem was that though we knew all this, there was no way to prove it."
And she also explains why they decided to break into the FBI office:
"We had a hunch that there would be incriminating material there, as the FBI under J Edgar Hoover was so bureaucratic that we thought every single thing that went on under him would be recorded."
I also think it is interesting that she and her husband told her children about their involvement many years before going public with the story.
posted by compartment at 1:24 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]


But as a youngster of course I didn't know that the smear campaign against him in the 60s was intense, not that white people in a segregated southern town needed much prompting.

What kinds of smear campaigns are going on today? What kinds of blackmail letters are sent these days? Which ones have been acquiesced to, and which ones rebuffed?
posted by JHarris at 1:25 PM on January 7 [4 favorites]


The Church Committee's “Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected” pretty much sums up the NSA, FBI, etc. today.

FBI Admits It's Not Really About Law Enforcement Any More
Ignores Lots Of Crimes To Focus On Creating Fake Terror Plots

posted by jeffburdges at 1:28 PM on January 7 [7 favorites]


Was the case ever solved? At what point?
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:55 PM on January 7


The article says the burglary case was closed in 1976 due to lack of evidence.
posted by annsunny at 1:59 PM on January 7


To add to the how-did-they-know of it: Before the digital age, when the FBI was opening your mail, it was very obvious what was going on. Your mail arrived open, often clumsily and messily, as if the poor drone who was tasked with this pointless endeavor had a cigarette in one hand and their eyes on the clock. It's not like this was done with any degree of stealth or finesse. Maybe they saved tradecraft for more serious targets, I can't speak to that.

Also, in the protest community, it was well-known that informants were circulating. Magazines like Ramparts had reported extensively on surveillance on the dissident press and student groups from the mid-60s on.
posted by grounded at 2:02 PM on January 7


It's not like this was done with any degree of stealth or finesse. Maybe they saved tradecraft for more serious targets, I can't speak to that.

As victims explained it to me, that was the tradecraft. The FBI didn't open mail because they necessarily cared about what might be in it (well, sometimes they might), they opened it to say "Eyes are watching you! We can see anything and everything you do!", an intimidation tactic to put people under pressure and paranoia.
posted by anonymisc at 2:08 PM on January 7 [7 favorites]


From the above FBI Admits It's Not Really About Law Enforcement Any More -
"The primary function of the FBI is law enforcement national security"
"I thought we already had a "national security" agency -- known as the 'National Security Agency.'"

Yeah, you should have been there when we were trying to create a "Department of Defense", it turned out that name was already being used by the Department of War! Even though WE were the ones tasked with defense, they had it first so we had to think up a new name. All the good names were taken, I think we eventually settled on "Department of Fatherland Security" or some such crap. It hardly rolls off the tongue. Assholes.
posted by anonymisc at 2:20 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


anonymisc: "Eyes are watching you! We can see anything and everything you do!", an intimidation tactic to put people under pressure and paranoia.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
posted by djeo at 2:53 PM on January 7


> It's an exciting time to live.

Oh, Blazecock, I'm generally right with you; but where's the elation in millions upon millions of people who cling to the belief they live democratically, or rather, who dare not conceive otherwise, being rendered demonstrably powerless by corrupt (Western) Government(s), not able to save themselves let alone their whistleblowers?

It flattens me that individuals like Manning, Assange, Kiriakou, Wilson, and Snowden are throwing their lives away, unable to be escorted to freedom by those they sacrifice themselves for. I know: stand alone, die alone, but sheesh.

If only that 3rd amendment would kick-in in the spirit it was intended ... now that would be an exciting time to live (if those of us looking on uselessly from afar survived the almighty shock of it). Once Obama goes and the US puts another ratbag republican in charge of the Western world we're all in for a "pivotal" right-winged decade. Bloody hell.

I fail to sense excitement.
posted by de at 3:07 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


According to Tablet,
The burglars didn’t know it at the time, but Hoover so believed in the impregnability of his many outposts that he copied his most secret, incriminating documents to every one.
This seems to be a regular pattern: spies think they won't get spied upon, hackers think they won't get hacked.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:23 PM on January 7 [4 favorites]


The bravery of these burglars was pretty amazing.

I love this story because I imagine it has caused some discomfiture within the FBI and the Obama Administration with regard to their handling of the Snowden case.
posted by jayder at 3:28 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


I hope it did but fear it did not.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:35 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


A cousin-in-law posted this comment from an old SDS friend which highlights how frightened media was about publishing any of the information initially:

"Good story...though The Times is giving itself some undeserved kudos. After the 1971 break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and the seizure and expropriation by peace activists of incriminating government documents, the mainstream press--including The Times--initially didn't go anywhere near the story. It was only after the War Resisters League and its publication, WIN magazine, made everything public that the corporate media decided to show a bit interest. So it might behoove the newspaper of record to give credit where credit is due. Following the expropriation, politicians of all stripes, to great fanfare, held hearings to initiate reforms and demanded that the FBI and other government snooping agencies be reined in, and laws were passed curtailing the most excessive abuses. Today, following the revelations made public by Edward Snowden's expropriation of secret documents, politicians of all stripes, to great fanfare, are calling for hearings to initiate reforms and are demanding that the NSA and other government snooping agencies be reined in, and are requesting that laws be passed to curtail the most excessive abuses. My, how things certainly have changed! We sure are much freer now from big brother and law-enforcement dirty trickery than we were four decades ago, aren't we?"
posted by BillW at 5:40 PM on January 7 [9 favorites]


Hey so.
Those burglars are fucking heroes.
posted by entropone at 6:16 PM on January 7 [13 favorites]


I shared this article to my mom and she wrote this up:

"I dedicated my life to antiwar activities in the late 60's and early 70's. I lived in Philadelphia at the time of the stolen FBI files, many of which were published by WIN magazine, a radical nonviolent magazine. I knew Bill Davidon, an older professor who was so supportive of all of our activities. I never knew who had stolen the files. I am so proud of Bill Davidon--one more incredibly supportive action, which did make a huge difference in reining in the FBI...I say he was an older person when I and most of the others working in the anti-war movement were in our 20's."
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:01 PM on January 7 [10 favorites]


I asked my grandmother (late 80s) who lived in Philadelphia at the time and also still lives there. She emailed me the following:

"I knew Bill Davidon who was active in SANE at the time. I also knew his wife. The six who did the robbery were amazing and their action was very positive in showing how the FBI was following everyone at the time."

"I have been thinking about the FBI break in. Some of us used to go to Powelton to walk around and be on the look out for police who would be looking for possible break in people. We acted like protectors in the neighborhood where the break in people might have come from. But we never knew who they were. We were also on the lookout for Cointelpro people at meetings. They would be people who would really disturb meetings so much that we would have to stop the meetings. One time I moved a meting outside to a corner to get away from the disturbers."
posted by jazh at 2:36 AM on January 8 [5 favorites]


It's amusing how the FBI and CIA thought trolling was so important. Is Gloria Steinem the most famous Cointelpro "troll"? Who else?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:52 AM on January 8


Is Gloria Steinem the most famous Cointelpro "troll"? Who else?

*click*

ctrl-F cointelpro

nada


So uh, care to explain?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:30 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]


You wanted crtl-F CIA, not Cointelpro actually. I'm unsure when exactly Gloria Steinem worked for the CIA, or in what capacities, but "Miss Steinem was a full-time employe of the [CIA from at least 1959] till following the Helsinki festival in 1962", although presumably she worked for them well before and after.

I've always heard that Ms Magazine was initially financed by FBI or CIA too, although Steinem claimed she no longer worked for the CIA by 1975.

There are an awful lot of crackpoty articles on Steinem's employment with the CIA, but she recruited CIA operatives who's job involved reporting on socialists, etc. and apparently what we'd call "concern trolling" today.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:40 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Democracy Now: "It Was Time to Do More Than Protest": 1971 Burglars Who Exposed COINTELPRO Reveal Their Identities
posted by homunculus at 9:56 AM on January 8


Insane Clown Posse Sue FBI Over Juggalos' Gang Classification lol
posted by jeffburdges at 10:01 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]


anonymisc: "Yeah, you should have been there when we were trying to create a "Department of Defense", it turned out that name was already being used by the Department of War! "

Cute joke, but the "Department of War" was renamed the "Department of Defense" after WWII subsided, for obvious reasons.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:07 AM on January 8


jeffburdges: "It's amusing how the FBI and CIA thought trolling was so important. Is Gloria Steinem the most famous Cointelpro "troll"? Who else?"

So, your source provides no backing whatsoever for your claim... why did you link to it again?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:09 AM on January 8


Umm, the Redstockings article on Steinem and Ms. magazine is the source, wikipedia references it.

I've no clue if Steinem ever formally worked for Cointelpro itself, largely an FBI operation, although some article claim that too. Anyways, her involvement with similar CIA operations is well established, sorry if I'm not always up on the exact dividing lines between the code names.

What's interesting here is : The FBI and CIA saw real value in essentially trolling activists in meatspace.

And my original question remains : What other celebrities got their start doing this, either for the CIA or FBI?

Jackson Pollock was already famous when the CIA took interest in abstract expressionism, ultimately he's probably less famous than Steinem too.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:09 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


"I thought we already had a "national security" agency -- known as the 'National Security Agency.'"

Meet the Spies Doing the NSA's Dirty Work: This obscure FBI unit does the domestic surveillance that no other intelligence agency can touch.
posted by homunculus at 1:56 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Amazingly, the FBI was well aware of Davidon. They had bugged his phone calls with co-burglar Keith Forsyth after they suspected him in a plot to blow up tunnels in D.C. in 1970, before the break-in.

And there's this, from a 1996 Philadelphia Inquirer report on the burglary:

William C. Davidon, who is now an emeritus professor at Haverford College and who was then active in the antiwar movement, has volunteered that he had a part in the aftermath of the burglary. A few months before, he had been named as an unindicted coconspirator in an alleged plot by the Berrigans to kidnap then-presidential adviser Henry Kissinger.

It was Davidon who read the first communication from the "Citizen's Commission to Investigate the FBI," announcing it would make the papers public.

"I was involved in the publicity of it," he said last week. He said he understood the participants to have made a pact of silence.

"What little information I have, I would rather not go beyond the guidelines the group itself has set," he said.


To this day, he said, he has never been questioned about the burglary.
posted by sixpack at 2:30 PM on January 8


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