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Activists Who Broke into FBI Office, Stole COINTELPRO Papers, Reveal Their Identities

Many of the same people applauding these activists, and I applaud them as well, will criticize Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning even though they also exposed significant government crimes.  It is much easier to look back and see the heroic effort than it is to applaud them as the story unfolds.  This article indicates that the COINTELPRO program is no longer used by the US government against political activists, but as those of us who participated in Occupy know, there was infiltration throughout the movement and spying on activists (more here, here, here, here).  There was a nationwide efforts by local and national police forces who coordinated efforts to destroy the movement and this included the FBI. So, while the COINTELPRO program no longer exists the strategy and tactics of the program continue.

Even in 1971 it was difficult to get the media to cover these leaks. While the Washington Post debated whether to publish the story and was pressured by the Attorney General not to do so, they finally did so.  But, the NY Times allied with the FBI providing them the documents in an effort to assist them in the search for the heroic citizens that they now put on their front page.  While they finally did publish a story (after the Post) they were obviously allied with the government more than the whistelblowers.  Other major newspapers did not publish the story.  Thankfully, today the corporate media is not the only outlet and stories will get out even if the corporate media does not want to report them.    

The claims by William Webster in the video that there are alternatives to stealing the documents and leaking them is just not realistic.  It is even less realistic today. Congressional committees are co-opted, media is cowered, whistleblower protections are toothless.  Thankfully the Wikileaks model will be replicated and there will be multiple unofficial methods that allow for leaks showing the crimes of government and big business.  The growth of the independent citizens media will force the shrinking corporate media to report these leaks or they will see their already low credibility shrink further.

These folks are heroes to us, just as Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers is; but we also saw Chelsea Manning as a hero (indeed, I serve on the Private Manning Support Network Steering Committee) and we have allied our efforts with Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, John Kiriakou and other whistleblowers of today.  Transparency in government is essential in this era of secrecy.  The government commits too many crimes, works in conjunction with big business for their profits at the expense of the people and planet (as we see with the TPP) and too often misleads the public about what it is doing.  People should use this story when they talk with people about Manning, Snowden, Assange to show them that the heroes of today are being abused by the federal government — the government that is committing crimes against the Constitution and the people commits more crimes when they treat heroes as traitors.   KZ

Forty-three years after the mysterious theft of up to 1,000 documents from an FBI office outside Philadelphia, three former political activists are publicly confessing to the brazen burglary, calling it an act of “resistance” that exposed “massive illegal surveillance and intimidation.”

“We did it … because somebody had to do it,” John Raines, 80, a retired professor of religion at Temple University, said in an interview with NBC News. “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.”

Raines, his wife, Bonnie, and Keith Forsyth, a former Philadelphia cab driver, said they were part of an eight-member ring  of anti-Vietnam War protesters that  —while much of the country was gripped by the so-called “Fight of the Century” in New York between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier— broke into the FBI’s Media, Penn., office on March 8, 1971.

Members of the burglary team, armed with little more than a crowbar and wearing  suits and ties, then walked off undetected  with suitcases stuffed with sensitive bureau files that revealed a domestic FBI spying operation known as COINTELPRO. The heist enraged the bureau’s legendary Director J. Edgar Hoover , who launched a massive but ultimately futile manhunt.

The identities of the burglars 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.

The book, as well as a new film, “1971,” by documentarian Johanna Hamilton, portray the break-in  as a story with new resonance in light of the recent  revelations of National Security Agency surveillance of American citizens by ex-contractor Edward Snowden.

Much like Snowden, the FBI burglars selectively leaked the stolen files to journalists. They produced months of headlines about  FBI surveillance of anti-war and civil rights groups  — including the first references to COINTELPRO, a secret program started years earlier by Hoover and aimed at smearing the reputations of perceived enemies such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

Among the stolen files: plans to enhance “paranoia” among “New Left” groups by instilling fears that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Another instructed agents in the Philadelphia area to monitor the “clientele” of “Afro-American type bookstores” and recruit informants among the “the Negro militant movement.”

“These documents were explosive,” said Medsger, who was the first reporter to write about them after receiving a batch of the files anonymously in the mail. Her book traces how the stolen files led to a landmark Senate investigation of intelligence and law enforcement agency abuses by the late Idaho Sen. Frank Church, and eventually to new Justice Department guidelines that barred the bureau from conducting investigations based on First Amendment protected political activity.

After the burglary, said Medsger, “The FBI was never the same.”

he FBI office in Philadelphia that was burglarized in 1971
The FBI office in Philadelphia that was burglarized in 1971

Advance word that the book and film might portray the burglars in a positive light has angered some former FBI agents, including  Pat Kelly, who worked in the burgled  office at the time. Along with a fellow agent, Kelly was the first to discover the break-in – a scene he still vividly remembers.

“Pat, someone got in our pants,” he recalls his colleague saying as they entered the office. “We found the office in total disarray. Files were all over the place. Paperwork discarded. All the drawers of the desks were ransacked. … I was in a state of shock.”

Kelly said he remains “incensed”  by the crime and frustrated that, despite a  wide-ranging investigation that at one point involved 200 agents. As far as he’s concerned, the burglars  “are criminals, not patriots.”

“I don’t believe such people have the right to take it upon themselves and make decisions’ about what should be made public,” said Kelly, who served as an FBI agent for 32 years until his retirement in 2001. “These are the same type of people that would look upon Snowden as perhaps a patriot when … in my opinion, he was a traitor.”

In response to a request for comment from NBC News, FBI spokesman Michael Kortan emailed this statement:  “A number of events during that era, including the burglary, contributed to changes in how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices.”

With the five-year statute of limitations on burglary long since expired and the case officially closed, Raines, his wife and Forsyth said they have few fears about revealing their identities now. To the contrary, they spoke with pride about their roles during several interviews.

“We should have a plaque right up there,” said Raines, standing outside what is now a real estate office across from the Delaware County courthouse, and pointing to the second floor where the FBI office was located.  “This is where it happened.”

The burglars were committed political activists during a turbulent era: John Raines was a civil rights “Freedom Rider” who marched in Selma, Ala., and got arrested in Little Rock sitting with African Americans at a segregated lunch counter.  Later in the 1960s, they turned their protest efforts to stopping the Vietnam War.

“I was horrified that our government was lying to us about what was actually happening in Vietnam,” said Bonnie Raines, who later worked as a child care advocate. “And all the usual things we always did — picketing, marching, signing petitions — didn’t make any difference whatsoever.”

John and Bonnie Raines early in their marriage
John and Bonnie Raines early in their marriage

Their frustrations led them to acts of civil disobedience, including breaking into Philadelphia area Selective Service offices and destroying draft cards. In pulling off those raids, they got assistance from a fellow protester,  Forsyth, who said he developed a skill at picking the locks on the draft board office by taking a correspondence course.

In the fall of 1970, an informal leader of their protest group , the late Bill Davidon, then a physics professor at Haverford College, proposed a more risky operation: breaking into a local FBI office in order to get proof of FBI surveillance of the peace movement.

Davidon’s daughter, Sarah,  confirmed her father’s role, telling NBC News he first told her about it more than 25 years ago. “He didn’t call it a burglary. He always referred to it as ‘the Media action,’” she said. “He didn’t do this as an anarchist to break the law.   He did this because he felt strongly about civil liberties.”

The team of burglars, calling themselves “the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” cased the Media office for hours in what John Raines described as a “hippie” van, monitoring  when agents came and left. Then, Bonnie Raines was dispatched to get a closer look by posing as a college student seeking to interview the agent in charge for a school paper about job opportunities for women in the FBI.

“I tried to disguise my appearance as much as I could,” said Bonnie Raines. “I had long, dark, hippie hair at that time and I stuffed it up inside of a winter hat.” She was careful to leave no fingerprints. “What (the agent) didn’t notice during the whole interview was that I never took my gloves off,” she said.

After the break-in, the FBI developed a sketch of the  college student, but agents were unable to come up with a real name.

”We quickly realized that this was just a ‘send-in’ to try to ascertain what kind of security devices there were,” said Kelly, the former FBI agent.

An FBI sketch of the female "college student," which was actually Bonnie Raines in disguise.
An FBI sketch of the female “college student,” which was actually Bonnie Raines in disguise.

The burglars chose the evening of March 8, because of the national fixation with the Ali-Frazier fight, figuring that any security guards on duty would be glued to their radios.

Forsyth entered first.  “I picked door B and busted the deadbolt off in one go with a crowbar,” he recalled. “And I held my breath.”

Next,  the team’s “inside crew” entered and started cracking open file cabinets and rifling through desk drawers for documents. Forsyth acknowledges they left the office a mess. “I don’t think we spent a lot time cleaning up,” he laughed. “I think we wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.”

John Raines drove the getaway car to a Quaker farm outside of town, where the team immediately began poring over the documents, getting excited as they found evidence of FBI surveillance. But even while sending out their anonymous mailings, they kept their secret, telling no one — not even their children — for years.

But Raines said he now feels emboldened. And he also feels a special kinship with Snowden, the NSA leaker and current fugitive:  “From one whistleblower to another, ‘Hi,’” he said, waving to a camera.

And he’s got a message for the FBI agents who looked for him for years.

“Aren’t you glad you failed?” he said. “… Aren’t we all glad you failed?”


What does COINTELPRO stand for?

Counter Intelligence Program


From 1956 to 1971, the agency used covert operations to infiltrate domestic political groups that it considered subversive, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, the Black Panthers and various exile groups. Field operatives were instructed to disrupt the groups, create factions and destroy their public image.

Was it legal?

In 1976, the final report of the Church Committee, a Senate group that investigated domestic surveillance by the CIA, NSA and FBI, said “Legal restrictions were ignored,” and asked, “What happened to turn a law enforcement agency into a law violator?” The report said the FBI had told outside authorities it was monitoring communists and white hate groups, but “[couldn’t] support its claim” that it had informed anyone outside the agency about its surveillance of other groups. The report led to a series of reforms that set limits on the FBI’s authority.

Who authorized it?

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched the program to disrupt Communist activity in the name of national security, but then redirected it against black civil rights leaders. Later it was expanded to disrupt the Ku Klux Klan. Hoover pulled the plug on the program in 1972 after its existence was revealed by the Media, Pa., burglary.

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