Panel speaks on 1971 burglary of FBI office
GETTING THE SCOOP: Former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger (center L) discusses her coverage of the 1971 break-in.
On Monday, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, an independent reporting center dedicated to social justice based at the University, hosted a ’DEIS Impact event titled “Breaking the Story: How Eight Ordinary Citizens Took Down the FBI.”
The event included a screening of the documentary “1971” by Johanna Hamilton, which tells the story of the eight citizens who broke into an FBI office in Media, Penn. in 1971 to expose FBI corruption. Afterward, there was a panel discussion with Florence Graves, the founding director of the Schuster Institute; John and Bonnie Raines, two of the original burglars; and Betty Medsger, the former Washington Post reporter who broke the initial stories on the contents of the stolen FBI files.
The film details how the eight citizens broke into the FBI office outside Philadelphia, one of the main cities of political activism and protests against the Vietnam War. The eight citizens, who were activists at the time, included group leader Bill Davidon, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson and Bonnie and John Raines. They kept their identities hidden for over forty years, and their names were only publicly revealed in 2014 after Medsger convinced them to come forward. “I wanted to tell the full impact of what they had done,” Medsger said during the panel. Medsger only learned the identity of the burglars herself in 1989.
The eight people, who called themselves the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” broke into the office on the night of March 8, 1971, a night picked deliberately because it was the night of the famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraizer. After successfully stealing every file in the office — over a thousand documents — they anonymously mailed the files to the three major papers in the country — the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post — as well as two congressmen. The Washington Post was the only one to retain and publish the documents, as the other newspapers and the congressmen all returned the documents to the FBI.
Bonnie Raines said in the panel that they sent the documents specifically to Medsger at the Post because they “knew her interest in the resistance movement and the anti-war movement.” According to Bonnie Raines, only 40 percent of the stolen documents detailed actual crimes, while sixty percent were political documents. These documents detailed the extensive and illegal surveillance programs conducted by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, as well as plans to intimidate and instill fear in anti-war protesters and citizens expressing their First Amendment rights. The surveillance programs mostly targeted anti-war activists, college campuses, women’s groups and many black communities and organizations.
Bonnie Raines added that Hoover was considered “a god … he was either loved or he was feared, but he was the most powerful man in Washington at that time.” John Raines noted that he knew the newspapers or any other organization would not speak out against the FBI and that the surveillance and corruption that many suspected was occurring would never be revealed. The impact of the break-in and discovery and release of the documents had many far-reaching effects. Medsger noted that one of the biggest impacts of this was that it not only revealed the extent of COINTELPRO, the large counter intelligence program conducted by the FBI, but that it also led to a congressional investigation and the creation of the Church Committee in 1975, which investigated illegal intelligence-gathering and surveillance by the CIA, FBI and NSA.
Graves noted that this event both pre-dates and sets the stage for other events of this nature, such as the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal and Deep Throat and, more recently, Edward Snowden and the National Security Administration. “It had the impact we hoped it would have,” said Bonnie Raines.
John Raines concluded the panel by saying that he sees many similarities between the era of the Vietnam War and the culture of today. At the time, “the country was on fire,” John said. “There was a culture of resistance, a culture of ‘enough is enough,’” a sentiment he said he feels is coming back. “We live in a broken world … We are, again, a nation on fire.”