DATE: March 8, 1971
NARRATION: It’s the greatest heist you’ve never heard of. And one of the most important.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-4-71):
HARRY REASONER: Last March, someone broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, stole some records, and mailed copies of them around to several newspapers.
NARRATION: Those records would help bring an end to J. Edgar Hoover’s secret activities within the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-6-71):
ANCHOR: He ordered his agents not only to expose New Left groups, but to take action against them to neutralize them.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-28-76):
SENATOR WALTER MONDALE: Many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI…
NARRATION: The burglars were never caught, and the details have remained a mystery until now. A new book, The Burglary, reveals for the first time who did it, and how they used a crowbar to pry open one of the best kept and darkest secrets in American history.
JOHN RAINES: We were early whistleblowers, before whistleblowers were known as such.
NARRATION: The burglars are stepping out of the shadows just as new revelations about secret intelligence operations have many people asking, “how much is too much when personal privacy is at stake?”
NARRATION: In the spring of 1970, the war in Vietnam was raging.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-15-70):
ANCHOR: American battle deaths in Vietnam now number 40,142.
NARRATION: And at home, anti-war protesters and law enforcement officers were violently clashing.
BONNIE RAINES: It felt like a nightmare was unfolding. I took what was outrage and horror about what was going on, and I realized that I had to take it somewhere.
NARRATION: Bonnie Raines worked at a daycare center in Philadelphia. Her husband John taught religion at Temple University. They were the very picture of a golden couple.
BONNIE RAINES: We had an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 2-year-old. We were family folks who also wanted to keep another track active in our lives, which was political activism.
NARRATION: That activism attracted the attention of the FBI. Its director, the powerful and feared J. Edgar Hoover, perceived the Anti-War Movement, which ranged from radical revolutionaries to peaceful protesters, as a threat to national security.
BONNIE RAINES: At one rally, I had one of my children on my back, and not only did they take my picture, but they took her picture.
NARRATION: Protesters like the Raines became increasingly convinced the FBI was conducting a covert campaign against them, tapping their phones, and infiltrating anti-war groups.
JOHN RAINES: We knew the FBI was systematically trying to squash dissent, and dissent is the lifeblood of Democracy.
NARRATION: Determined to get proof the FBI was crossing the line, fellow activist and Haverford physics professor William Davidon hatched a plan. He reached out to the Raines and six others, including a social worker, a graduate student, and a taxi driver named Keith Forsyth.
KEITH FORSYTH: We agreed to meet someplace where we could talk, and he says “what would you think about the idea of breaking into an FBI office?” And I look at him, and I’m like, “you’re serious, aren’t you?” I was pretty vehement in my opposition to the war, and I felt like marching up and down the street with a sign was not cutting it anymore. And it was like, okay, time to, time to kick it up a notch.
NARRATION: The crew decided to break into a small FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania.
KEITH FORSYTH: Once I got over the shock of thinking that this was the nuttiest thing I’d ever heard in my life, I’m like “this is a great idea.” Because we’re not gonna make any allegations. We’re gonna take their own paperwork, signed by their own people – including J. Edgar Hoover – and give it to the newspapers. So let’s see you argue with that.
NARRATION: In the Raines third floor attic, the team divvied up responsibilities and assigned tasks. They hung maps to learn about the neighborhood, planned escape routes, and they took extensive notes on the comings and goings in the building.
KEITH FORSYTH: I signed up for a correspondent’s course in locksmithing. That was my job: to get us in the door. Practice several times a week, after a month, you get pretty good.
NARRATION: Bonnie was assigned the job of going inside and casing the office.
BONNIE RAINES: I was to call the office and make an appointment as a Swarthmore student, doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI. So they gave me an appointment, I tried to disguise myself as best I could. And I went to say goodbye, and I acted confused about where the door was. And that gave me a chance, then, to check out both rooms and know where the file cabinets were.
NARRATION: Bonnie discovered there was no alarm system and no security guards. She also found a second door leading inside.
JOHN RAINES: When she came back with that news, we became convinced, “yes, I think we can get this done.” We had more to lose than anybody else in the group, because we had these kids.
BONNIE RAINES: We faced the reality of, if we were arrested, and on trial, we would be in prison for very many years. We had to make some plans for that.
NARRATION: With a solid understanding of how they would conduct the break-in, they now needed to figure out when.
The main event! 15 rounds…
JOHN RAINES: March 8th, 1971, Frazier and Ali were fighting for the championship of the world, and we had the feeling that, maybe the cops might be a little bit distracted.
NARRATION: While the crew waited at a nearby hotel, Forsyth arrived at the office alone.
KEITH FORSYTH: Pull up, walk up to the door, and one of the locks is a cylinder tumbler lock, not a pin tumbler lock. And I just about had a heart attack. Bottom line is I could not pick that lock.
NARRATION: They almost called it off, but that second door that Bonnie noticed gave them another chance.
KEITH FORSYTH: At that point, you know that you’re gonna have to wing it. Knelt down on the floor, picked the lock in like twenty seconds. There was a deadbolt on the other side. I had a prybar with me, um, a short crowbar. I put the bar in there, and yanked that sucker. At one point, I heard a noise inside the office, and I’m like “are they in there waiting for me?” Basically said to myself, “there’s only one way to find out. I’m going in.”
NARRATION: Next, the inside crew walked into an empty office wearing business suits and carrying several suitcases. They cleaned out file cabinets and then made their way downstairs to the getaway car, and drove off unnoticed.
The winner…Heavyweight Championship…
NARRATION: The group reconvened at a farmhouse an hour’s drive away and started unpacking.
KEITH FORSYTH: We were like “oh man, I can’t believe this worked.” We knew there was gonna be some gold in there somewhere.
JOHN RAINES: Each of the eight of us were sorting files, and all of a sudden, you’d hear one of them say “oh, look! Look, look at this one!”
NARRATION: After several long nights digging for documents that looked the most revealing, the burglars sent copies to journalists, including *Washington Post*reporter Betty Medsger.
BETTY MEDSGER (AUTHOR, THE BURGLARY): The cover letter was from the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. And the first file that I read, was about a group of FBI agents who were told the enhance the paranoia in the Anti-War Movement, and to create an atmosphere that there’s an “FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
NARRATION: Attorney General John Mitchell asked the Post not to write about the stolen documents, saying it could endanger lives.
BETTY MEDSGER: The Attorney General called two key editors, and tried to convince them not to publish.
NARRATION: But the Post did publish the story. On the front page. It was the first of several reports, and told how agents turned local police, letter carriers, and switchboard operators into informants.
BETTY MEDSGER: There were very strong editorials calling for an investigation of the FBI.
NARRATION: Another stolen document would prove even more explosive: a routing slip marked with a mysterious word: COINTELPRO. While reporters tried to uncover its meaning, the FBI was desperate to find the burglars. The Bureau put nearly 200 agents on the investigation. Hoover’s best lead was the college girl who had visited their office.
BONNIE RAINES: His command was “Find. Me. That. Woman!”
NARRATION: Agents actively searched for Bonnie, but there were many anti-war activists who fit her description.
JOHN RAINES: We could hide within thousands of people. There were so many of us who were active.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-6-73):
CARL STERN: The documents prove…
NARRATION: Two years later, NBC reporter Carl Stern figured out the meaning of that word COINTELPRO.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-6-73):
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Secret FBI memos made public today show that the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered a nationwide campaign to disrupt the activities of the New Left without telling any of his superiors about it.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-6-73):
CARL STERN: Many of the techniques were clearly illegal. Burglaries, forged blackmail letters, and threats of violence were used…
NARRATION: The FBI initially defended its actions.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-7-73):
CLARENCE KELLEY: The government would have been derelict in its duy had it not taken measures to protect the fabric of our society.
NARRATION: But the Bureau’s techniques were worse, and the targets more far reaching, than the burglars ever imagined.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 11-24-76):
DAVID BRINKLEY: Diplomats, government employees, sports figures, social prominent persons, senators, and congressmen…
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 11-18-75):
WALTER CRONKITE: The FBI at one time thought to blackmail the late Martin Luther King into committing suicide.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-6-73):
SENATOR WALTER MONDALE: Marriages were destroyed, violence was encouraged, many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI, and their tax returns used illegally.
NARRATION: Congress issued a series of reforms. When William Webster took over the FBI in 1978, his mandate was clear.
WILLIAM WEBSTER (FORMER DIRECTOR, F.B.I. (1978-87) AND C.I.A. (1987-91)): My primary focus was making clear that COINTELPRO was no longer one of the arrows in the quiver of the FBI. That we were out of that business forever.
NARRATION: Webster admits the Bureau’s tactics were out of bounds, but does not condone what the activists did to reveal them.
WILLIAM WEBSTER: 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.
KEITH FORSYTH: You know, there were things happening that were flat-out wrong. Ordinary, how you treat your fellow man, wrong. And we took a risk to try to do what we could to put a stop to it.
NARRATION: The burglars were never caught. Five years later, with the Statute of Limitations running out, the FBI closed the case. Unsolved.
BETTY MEDSGER: On the very last memo, where they say who they think broke into the Media office, they’re down to seven people. Only one was, in fact, one of the Media Burglars.
NARRATION: For nearly 20 years, Betty Medsger had no idea who the burglars were. Until one night, an old acquaintance she was having dinner with let it slip.
JOHN RAINES: …and our youngest daughter Mary was there. I said “Mary, you really ought to know Betty, because she was the one that we sent all those documents to.” And Betty’s chin dropped, like that.
BETTY MEDSGER: I was absolutely stunned.
NARRATION: Medsger spent years tracking down the other burglars and getting them to reveal the secret they had vowed to keep forever. The mastermind, William Davidon, recently died. But he and four others are identified in Medsger’s book The Burglary, and in a new documentary, 1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton.
JOHANNA HAMILTON: We didn’t know this extraordinary story, this seemingly small event, had actually had very far-reaching consequences.
NARRATION: The exposure of COINTELPRO pushed Congress to rein in government surveillance. It created a special court, the so called FISA Court, to issue warrants when intelligence agencies want to spy on US citizens. But after 9/11, more wide-ranging surveillance was allowed. Just how much the NSA’s spying activities had grown was largely unknown, until 2013, when contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents.
ARCHIVAL (THE GUARDIAN, 6-6-13):
EDWARD SNOWDEN: This is the truth, this is what’s happening. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 6-6-13):
ANCHOR: The US government reportedly attaining top secret court orders requiring Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 6-9-2013):
CHRIS WALLACE: Revelations about the government monitoring phone records and emails have renewed questions about that balance between privacy and security.
KEITH FORSYTH: I definitely see parallels between Snowden’s case and our case. What we revealed changed public opinion, which is why the laws were changed. If revealing ourselves is gonna get people arguing with each other about what the FBI did then, and what the NSA is doing now, I think that’s a good thing.