In 1971, an eight-member group known as the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania.
The burglars made off with 1,000 documents proving extensive FBI surveillance of activists protesting the Vietnam War, those fighting for civil rights and similar groups. The eight have been living in secret until now.
Bonnie Raines, then a mother of three young kids, remembers the night of March 8, 1971, as she waited nervously in a car outside the four-story yellow brick FBI building in Media.
Keith Forsyth, a collaborator, walked into the building’s front door dressed in a suit and overcoat as if he lived in the building that also housed apartments. Forsyth tried to pick the lock on the second floor of the bureau’s office while Raines planned to create a roadblock should police arrive. But Forsyth couldn’t open the lock. Raines had another idea, but wasn’t sure it would work.
“When I had been inside the offices a few weeks before, I noticed that second door,” she said. “I reported back to the group there was a great big huge metal, steel cabinet blocking the door.”
Raines had cased the office while posing as a Swarthmore College student, inquiring about job opportunities for women at the FBI. Forsyth and three others were able to open the second door with a crow bar. Inside, all the filing cabinets were unlocked.
Raines’ husband, John, was waiting in a parking lot at Swarthmore to transfer the documents.
“In extraordinary times, when the ordinary business of government is not being done by government, then in those times citizens need to come forward, and we did,” said John Raines, who is now retired from Temple University’s religion department.
The Washington Post decided to publish the stolen documents, which revealed for the first time FBI surveillance and harassment of political activists and infiltration into civil rights and peace organizations.
‘An FBI agent behind every mailbox’According to civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, this was not just about embarrassing the FBI.
“The media break-in had a huge national impact. It was the first concrete proof of FBI surveillance and harassment of a large number of political activists,” he said.
“Within a few days to maybe a few weeks after we disseminated the documents from Media, the FBI was spreading the word that there were national security documents in there, locations of missile silos, things like that, in order to try to suppress these documents,” said Forsyth, now an engineer living in Manayunk.
A 1970 memorandum included in the documents encouraged agents to investigate anti-war activists and other leftists.
“It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox,” said the message from FBI headquarters.
Leads from the documents ultimately helped reporters expose the widespread surveillance program, named Cointelpro.
As part of Cointelpro, the FBI spied on civil rights leaders, suspected communists and other leftists, and anonymously threatened Martin Luther King Jr., saying if he did not commit suicide, his extramarital affairs would be exposed.
Investigation focuses on Philly
Following the break-in, about 200 area FBI agents were assigned to the case but the group had left no evidence at the scene. Thousands of area activists were potential suspects. Many lived in University City.
According to Temple University professor David Kairys, the FBI fell into a common pattern in American law enforcement during its investigation.
“Instead of trying to figure out who did something, they glom[med] on to a particular person and they’re certain it’s that person by hunch, by intuition, because they don’t like that person, whatever it is,” he said.
“They picked a particular person, John Peter Grady, who was a leader of the Catholic left at the time. They had 200 agents, but they’re all aimed at looking at the wrong things,” Kairys added.
According to Rudovsky, the FBI’s investigation backfired.
“After about a month or so of this surveillance and harassment, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of a number of people who had been followed and harassed and surveilled in this community against the Attorney General [John] Mitchell, against FBI director [J. Edgar] Hoover, seeking an injunction from the federal court to terminate that surveillance,” he explained.
Sounding off on FBI agentsThe FBI settled the case before trial. That summer, leftists in West Philly’s Powelton Village, held a fair to mock the FBI. They took photos with an enlarged picture of Hoover, made children’s puzzles of photos taken of agents, and auctioned copies of the Media FBI documents.
John Raines recalled the agents who regularly visited the neighborhood gave themselves away by their professional attire, short haircuts and Ford cars. The activists fought back against the easy marks.
“The local folks decided to get air horns whenever they saw an FBI agent. FBI agents were just all over the place, they would hit the button on the air horn to go ‘beep,’ here you were in University City, day and night you’d hear the ‘beep beep beep beep,’ he said.
“It was wonderful because the FBI attempt to intimidate citizens backfired and the citizens ridiculed the FBI and proved their own strength,” he added.
Raines and several others from the eight-member group revealed their identities in a just-published book by The Washington Post journalist who first covered the leak, Betty Medsger, called “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” and related film.
“I think it’s important to realize, the situation was very unusual,” said Medsger. “This was the first time a journalist was given secret government files that had been stolen by someone outside the government.”
Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham decided to print the documents, while the New York Times and others returned the papers to the FBI.
With the statute of limitations for their crime long expired, the Raineses and their collaborators feel comfortable coming out of the shadows.