From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out After 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)
Watch Part 2 of our extended discussion with three of the antiwar activists who broke into an FBI office in 1971 in Media, Pennsylvania. The burglars, John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth, are speaking out this week for the first time following the publication of Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.
Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we bring you part two of this fascinating discussion, the solving of a mystery during the Vietnam War era that wasn’t solved ’til this week. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So we continue our discussion looking at how activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and disclosed secrets about the FBI’s COINTELPRO program—that is, Counterintelligence Program.
AMY GOODMAN: Until this week, their identities were not known. Joining us are two of the people who broke into the FBI’s offices, John and Bonnie Raines. John and Bonnie hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglaries at their home, where they were raising three children. Bonnie worked as a daycare director. She helped case the FBI office by posing as a college student interested in becoming an FBI agent. John Raines was a veteran of the Freedom Rides movement, a professor at Temple University. He used a Xerox machine at the school to photocopy many of the stolen documents.
We’re also joined by Betty Medsger. She is author of the new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. She first reported on the stolen documents while working at The Washington Post. The activists mailed the documents to her. She was the first to reveal them; The Washington Post, the first paper to agree to publish the information in these documents. She uncovered the identities of most of the burglars in her new book. So, 40 years ago, she broke the story, and now she’s breaking the story of the identities.
And we’re joined by David Kairys, who has worked as an attorney for the activists for over four decades, a civil rights attorney and law professor at Temple University, as well.
In the first part of our discussion, we talked about how March 8th, 1971, went down, the night of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight, using that as a cover because it would be a lot of noise and the belief that the guards would be watching this in the Media offices. But there was criticism leveled—or you feared there would be, John and Bonnie Raines—of why you did this, because you could have gone to jail for many, many years. You had three kids under 10. Professor John Raines, what was your thinking process leading up to this?
JOHN RAINES: Sure, that’s a great question. We were the only ones, out of the eight, who were not only husband and wife, but father and mother of three children under 10. And we were not into the being a martyr. We were not into jeopardizing the future of our children. We were pretty sure—if we weren’t pretty sure, we wouldn’t have, in fact, gone into that office and taken out those files. So we were pretty sure we could get away with it.
But the second thing that’s important to know is that we routinely ask, as a society, mothers and fathers to take on as part of their work highly dangerous kinds of activities. We ask that of all policemen. We ask that of everybody that works for the fire department. We ask that of mothers and fathers who are stationed overseas, sent overseas to defend our freedoms in the Army and Navy. We routinely ask of people to take on jobs that risk their families. Now, we were faced back in 1971 with nobody in Washington was going to do what had to be done if we were going to reveal what J. Edgar Hoover was doing with his FBI. We were the last line of defense. So, as citizens, we stepped forward and did what we had to do because nobody in Washington would do what they should have done. Then, after we did what we did, people in Washington, with the help of Betty’s revealing stories in the Post, then they began, finally, to oversee J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and things changed.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you spoke to family members. In the event that you were caught and imprisoned, you spoke to some of your family members and asked them to care for your children. What exactly did you tell them you were about to do?
BONNIE RAINES: Well, we didn’t tell them exactly what we had planned. We did have to let them know the high level of jeopardy and that we were doing this after much careful thought and involved with other people who we thought were responsible and careful. And we asked them, if the worst happened and we were convicted and sent to prison, if they would care for our children. So we had that conversation with John’s older brother Bob and with my mother and father.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you tell your children?
BONNIE RAINES: It was later, when they were old enough, as teenagers, to put it in perspective. We’ve always been a political family and involved our children in political activities of various kinds. But we needed to wait until it could fit into what I describe as kind of the family lore. And it was very easy and very natural to tell them about it. And they were a little bit shocked, but also quite proud, I have to say.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you tell them? Can you describe the scene? Did you actually sit them down together?
BONNIE RAINES: Can you remember that?
JOHN RAINES: I’m not sure. Do you remember it? We waited until they were, I think, teenagers, so that they could understand kind of the larger political context.
AMY GOODMAN: But this makes it even more amazing that this secret has been kept for so long.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
JOHN RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: You had four children—
BONNIE RAINES: By that time.
AMY GOODMAN: —that you told.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re just two of the eight. There was also a ninth person. And if you could tell us about him, because he pulled out before the action took place, and you had further interactions with him.
JOHN RAINES: I did. He—I won’t name him, but he showed up on our front door, the door of our house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. And he said, "I need to talk with you, John." I said, "Well, come on in." And we went in, and he looked me in the eye, and he said, "I think I’m going to have to turn you in."
AMY GOODMAN: When was this?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, it was the two or three weeks after, after the break-in. So, I, you know—and he knew all the names. I mean, if he had turned us in, we were going to jail.
AMY GOODMAN: He was in on all the planning meetings.
JOHN RAINES: He was.
AMY GOODMAN: He had pulled out just at the last second.
JOHN RAINES: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say when he pulled out, by the way?
JOHN RAINES: Well, he said, "I’ve been told by my girlfriend that there are files that you still have that are highly dangerous files in terms of threatening national security, that name various missile sites, anti-missile sites, around Philadelphia and so on." And I said, "No, no, no, there’s nothing like that in these files." Then I said to him, "Well, why did you think there was?" And he said, "Well, my girlfriend," and so on. I said, "Have you ever thought that maybe your girlfriend works for the FBI?" And, you know, his face went like that. And then he—he left. And he kept the secret to himself.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s because then it’s not only him; it’s also his girlfriend who knew. We’re talking about 40 years of keeping this secret.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
BONNIE RAINES: Mm-hmm.
JOHN RAINES: His girlfriend, I think, didn’t know who we were. I don’t think he said that. I think he simply—she gave him the information that was false information. It was fed, I think, by the FBI to him that there were these very dangerous files.
AMY GOODMAN: J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to get you.
JOHN RAINES: Oh—
AMY GOODMAN: He had over a hundred agents.
JOHN RAINES: Two hundred.
BONNIE RAINES: Two hundred agents.
AMY GOODMAN: Two hundred agents. It was your Xerox machine—
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —that they were—well, tell us about the Xerox machine at Temple University that you used to make Xerox—sounds a little like Dan Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, when he xeroxed the Pentagon Papers.
JOHN RAINES: Well, back then, nobody knew—or not many people knew—that every Xerox machine leaves its own fingerprint from the drum. Every drum on every Xerox machine has its own separate fingerprint. And therefore, anything that is xeroxed on that machine can be traced back exactly to that machine. Now, when we found that out, I very quickly, you know, phoned David—phoned—
BONNIE RAINES: Bill.
JOHN RAINES: Bill Davidon.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Bill Davidon, meanwhile, is being tapped, for other reasons, or—
JOHN RAINES: He’s being tapped.
AMY GOODMAN: —for very similar reasons.
JOHN RAINES: But he’s also using the Xerox machine at Haverford College. And I said, "Hey, hey, hey, Bill." So he went and he scratched the surface of the drum at Haverford. And—
DAVID KAIRYS: You know, the main reason—
AMY GOODMAN: David Kairys.
DAVID KAIRYS: —they didn’t get caught—I mean, you’re right. There’s all these possibilities. Life is so contingent, and things could be so different than they turn out to be. But the main thing is the FBI used a typical American law enforcement approach. It was, instead of looking for who did it and investigating a range of people, the glommed onto one person, who they were sure, for whatever reasons, did it. And he was a leader of the Catholic Left, John Peter Grady. He had raided a lot of draft boards. They were sure he did it.
AMY GOODMAN: He was Camden, New Jersey.
DAVID KAIRYS: He also did Camden.
BETTY MEDSGER: He was a lot of things.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah, he did a lot of these.
AMY GOODMAN: From Camden.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah. And they thought that he did it, so they had 200 agents, but they’re all looking for the wrong thing. You see, they’re all misdirected and not—they thought there was a locksmith, so they investigated all the locksmiths in the Philadelphia area. They didn’t know all you needed was Keith.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to bring Keith Forsyth back in a minute.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But he just learned it in a course on—I can’t say online—
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —because you didn’t have the Internet at the time, right?
BONNIE RAINES: Correspondence.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, library.
AMY GOODMAN: Correspondence course.
DAVID KAIRYS: And he made his own tools rather than go to a store and buy them, which would be a record of that. So, see, they were extremely careful. And the FBI just let itself be completely misdirected.
BETTY MEDSGER: I’d also like to add that in addition—
AMY GOODMAN: Betty Medsger.
BETTY MEDSGER: In addition to focusing on John Peter Grady, they also focused on the ninth burglar. And they put him under 24-hour surveillance within 24 hours of the burglary and continued to monitor him for weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: The one who didn’t do it.
DAVID KAIRYS: Right.
BETTY MEDSGER: The one who didn’t do it.
DAVID KAIRYS: Who John just spoke of.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, yes. There were three main people that they targeted immediately: John Peter Grady—they thought he was the leader of the group—
AMY GOODMAN: And just very quickly, explain who he is. His children are well-known as activists today, especially—
DAVID KAIRYS: Yes.
BETTY MEDSGER: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —upstate New York, taking on issues of drones.
BETTY MEDSGER: That’s right. Well, he was a—he was a leader, very prominent within the Catholic peace movement. He was the person in the Catholic peace movement who moved it from the Catonsville 9 method of going in in broad daylight and walking out and waiting for arrest.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Catonsville 9 in Catonsville, Maryland, led by Dan—Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, who burned draft records, using napalm, that they had pulled out of the Catonsville draft office.
BETTY MEDSGER: Right. And John Grady was the leader of the part of the Catholic peace movement that then took things to another level, which was: Do these actions, but do them in order to actually do damage to the ability of the draft boards, so that they can’t operate and bring people into the service, and get away with it so you can go on and raid more draft boards. He was the key person in the Catholic peace movement who believed that that was needed, that things needed to be done that way. So, the FBI had not been successful in arresting many of the people. There were, you know, 350 draft board raids and hundreds of people involved in them. And they had not been very successful at finding these people. And he was somebody that they assumed was involved in many of them, and they immediately, for that reason, I think, assumed that he had led this group. So they focused on him, they focused on the ninth burglar, and they also focused on Bonnie. But they never knew Bonnie’s name.
DAVID KAIRYS: Never knew who she was.
BETTY MEDSGER: They knew her face, and they had that image, that art sketch that had been drawn based on the memories of the men in the office who saw her.
AMY GOODMAN: We touched on this in part one, but—of our discussion, but, Bonnie Raines, can you describe what you did before March 8th, the day that you all broke into the Media office? Talk about your experience.
BONNIE RAINES: Well, many of the planning meetings and the scheduling of what we called casing the building at night took place from our house. So I was involved in much of that, but not really one of the prominent members of the group, until we realized that we needed to have someone get inside the offices to look at the possibility that there would be security measures, burglar alarms over the doors, whether the file cabinets were locked. So I was elected to do that. And I was to pose as a Swarthmore College student and disguise myself, as much as I possibly could, and make an appointment to go in and interview the head of the office about opportunities for women in the FBI. And they were very cordial. They spent enough time with me to allow me to really look around to see everything, to gather all the information.
JOHN RAINES: They didn’t notice that you kept your gloves on.
BONNIE RAINES: I kept my gloves on the whole time I was taking those—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And they never asked you your name, right?
BONNIE RAINES: No.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You never gave a name.
BONNIE RAINES: No. No, they never did. I think, in the course of conversation, I was asked where I was from. And I said, I think, "Hartford, Connecticut," or something. But the good news was that I was able to get that last important piece of information about the inside of the office, and then that allowed us to make a decision to actually plan to go ahead with it on March 8th.
AMY GOODMAN: So, they—it was from that that they got the description of you with these fake glasses and—
BONNIE RAINES: Yes, yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —a hat on.
BONNIE RAINES: I had long hair, and I tucked my hair all up inside—it was February, so I had a winter hat and looked a little shabby, like I might have been a student on a scholarship at Swarthmore. But I was very polite, and they were very cordial, and it went very, very well. And they never noticed that I never took my gloves off the whole time I was taking notes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the night of the burglary, what did you actually do on the night, March 8th?
BONNIE RAINES: My role—we each had an assigned role, and my role was to be in a car on a side street at the building, so that if a police patrol came along on that street and would then turn around to be at the front of the building and might see our four fellow companions leaving the building, I was to pretend that my car had broken down and block the street so that they couldn’t come around to the front of the building. I didn’t have to do that, as it turned out.
AMY GOODMAN: And the other people involved, Betty Medsger, some have decided to come forward, and some haven’t. Bill Davidon, who wanted to come forward, has just recently died. He had Parkinson’s. Talk—since you spoke with him a lot—and, of course, all of you knew him, a professor at Haverford—I was actually wondering if you can tell us the story of his meeting with Henry Kissinger. This is astounding. Five days—I was talking to his daughter last night, and she said he sort of had a to-do list. You know, meet with Henry Kissinger at the White House, break into the Media offices and steal the FBI documents—that was his to-do list for the week.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah, that’s quite short.
AMY GOODMAN: But how did he end up meeting with the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing to think about, that just two days before the burglary there’s the leader of the burglary in the Situation Room of the White House. Well, Bill never missed an opportunity to make the case against the war. And he really didn’t want to go to the White House that morning, particularly, but it’s—an interesting person had set it up. Brian McDonald was a young Quaker from Philadelphia who the previous—immediately after Nixon announced that we were invading Cambodia, at the end of April in 1970, Brian came to Washington and sat on the street—sidewalk in front of the White House and was fasting and—in protest of what Nixon had done. And he was there for quite some time. And during that time, I remember Shirley MacLaine came to know him, and some other people, and they quietly introduced Kissinger to Brian. And a strange combination, but they actually became real friends, a friendship that lasted until Brian died about a decade ago. But it was Brian who knew all parties involved, the three people who came to that meeting, including Bill and Kissinger. And so, he asked Kissinger to be willing to meet with them to talk about the war. And Kissinger said—because he liked Brian so much, agreed that he would.
So, the three people were Bill and two other people, Tom Davidson and Sister Beverly Bell. All three of them were unindicted co-conspirators in an indictment that had just come down that January that involved J. Edgar Hoover. It was an indictment that charged Phil Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister and a few other people. They were indicted, and then there was a series of people, including Bill Davidon, who were unindicted co-conspirators in a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and to bomb tunnels under federal buildings in Washington.
Now, the Hoover involvement comes the previous November, when Hoover, against the advice of his officials, who hardly ever spoke up to urge him to not do something, Hoover went before a committee of two people, and then—on the Hill, a congressional committee, and then immediately distributed his statement to as many press as they could get it to afterwards. And in that statement, he announced that these people were conducting this conspiracy. And it was his typical method of trying to convince members of Congress to give him more money, which always happened. But this was a very alarming thing, the idea that these people—priests and nuns and their colleagues—were—who were known for being nonviolent activists, were planning this violent thing. And the Justice Department and the FBI had investigated this, and the FBI people had decided that there was no plan, there was no real plan, and that the case should be abandoned. And Hoover knew that, but nevertheless made that public accusation. And that was enormous news at the time.
And then, the Justice Department—again, knowing that there was no such plan—in order to save Hoover’s face, went forward with a grand jury and designed it in such a way, eventually, in a superseding indictment, that people could be found guilty if they had participated in plans not only to kidnap Kissinger or to bomb tunnels under Washington, but to raid draft boards—if they had done any one of those things. Well, they all had raided draft boards. But the impact of it all, of course, on the public was: They wanted to kidnap Kissinger or set off bombs. By the way, the case, two years later, failed, and there was no conviction. But at this time, when Bill goes to the White House with two of the other unindicted co-conspirators, they are sitting there with the person that they’re supposedly planning to kidnap. So that seemed—made it even more strange.
And what they—they had a discussion for about an hour in the Situation Room, where many aspects of the Vietnam War had been planned, and something that they were quite aware of. And it was in the—ultimately, it was a frustrating meeting, where they felt that they were meeting with a—having a civil conversation with a friendly enemy, who at that time was responsible for more bombing. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Kissinger felt he was being smeared, is that right?
BETTY MEDSGER: Felt he was what?
AMY GOODMAN: Being smeared in the academic community.
BETTY MEDSGER: Oh, you mean not by them, but elsewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, yes, that’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And part of why he wanted to meet with another professor, with Bill Davidon, to change the alienation he felt from the academic community that he valued.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, I think that’s true, although I—reading from Kissinger’s biography, I think he looked at this primarily as meeting with religious people, as he spoke of their high ideals and being in a spiritual world, whereas he was in the real world, and that they couldn’t really do anything, but he had to do something, whereas in fact they did not think of it as a religious confrontation or issue with him. They, too, were very much of the real world and wanted to see negotiations taking place and to stop the war, rather than the direction that he was taking it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And after the break-in on March 8th, 1971, Bill Davidon, whose idea it actually was, was in fact never questioned by the FBI, is that correct?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes, and that relates to the case that I was just talking about. The FBI was prepared to go after Bill Davidon very, very seriously. And the Justice—when the Justice Department found out about this, they put out an order that he should not be questioned—no questioning of Bill Davidon—which was quite amazing, given his situation and the fact that he was the leader of the group. And that went into effect. And for the entire length of the investigation, Bill was never questioned by the FBI.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they put this out?
BETTY MEDSGER: Oh, I’m sorry, I meant to explain it. Because—they prohibited the FBI from questioning him because they were so intent on building a successful case in the Harrisburg indictment, and they didn’t want to bring any more confusion into the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Harrisburg indictment was?
BETTY MEDSGER: And that—yes, the Harrisburg indictment was the case of the conspiracy—
AMY GOODMAN: Of the—to kidnap Henry Kissinger.
BETTY MEDSGER: —the alleged conspiracy to kidnap.
DAVID KAIRYS: And it was a big national publicity. And Hoover was being criticized for indicting people for a conspiracy that was just ridiculous.
BETTY MEDSGER: And this would have brought more attention that they did not want brought to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we bring Keith Forsyth back in to join his other co-conspirators here at the table, I wanted to ask you, David Kairys, about the legality of all of this.
DAVID KAIRYS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, they had broken the law by breaking into the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI offices. Now, the statute of limitations is over. But can the authorities get around that, say, "New evidence has been presented: We now know their names"?
DAVID KAIRYS: That wouldn’t—that wouldn’t be a legitimate ground. There are things they could try, that, given the way they’ve been interpreted in law, would just not work. There’s really nothing they could do. Now, they do have discretion and a lot of power to put people through criminal trials even though they’re not going to win—the government. So, they could—and this is something you have to weigh in a situation like this—they could bring charges and just make you get lawyers and prepare a defense and disrupt your life, try to hold you on bail. There’s all those things they could do. But—and we would be arguing that it’s not being done in good faith, because there’s—the statute of limitations has run. So, I think, ultimately, it would work out that they are not convicted of anything, because of the statute of limitations, but you can’t—you can’t be sure that the government might not make you go through—
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI’s response today?
DAVID KAIRYS: Yesterday’s statement, I thought, was very positive. I actually had anticipated that they would say something like, "We’re looking into it. We’ll have to get back to you." Instead of that, they seemed—they almost claimed credit for it. It’s like: Things happened that caused reforms, and we like these reforms. So, they’re—you know, they’re just reformers.
AMY GOODMAN: That could bode well for Edward Snowden.
DAVID KAIRYS: You’re—instead of FBI informers, you’re FBI reformers.
BETTY MEDSGER: They also said, I understand, to one reporter, "We didn’t have very good security."
AMY GOODMAN: This is amazing. I mean, the actual quote of Michael Kortan, FBI spokesperson, "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, including the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice." I mean, this is very significant for Edward Snowden, because it’s saying—
DAVID KAIRYS: Oh, I think it is.
AMY GOODMAN: —if what you did led to reforms, then the good outweighed what they would consider the bad of the burglary.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean for Edward Snowden? The response has been enormous in terms of calls, not only in this country, but around the world, for reform.
DAVID KAIRYS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: David, if you would like to weigh in on that—John, if you would like to weigh in on that, John Raines?
JOHN RAINES: Well, yeah, I think that what we were trying to do back in 1971, Snowden is trying to do right now. And that is to give the information that citizens need to decide, as citizens, what their government should do and should not do. And I think that we faced an FBI with a director called J. Edgar Hoover that was furious at us, and thank goodness we got away with it. Snowden faces governments, especially CIA and NSA, who want to make decisions about this massive kind of surveillance that they have. They vacuum up all our personal information, all of our emails, all of our correspondence. They say that they’re not listening to the emails. Well, they’ve got the technology to listen. Are we supposed to believe that they’re not listening to—you know, reading what we’re saying on our emails? That’s a—anyway, Snowden is facing the same kind of retribution of people of power, and he doesn’t deserve that. I see him as a public servant who, as a public servant, did serve the public, giving us the information we have a right to know, so that we can instruct the people in Washington what we, the people, think they should do and not do.
DAVID KAIRYS: The basic similarity in Snowden and the Media burglars, I think, for those of us who would have never had the courage to do such things, either one of them—and I include myself—they took this enormous risk, a really unbelievable personal risk, so that the rest of us could find out, in this case, what our FBI was doing or to expose wrongdoing. It’s the best American tradition. I mean, to go back to a group that’s got a different meaning these days, the original Tea Party was an illegal act. They didn’t stand there and say, "Arrest me for it." They wanted to get away.
BETTY MEDSGER: And the Underground Railroad.
DAVID KAIRYS: Underground Railroad, the violations of the Fugitive Slave Acts. The Revolution itself, the American Revolution itself, was illegal under existing law. And I still—after 40 years of knowing these folks well, it still amazes me that they took the personal risk that they did. And this is something that, to me, should be praised.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to reunite those who were involved in the burglary that night. Some might talk about the liberation of these documents; others, the stealing of these documents. David Kairys, thanks for joining us.
DAVID KAIRYS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be joined now by Keith Forsyth, in addition to John and Bonnie Raines, and Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. She is revealing this week, in this book, the names, the identities, of most of those involved with the burglary that night, March 8th, 1971. They called themselves—they, with five others—the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. And on March 8th, 1971, they broke into the offices of the FBI in Media, Pennsylvania, and got—how many documents, ultimately?
JOHN RAINES: About a thousand.
AMY GOODMAN: About a thousand documents. Did you go through them, John Raines, before you sent them off to Betty Medsger at The Washington Post and Tom Wicker—
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, we were very careful about that.
AMY GOODMAN: —of The New York Times and Jack Nelson?
JOHN RAINES: We separated the files into what were clearly legitimate files, from our point of view—that is, they involved crime. And we didn’t want to release those files, because it had names of witnesses and things like that. That was about 40 percent of those files. Sixty percent of the files were clearly political in intent, and those were the ones we began to sort through. And we began to find—even on the morning, early morning, of the night, we began to find documents that were quite exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
JOHN RAINES: Well, like the one that said, "Let’s increase the paranoia and have these folks be persuaded that there’s a FBI agent behind every mailbox." I mean, that is—that’s not surveillance; that’s obviously intimidation. All right? Intimidation is a political act; it’s not an act of an investigative organization like the FBI.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Betty Medsger, when—one of the most damning programs that was revealed in these documents was COINTELPRO, but when you first received the documents, you had no idea what that program was. So how long after you got the documents did you find out what this program was and what it entailed?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, the document that had COINTELPRO on it was just a routing slip. "COINTELPRO–New Left" was a label at the top. We had no idea what it was. None of us who received it had any idea what it was. The FBI was watching to see if that would ever be released. And because I wrote about something that was in that document, they knew, as of that day, that it had been released, and went into high gear. Hoover said, "We’ll stop this program." And what he meant was, as he explained to agents, was, "We no longer use that name." The program continued, but without that name. We had no idea what it was until, thanks to Carl Stern, by the end—at the end of 1973—
AMY GOODMAN: Of NBC.
BETTY MEDSGER: Carl Stern was the NBC reporter who covered the Department of Justice at that time. And he was in an office of the Senate committee, and they said, "Have you ever seen this?" And Carl had not seen it. And he was intrigued by the fact that at the bottom of the cover—of this routing slip were instructions for FBI agents to give the attached article on the need for control of students on campuses who were protesting the war—there was a note asking FBI agents to write anonymous letters and deliver this or mail it to unfriendly administrators, or to just hand it to friendly administrators. And Carl thought, "This is very strange." And so, within a matter of days, he asked the FBI to tell him what COINTELPRO was and provide documentation of what it was. And they turned him down.
He went through attorney generals, various attorney generals at that time, because they were changing as a result of Watergate. And then, finally, he sued, under the Freedom of Information Act. Until then, Hoover had always instructed officials to ignore any applications under the Freedom of Information Act. But Carl pursued this through the courts and won, became the first person to succeed under the Freedom of Information Act in getting anything out of the FBI.
And what he received were the documents that immediately became news and explained that these dirty tricks operations had been going on since 1956. They were harassment. They were kind of activities that would seem to have nothing to do with law enforcement or intelligence gathering. Instead, they were secret harassment, sometimes quite violent and destroying people’s reputation.
AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples. And again, COINTELPRO means Counterintelligence Program.
BETTY MEDSGER: Counterintel. One example is what they did to actress Jean Seberg.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah.
BETTY MEDSGER: Jean Seberg, at that time, was a very popular actress. And she had made a contribution to the Black Panthers in Los Angeles, something that—and because the Panthers were under great surveillance, the FBI knew that. And she was pregnant. And a way COINTELPRO operated, agents were invited to submit proposals for these dirty tricks operations, and then the proposal would go back to Washington. And Hoover would read them and decide whether or not they should be carried out. And the proposal was to plant a rumor that the baby she was carrying, that the father of the baby was a Black Panther in Los Angeles. And Hoover was so happy with this proposal, and he wrote a response saying that he thought it was terrific. But he thought that they should wait until she was more noticeably pregnant, wait a few months, so that it would have a greater impact. The plan was to plant the rumor with a gossip columnist. And the people in Los Angeles were so eager to carry it forward that they didn’t wait until she was more noticeably pregnant. And what a freelance reporter, Allan Jallon, later revealed in the Los Angeles Times was that the FBI actually planted that rumor with editors of the Los Angeles Times, who then gave it to a gossip columnist.
AMY GOODMAN: And they knew they were getting this from an FBI source.
BETTY MEDSGER: They knew they were getting it from an FBI source. And they planted—they gave it to a gossip columnist. She wasn’t named, but the description was so obvious that people, especially in Los Angeles, knew, and she knew, that they would—I mean, Jean Seberg knew that it was she who everyone realized was the object of this. And the result was quite tragic. She was so upset when this was published in the Los Angeles Times that she gave birth very soon to a premature baby, who died very soon after birth, a white baby girl. And then, years later, on the anniversary of the birth of that dead child, Jean Seberg committed suicide. And at that time, Director Webster put out a statement that said, "We are out of this business forever. No more COINTELPRO." But it is a dramatic illustration of how extreme many of the COINTELPRO operations were. And they were all kinds of people, not everyone well known.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. He’s Institute Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2011, Chomsky spoke to Democracy Now! about COINTELPRO.
NOAM CHOMSKY: COINTELPRO, which you mentioned, is actually the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government. It maybe compares with Wilson’s Red Scare. But COINTELPRO went on from the late ’50s right through all of the ’60s; it finally ended, at least theoretically ended, when the courts terminated it in the early ’70s. And it was serious.
It started, as is everything, going after the Communist Party, then the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Then it extended—the women’s movement, the New Left, but particularly black nationalists. And it ended up—didn’t end up, but one of the events was a straight Gestapo-style assassination of two black organizers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, literally. I mean, the FBI set up the assassination. The Chicago police actually carried it out, broke into the apartment at 4:00 in the morning and murdered them. Fake information that came from the FBI about arms stores and so on. There was almost nothing about it. In fact, the information about this, remarkably, was released at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, as compared with this, Watergate was a tea party. There was nothing, you know?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, speaking to Democracy Now! Keith Forsyth, could you talk about the significance of what Professor Chomsky said? And also, Noam Chomsky was part of the group Resist, which was one of the groups to which those FBI documents had been sent by you.
KEITH FORSYTH: Correct. So, at some point in the process after the initial mailing, Bill eventually hand-delivered all of the political documents that we had selected for distribution to the Resist office in Boston.
AMY GOODMAN: This was Bill Davidon—
KEITH FORSYTH: Bill Davidon, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —the Haverford professor and well-known antiwar activist.
KEITH FORSYTH: Yes. And one of the examples that Mr. Chomsky cited was the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, which we all knew about, but we didn’t know the extent of the FBI involvement. That came out later. As it turned out, the FBI had an informant in the Chicago Black Panther organization who provided a map of the apartment where the Panther leadership was staying, including a big X on the location where Fred Hampton slept.
BETTY MEDSGER: Fred’s bed.
KEITH FORSYTH: Fred’s bed, yeah, Fred’s bed. This map was provided to Hanrahan, the—I believe he was a district attorney in Chicago, and a—had a special unit of police whose focus was to target the Panthers. And Fred Hampton was drugged one night and was sleeping very soundly when the police broke in early in the morning. And they—they killed Mark Clark, and they shot and killed Fred Hampton—excuse me—in his bed, while he was sleeping.
JOHN RAINES: He wasn’t dead.
KEITH FORSYTH: Oh, right. That’s right.
JOHN RAINES: He wasn’t dead.
AMY GOODMAN: John Raines.
JOHN RAINES: He was shot, he was wounded, but he wasn’t dead. And then his girlfriend, who was pregnant, was in the same room, in the bedroom. Two policemen came in—two Chicago policemen came in. And they said—and she heard them say, "Well, it looks like he’s going to make it." And one of the guys took out his revolver, put the revolver on the back of Fred’s head and blew him away, and said, "Now he’s good and dead."
AMY GOODMAN: This was December 4th, 1969, a year and a few months before you raided the FBI offices—
KEITH FORSYTH: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —in Media.
KEITH FORSYTH: And later on—
JOHN RAINES: That’s the kind of thing that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was involved in—I mean, radically unconstitutional, illegal. They—assassination, as Keith said.
BONNIE RAINES: Horrifying, horrifying, horrifying.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah.
KEITH FORSYTH: Later on, there was an FBI document discussing, evaluating this raid. And I no longer recall the exact wording, but it was words to the effect of: "The result was very satisfactory. We got the result that we wanted."
AMY GOODMAN: You, Keith, had a wrench. You had tools to break in, and that’s what you used to get into the offices. Forty years later, Edward Snowden, you know, uses his digital skills in order to get these documents. Do you identify with him?
KEITH FORSYTH: I do. His skills are far more difficult to master than mine.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn?
KEITH FORSYTH: I started with a correspondence course in locksmithing, which I took originally to assist in the draft board raid movement, to try to facilitate getting in and out of draft boards. And then—then, I also—I was actually working part-time as a locksmith on the side, in addition to driving a cab, so I got some practice there. And then we practiced—I practiced quite extensively at John and Bonnie’s house, made up a little sort of fake door with a whole—five or six locks in it, so you could, you know, work different ones, and just practiced fairly diligently to try to get the time down. So...
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Betty Medsger, can you talk about FBI Agent Welch?
BETTY MEDSGER: Yes. Neil Welch played a number of important roles at that time and was an agent quite different from most FBI agents. While the culture of the FBI was dominant—dominated by Hoover’s personality and many offices of the FBI were dominated also by COINTELPRO demands and actions similar to those kinds of operations, political spying and so forth, there were a few agents who didn’t like that culture. It was very hard to resist it. But Neil Welch was an agent, a special agent in charge at various places, and he was, I think, the only special agent in charge in the FBI who refused to carry out Hoover’s orders that COINTELPRO programs take place. He refused to let his agents participate in them, and at times was placed on probation because of this.
A couple things about him later on. First of all, he happened to be the agent in charge of the Philadelphia office five years after the burglary, when the statute of limitations expired on the burglary. And it is he who signed the document closing the case. He claims—and I’m sure this is true—that it was a matter of routine; it was time to do that, since the burglars had not been found and there was no hope that they would be. I think he was also happy to do so, because he, years later, when I interviewed him, told me that although he doesn’t think that people should burglarize FBI offices, that he nevertheless thought that these people had done a heroic thing that was very important.
And something else that he did that shows the change that took place in the years immediately afterwards, Clarence Kelley became the director of the FBI, the first full director after J. Edgar Hoover. It was a—he came in at a critical time, when people in the Justice Department and Congress were first starting to look at the FBI and raise questions. And he at first defended COINTELPRO, later apologized for it. But at one point, he finally—he ordered Welch to come to Washington to go into the domestic intelligence files and go through every single one of them and test whether or not they should be held open. Very few were held open. Most of them were closed by Welch. And that was not reported at the time. It was not known. But it really symbolizes the dramatic change that did take place.
AMY GOODMAN: John Raines, can you—what did you teach at Temple University? And—
JOHN RAINES: Well, I taught Christian social ethics.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his significance, who he was?
JOHN RAINES: Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. And he spent a year or two at Union Theological Seminary, which is where I would later get my theological training. The Second World War was on, just beginning, and he decided he had to go back to Germany. He would be safe in this country, but he had decided that he was not going to choose safety. He would go back to his country, where his people were. And Hitler was very much against, of course, this theologian, this marvelous man. And finally, they decided, a group within this kind of religious underground, that they should undertake the assassination of Hitler. And his name was associated with that effort, and he was killed after that assassination failed.
AMY GOODMAN: And his influence on your decision to do what you did May 8th, 1971, with your wife Bonnie and the others?
JOHN RAINES: Well, it was a—it was an example of, one, significant identity with his nation; two, taking on grave personal risks in order to save that nation from what was happening to Germany under Hitler. And he paid the ultimate price for that. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for that. And that was a significant kind of inspiration for those of us, just like Martin Luther King was also, taking a risk for what you know to be right and following that risk, if you have to, all the way to the cross.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Betty Medsger, his influence on Bill Davidon?
BETTY MEDSGER: Well, I would just like to say something I learned about his—how both John and Bonhoeffer were influenced in their move toward resistance by African-American people. I didn’t realize, until I did the research for the book, that Bonhoeffer, after he returned to Germany and wrote about his move toward resistance, attributed his ability to decide to resist the government to what he learned here in Harlem from African Americans and about their struggle and their willingness to resist. And I found—when I discovered that, I mean, even his language in describing it was so similar to the way John described that working with African Americans, resisting with them in the South, was what gave John courage to resist.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: John, I was wondering if you could read the statement you read the morning after the burglary to a Reuters reporter. Now, this was what? March 9th, 1971.
BONNIE RAINES: About 5:30 in the morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe it. Bonnie, what was going on? You were in the farmhouse?
BONNIE RAINES: No, we were headed back to our home in our car, and it was early morning. We had decided that the statement that the group had written should be released the very same day, if possible. And so, we stopped in our car headed back into the city at a public phone, and John called a reporter from Reuters whom we’d—I think Bill Davidon had arranged that—called him, woke him up and read the statement to him over the phone.
JOHN RAINES: OK, the statement is, that I read: "On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society; two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate, instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs; finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers."
It goes on: "As this study proceeds, the results obtained along with the FBI documents pertaining to them will be sent to people in public life who have demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to democratic values which are necessary to effectively challenge the repressive policies of the FBI.
"As long as the United States government wages war against Indochina in defiance of the vast majority who want all troops and weapons withdrawn this year, and extends that war and suffering under the guise of reducing it, as long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a small clique not subject to democratic scrutiny and control, then repression, intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected. We do not believe that this destruction of democracy and democratic society results simply from the evilness, egoism or senility of some leaders. Rather, this destruction is the result of certain undemocratic social, economic and political institutions."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to comments that Glenn Greenwald wrote on Tuesday about—Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who first broke the story about Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations. He wrote a piece yesterday, Tuesday, responding to the revelations about the 1971 FBI break-in. Greenwald writes, quote, "Just as is true of Daniel Ellsberg today, these activists will be widely hailed as heroic, noble, courageous, etc. That’s because it’s incredibly easy to praise people who challenge governments of the distant past, and much harder to do so for those who challenge those who wield actual power today."
So, Betty, I’d like to ask you: How were your reports received then? How did people writing in response to the documents, the articles that you wrote, respond to the fact that these activists had broken into the FBI, taken these documents, and that The Washington Post had made the decision to publish them?
BETTY MEDSGER: Well, the letters to the editor were mixed. I think the majority were positive. People were shocked. They were also glad that evidence had been presented to them, that they had no idea of what existed. There were other—I mean, this was a time of Cold War attitudes still being very—so there were many people who accused us of being communist and trying to serve a communist purpose by making these documents public. There also was a very strong response among a few people in Congress that the adulation of Hoover in Congress needed to stop and questions needed to be asked for the first time—very strong effort to press for an investigation. Also, newspaper editorial writers at papers that had only written positive things about Hoover also called for investigations. I mean, that turned out to be a relatively long process, but those investigations did take place in 1975, when there was a buildup of additional revelations, including coming to understand what COINTELPRO was, and then Sy Hersh’s article in December 1974 that revealed that the CIA, in violation of its charter, was also engaged in massive domestic surveillance. That sort of was the tipping point. There was this string of things, and then Congress did. But this all started with the Media file release and the reaction.
AMY GOODMAN: And you, really, in pushing for your piece to be published, you laid the groundwork—though Katharine Graham first didn’t want to and then ultimately did—for Watergate, because the same thing was taking place with Woodward and Bernstein, but now she had the experience of releasing—releasing your piece.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah, I mean, I like to think that there was a buildup of—as she became more experienced with this through time. And certainly it was—she was making very tough decisions. I mean, it’s easy for those of us who are simply finding the stories and thinking, "Boy, this is a story there’s no way they could refuse to publish," to realize that there were pressures. And in the instance of the press—I mean, of The Washington Post, the fact that they owned television stations and the Nixon administration could threaten them with loss of those licenses was a very real thing.
AMY GOODMAN: John and Bonnie Raines, so your name is known; Keith Forsyth, your name is now known. What are your thoughts about people knowing who you are?
BONNIE RAINES: Well, I can judge most immediately by the things that came in on my phone, my emails and responses from so many people who either read the Philadelphia story or The New York Times, overwhelmingly saying, "Wow! You did an amazing thing and never talked about it, never shared it all these years. And thank you very much for what you were able to accomplish."
AMY GOODMAN: These are your close friends.
BONNIE RAINES: These are all colleagues, work colleagues. And I’m hopeful, too, that these are people who will want to see the film, as well, 1971, because it’s a wonderful documentary and very well done. But I just—it was a flood of responses that were overwhelmingly positive.
AMY GOODMAN: And John?
JOHN RAINES: Well, the same.
BONNIE RAINES: Former students.
JOHN RAINES: Former students, yes, and all of them saying, "You did a good job, Raines. Thank you for standing your watch."
AMY GOODMAN: And how will you deal with the glare of the media spotlight?
JOHN RAINES: Oh, lights are a funny thing. They come on, and they go off. And knowing that that’s the way lights are, it helps you get ready when the lights go on, knowing that someday they’ll go off again. And that’s fine by me.
AMY GOODMAN: And those who are not named, maybe you could address this, Betty. Someone who is named is Bob Williamson. Tell us what happened with him.
BETTY MEDSGER: Bob Williamson was a defendant in the Camden trial after the Media burglary and then moved to New Mexico. And Bob has gone through many changes. He was eager to move away from total engagement with the movement, as he knew it, in Philadelphia and to get on with a new life. And he eventually did that. He was quite happy to recall his memories of what happened and what was a very important experience in his life. He’s become a Republican and stands in very different position from the rest of the burglars today, but he still looks back on that as a very important thing and regards it as something that caused positive change. And he came to New York yesterday to see the documentary and be with his fellow burglars and brought his adult daughter to share in the sense of celebration that they all felt.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was fascinating to see him, because now he became a Republican speech writer, among other things. And with his daughter in the audience, he said, "I wanted her to know who I was before I was her father."
BETTY MEDSGER: Right. He’s told her about some of the things that he did. I was fairly surprised to learn yesterday at lunch that he hadn’t told her about breaking into an FBI office until they were on the plane leaving Albuquerque on Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: And Bill Davidon died in November. He knew that his name would become known, but he was not shy about his antiwar activism, and he was out there all the way. Why didn’t he speak out before? Was it part of the vow you all took together?
JOHN RAINES: Yes.
BETTY MEDSGER: Yeah.
KEITH FORSYTH: Yes.
JOHN RAINES: Yeah, sure.
BONNIE RAINES: Yeah, it was. That was so, so important that we—we were going to trust each other to maintain a silence about it. And I think we knew that Bill would do everything possible to get the word out, but not as one of the burglars. He was—he was very anxious to continue to push for the changes that he thought were so important.
BETTY MEDSGER: I’d like to say something about Bill and the keeping of secrets. Bill’s personality was—he was a very humble, modest person, while at the same time being a very strong leader. And to some extent, that’s a reflection of the qualities of the other members of the group, and one of the things that I think made it possible for them to keep the secret all these years. I’ve covered a lot of people and a lot of different kind of movements, and there tend to be some pretty dramatic egos in movements of all kinds, where I think for most people, once that five-year period passed, it would have been very tempting to want to get credit. And I was amazed when I met them and to find out that they did not have that kind of ego need.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Keith Forsyth, before we conclude, how is it—how is it for you now that your name is out, after all these decades of secrecy?
KEITH FORSYTH: I’m the kind of person that’s not really comfortable talking about myself in public. And so, it’s been—it’s been a little difficult for me. But I was persuaded that, you know, by sharing our names, it helps give the story more weight, and it makes it more difficult for people who may not share our political views to dismiss it out of hand. You know, a book like this, with all unsubstantiated sources, unnamed sources, would be, I think, a different book, both as a historical record, which I think is important, and also in terms of the effect it can have to spark a political discussion. So, I’m not anxious to be even a little bit famous, but if it—if this will help spur the discussion that we need to have in this country, then I’m willing to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I mean, what is so astounding about this—and, Betty, you touched on this—is when the FBI set its sights on someone, as they did on John Grady, thinking he headed this plot, they’re blind to everything else—and maybe that woman they had a sketch of who ended up being Bonnie Raines. But as you show on page 150 of the book, The Burglary, there is a front-page headline, Delaware County Daily Times, a picture of Bill Davidon—this is five days after the break-in—with the headline, "Davidon Unveils Plot Against FBI." Public remarks by William Davidon about the burglary reported in a front-page banner headline in a local newspaper four days, that is, after the burglary. "As guest speaker at a meeting of clergy in Swarthmore, he read the commission’s statement"—that’s your Commission to—Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—"explaining why they broke into an FBI office." In those five years, he was never investigated for this.
BETTY MEDSGER: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Betty.
BETTY MEDSGER: That amazing article sort of points to two things. First, the FBI was under orders at that point not to question him, his incredible immunity as a result of being investigated for Harrisburg.
AMY GOODMAN: Which protected you all in many ways.
JOHN RAINES: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
BETTY MEDSGER: Right, right.
BONNIE RAINES: Definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: Except for the one who dropped out. That’ll teach him. He becomes the suspect.
BETTY MEDSGER: But it also shows Bill, although I described him as this humble, unegotistical person, he also was so determined that this information become public. And the fact that the office had been burglarized wasn’t even getting attention. There were these tiny stories just saying, "Yes, not much was taken. Just a little burglary." And he wanted it to be known that something had happened, and he was willing to go this far, but always standing back, never acknowledging that he was involved in it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Betty Medsger has written the book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. And the activists themselves—professors, taxi cab drivers, a director of daycare—who were involved with this break-in, John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, they called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
Recent Shows More
Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman was a guest Saturday on MSNBC’s "Melissa Harris-Perry," where she joined a panel discussion on voter rights, civil rights and immigrant rights under President Obama.
By Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan
Journalism is not a crime. This is the rallying cry iJournalism is not a crime. Neither death nor imprisonment should be the punishment for reporting the news.