One of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era has been solved. In 1971, a group of peace activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and lifted files that helped reveal the FBI’s elaborate program of illegally spying on political groups. The documents, given to journalists at the time, provided the first hints of a secret counter intelligence program, or COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret program to infiltrate, monitor and disrupt social movements. The burglars called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. They were never caught. But decades later, a number of them are coming forward for the first time. The idea for the burglary came from William Davidon, a physics professor and leader of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. Davidon died last year. Also involved were a social worker named Bob Williamson and John and Bonnie Raines, a married couple with children. Convinced the FBI was infiltrating peace groups, they hatched a plan to stage the break-in on the night of a major championship boxing match. Another of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, described his motivation in a video produced by Retro Report.
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 going to make any allegations; we’re going to 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. I definitely see parallels between [Edward] Snowden’s case and our case. What we revealed changed public opinion, which is why the laws were changed. If revealing ourselves is going to 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.”
Forsyth was arrested in a separate action months after the burglary by a group of FBI agents who were monitoring the raid of a draft office in Camden, New Jersey. Bob Williamson was also arrested. Their role in the burglary, however, was not revealed until now. Ahead of the burglary, Bonnie Raines cased the office while posing as a college student. While there, she confirmed the office did not have a security system. Raines describes her role in the video.
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.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned nearly 200 agents to investigate the burglary –- in particular, they were told to hunt for the mysterious college girl who had come to the office. But the case was closed when the statute of limitations expired five years later. The story is told in a new book by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter who received the documents from the burglars. Three other burglars have chosen to remain anonymous.