In late 1970, William Davidon, a mild-mannered physics professor at Haverford College, privately asked a few people this question:
“What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?”
Even in that time of passionate resistance against the war in Vietnam that included break-ins at draft boards, his question was startling. What, besides arrests and lengthy prison sentences, could result from breaking into an FBI office? The bureau and its legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover, had been revered by Americans and considered paragons of integrity for the nearly half century he had been director.
Who would dare to think they could break into an FBI office? Surely the offices of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country would be as secure as Fort Knox. Just talking about the possibility seemed dangerous.
But Davidon, with great reluctance, had decided that burglarizing an FBI office might be the only way to confront what he considered an emergency: the likelihood that the government, through the FBI, was spying on Americans and suppressing their cherished constitutional right to dissent. If that was true, he thought, it was a crime against democracy—a crime that must be stopped.
The odds were very low that such an act of resistance could possibly succeed against the law enforcement agency headed by this man who held so much power. Nicholas Katzenbach, who as attorney general was Hoover’s boss, had resigned in 1966 because of Hoover’s resentment over being told by Katzenbach to manage the bureau within the law. The director’s power was unique among all national officials, said Katzenbach. He “ruled the FBI with a combination of discipline and fear and was capable of acting in an excessively arbitrary way. No one dared object. ... The FBI was a principality with absolutely secure borders, in Hoover’s view.” At the same time, he said, “There was no man better known or more admired by the general public than J. Edgar Hoover.”
Such was the power and reputation of the official whose borders and files Davidon was considering invading. He knew Hoover was very powerful, but he didn’t know—nor could anyone outside the bureau have known— how harshly he ruled it and how he protected the bureau from having its illegal practices exposed. Katzenbach believed that Hoover or one of the director’s top aides had even forged Katzenbach’s signature in order to make it appear that the attorney general had given permission for the FBI to plant an electronic surveillance device, a bug, in civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s New York hotel room. Despite what appeared to be his signature on the memorandum, Katzenbach was certain he never approved such a procedure, which he considered the “worst possible invasion of privacy.”
Hoover’s sensitivity to criticism, Katzenbach said when he testified in December 1975 before the committee then conducting the first congressional investigation of the FBI, “is almost impossible to overestimate. ... It went far beyond the bounds of natural resentment. ... The most casual statement, the most strained implication, was sufficient cause for Mr. Hoover to write a memorandum to the attorney general complaining about the criticism, explaining why it was unjustified, and impugning the integrity of its author.
“In a very real sense,” Katzenbach testified, “there was no greater crime in Mr. Hoover’s eyes than public criticism of the bureau.”
A congressional investigation of the FBI during Mr. Hoover’s lifetime, Katzenbach said, would have been utterly impossible. “Mr. Hoover would have vigorously resisted. . . . He would have asserted that the investigation was unnecessary, unwise and politically motivated. At worst, he would have denounced the investigation as undermining law and order and inspired by Communist ideology. No one [in Congress] risked that confrontation during his lifetime.”
Said Katzenbach, “Absent strong and unequivocal proof of the greatest impropriety on the part of the director, no attorney general could have conceived that he could possibly win a fight with Mr. Hoover in the eyes of the public, the Congress or the President. Moreover, to the extent proof of any such impropriety existed, it would almost by definition have been in the Bureau’s possession and control, unreachable except with Bureau cooperation.”
Five years before Katzenbach made that public assertion, Davidon was planning to do something that had never been done—obtain official FBI information that was otherwise unreachable. Davidon had given a lot of thought to the question before he asked it—“What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?”
If anyone else had asked that question of the nine people he approached, probably each of them would have swiftly ended the conversation. Because it was Davidon, they took it seriously and kept listening despite being shocked. They trusted him. They knew he wasn’t reckless, and they knew he believed in protest that was effective, that could lead to results. Each of them respected him so much they thought that if they ever engaged in high-risk resistance, he was one of the few people they would want as partner and leader when the stakes were high. So they listened carefully.
Some of them wrestled with the implications of his question for several days. Two said yes immediately. Only one of them, a philosophy professor, turned him down. Eight agreed with him that, repugnant as burglary was as a method of resistance, it might be the only way to find documentary evidence that would answer important questions about the FBI that no journalist or government official responsible for the FBI had dared to ask in the past or, they concluded, was likely to ask now or in the future. All of them were passionate opponents of the Vietnam War and passionate opponents of the suppression of dissent.
Davidon and the eight people who said yes in response to his question met as a group for the first time shortly before Christmas 1970 and chose their name, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. The name summed up their goal: In the absence of official oversight of this powerful law enforcement and intelligence agency, they, acting voluntarily on behalf of American citizens, would attempt to steal and make public FBI files in an effort to determine if the FBI was destroying dissent. They thought the name sounded dignified, like that of an official commission that should have been appointed years earlier by a president, an attorney general, or Congress.
Agreeing to break in only if it could be done without violating their deep commitment to nonviolent resistance, they concentrated on developing the skills necessary to conduct an unarmed burglary of the office. Beginning in January 1971, most weekday evenings, after they meticulously cased the area near the targeted FBI office for at least three hours, they drove to the Germantown neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia to the home of John and Bonnie Raines, a young couple who had agreed to participate. There, late at night in a room in the back of the Raines’ third-floor attic, they trained themselves as amateur burglars and planned the break-in. They discussed the discoveries they had made during casing and how to work around serious obstacles they had determined could not be eliminated, such as the fact that security guards stood twenty-four hours a day behind the glass front door of the Delaware County Courthouse constantly monitoring an area that included the nearby entrance to the building the burglars would enter, as well as the windows of the FBI office. Just a few days before the burglary, another critical problem developed over which they had no control: One of the burglars abandoned the group, with full knowledge of what they were going to do. He later threatened to turn them in.
* * *
On the night of March 8, 1971, the eight burglars carried out their plan. Under the cover of darkness and the crackling sounds in nearly every home and bar of continuous news about the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier world heavyweight championship boxing match taking place that evening at New York’s Madison Square Garden and being watched on television throughout the world, the burglars broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a sleepy town southwest of Philadelphia. At first, their break-in plan failed. The locks were much more difficult to pick than expected. Frustrated, the newly minted locksmith in the group found a pay phone, called the other burglars as they waited at the nearby motel room that served as the group’s staging area, and told them the burglary might have to be called off.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who conducted undercover FBI operations for sixteen years before joining the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2006, said he has often wondered how the Media burglars knew which files to take. “How did they know,” for instance, he asked, “where the political spying files would be?” German said he has always assumed—and has talked to other agents who made the same assumption—that because it would have been impossible for an outsider to know where particular files were, the Media burglary must have been an inside job carried out by disgruntled FBI agents familiar with the files. But the burglars had found a foolproof solution to the problem of which files to take: They removed every file in the office. That’s why, as they drove away from Media in their getaway cars late that night, they had no idea what they had stolen. For all they knew, they might have just risked spending many years in prison for a trove of blank bureaucratic forms.
Within an hour of opening the suitcases they had stuffed with FBI files, they knew their risk was not in vain. They found a document that would shock even hardened Washington observers when it became public two weeks later.
The files stolen by the burglars that night in Media revealed the truth and destroyed the myths about Hoover and the institution he had built since he became its director in 1924. Contrary to the official propaganda that had been released continuously for decades by the FBI’s Crime Records Division—the bureau’s purposely misnamed public relations operation— Hoover had distorted the mission of one of the most powerful and most venerated institutions in the country.
The Media files revealed that there were two FBIs—the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens’ liberties, and the secret FBI. This FBI, known until the Media burglary only to people inside the bureau, usurped citizens’ liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation, and violence as tools to harass, damage, and—most important—silence people whose political opinions the director opposed.
Instead of being a paragon of law and order and integrity, Hoover’s secret FBI was a lawless and unprincipled arm of the bureau that, as Davidon had feared, suppressed the dissent of Americans. To the embarrassment and frustration of agents who privately opposed this interpretation of the bureau’s mission, agents and informers were required to be outlaws. Blackmail and burglary were favorite tools in the secret FBI. Agents and informers were ordered to spy on—and create ongoing files on—the private lives, including the sexual activities, of the nation’s highest officials and other powerful people.
Electoral politics were manipulated to defeat candidates the director did not like. Even mild dissent, in the eyes of the FBI, could make an American worthy of being spied on and placed in an ongoing FBI file, sometimes for decades. As the authors of The Lawless State wrote in 1976, the FBI “has operated on a theory of subversion that assumes that people cannot be trusted to choose among political ideas. The FBI has assumed the duty to protect the public by placing it under surveillance.”
Until the Media burglary, this extraordinary situation—a secret FBI operating under principles that were the antithesis of both democracy and good law enforcement—thrived near the top of the federal government for nearly half a century, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The few officials who were aware of some aspects of the secret FBI silently tolerated the situation for various reasons, including fear of the director’s power to destroy the reputation of anyone who raised questions about his operations.
When these operations became known as a result of the burglary, the foundations of the FBI were shaken. The significant impact of the burglary was both long-term and immediate. As soon as the files became public, Americans’ views of the FBI started to change. Mark Felt—the future Deep Throat of Watergate fame, who at the time of the burglary was chief of bureau inspections and very close to Hoover—wrote in 1979 that the Media burglars’ disclosures “damaged the FBI’s image, possibly forever, in the minds of many Americans.” Ironically, the burglary would not have been possible if Felt had not refused in the fall of 1970 a request to increase security at the Media office.
This historic act of resistance—perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American history—ignited the first public debate on the proper role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. Perceptions of the bureau evolved from adulation to criticism and then to a consensus that the FBI and other intelligence agencies must never again be permitted to be lawless and unaccountable. By 1975, the revelations led to the first congressional investigations of the FBI and other intelligence agencies and then to the establishment of congressional oversight of those agencies.
The writers of every history of Hoover or the bureau since the burglary have noted its significant impact. Sanford J. Ungar, author in 1976 of the first history of the bureau published after the burglary, FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls, wrote, “The Media documents ... gave an extraordinary picture of some of the Bureau’s domestic intelligence activities. ... Judged by any standard, the documents ... show an almost incredible preoccupation with the activities of black organizations and leaders, both on campuses and in the cities. . . . The overall impact of the documents could not be denied or explained away. They seemed to show a government agency, once the object of almost universal respect and awe, reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society.”
“In one fell swoop FBI surveillance of dissidents was exposed and the Bureau’s carefully nurtured mystique destroyed,” wrote Max Holland about the Media burglary in his 2012 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. “Far from being invincible, the FBI appeared merely petty, obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent.”
Historian Richard Gid Powers, in his 2004 book Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI, described the burglary’s impact:
Hoover’s power to conduct secret operations . . . depended on the absolute freedom he had won from any inquiry into the internal operations of the Bureau. . . . Except for a remarkably few breaches of security . . . Hoover had been able to pick and choose what the public would learn about the Bureau. He had never suffered the indignity of having an outside, unsympathetic investigator look into what he had been doing, what the Bureau had become, and what it looked like from the inside. And it had been that luxury of freedom that let him indulge himself with such abuses of power as his persecution of King, the . . . COINTELPROs, and his harassment of Bureau critics.
On the night of March 8, 1971, that changed forever. A group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI resident agency in Media, Pennsylvania. The burglars were never caught.
As two hundred FBI agents searched for the burglars throughout the country in 1971, most intensively in Philadelphia, even people in the large peace movement there, where all of the burglars were activists, could not imagine that any of their fellow activists had had the courage or audacity to burglarize an FBI office. Many people feared then that the FBI might be stifling dissent, but most people found it difficult to imagine that anyone would risk their freedom—risk sacrificing years away from their children and other loved ones—to break into an FBI office to get evidence of whether that was true. People wondered:
Who would go to prison to save dissent?
That question will now be answered. For more than forty years, the Media burglars have been silent about what they did on the night of March 8, 1971. Seven of the eight burglars have been found by this writer, the first journalist to anonymously receive and then write about the files two weeks after the burglary. In the more than forty years since they were among the most hunted people in the country as they eluded FBI agents during the intensive investigation ordered by Hoover, they have lived rather quiet lives as law-abiding, good citizens who moved from youth to middle age and, for some, now to their senior years. They kept the promise they made to one another as they met for the last time immediately before they released copies of the stolen files to the public—that they would take their secret, the Media burglary, to their graves.
The seven burglars who have been found have agreed to break their silence so that the story of their act of resistance that uncovered the secret FBI can be told. Their inside account, as well as the FBI’s account of its search for the burglars—as told by agents in interviews and as drawn from the 33,698-page official record of the FBI’s investigation of the burglary obtained under the Freedom of Information Act—and the powerful impact of this historic act of resistance are all told here for the first time. It is a story about the destructive power of excessive government secrecy. It is a story about the potential power of nonviolent resistance, even when used against the most powerful law enforcement agency in the nation. It also is a story about courage and patriotism.
Excerpted from "The Burglary" by Betty Medsger. Copyright © 2014 by Betty Medsger. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.