In 1971, several anti-war activists executed a flawless nighttime burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They took away every single FBI file, and distributed the more interesting documents to friendly newspaper reporters. Their astonishing feat exposed the FBI's 20-year crime spree of burglaries against innocent American citizens, the FBI's role in encouraging and covering up murders, the vicious COINTELPRO program, and the FBI's recruitment and maintenance of over 100,000 domestic informers who would snitch on their neighbors for matters as trivial as subscribing to a leftist newspaper.
The sudden exposure of the FBI's dirty secrets dramatically changed the course of American history for decades. Not only that, these burglars were never caught. Please continue reading below the fold, and we look at the aftermath of the Media burglaries, compare the results to Snowden's and Manning's revelations, and ponder the changes in our political processes.
They were an odd mix; a professor of religion, a physicist, a waitress, and five others, even including a Republican. They were all against the Vietnam War, and sensed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)'s pressure on the anti-war movement exceeded any lawful bounds.
They decided they had to know what the FBI was doing.
One of them, a college dropout, learned to pick locks. The waitress posed as a student, went to the local FBI office supposedly to interview an agent about the FBI's interesting work, but in reality to case the joint.
They found that the FBI was simply renting office space in a commercial building, without elaborate security arrangements.
They waited until the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight title fight. Then it was unlikely that any FBI agents would be working late, and the security cop downstairs was probably intently listening to the fight on the radio. They picked the door lock, forced their way in, stole every single FBI file in the office, spirited the records to a farm, and later made reproductions on an office copier at the local college.
They began sending the juicier files to liberal politicians and sympathetic newspapers. Meanwhile the FBI and its reactionary Director J. Edgar Hoover were going crazy trying to find the burglars, as thousands of agents tried to interview everyone who'd ever marched against the war, looking for leads. At one point, the FBI seized parts out of thousands of Xerox model 6500 copy machines , hoping to find the machine that reproduced the stolen files.
Slowly, the files' revelations crept into the headlines. The public learned that the FBI kept a file on virtually every single African-American college student as part of its campaign against uppity blacks. Only 1% of the FBI files dealt with organized crime investigations.
The exposures grew more brutal as clever newspaper reporters followed the files' leads, often utilizing the newly approved Freedom of Information Act.
The Washington Post used the files to discover that the FBI kept a secret "Security Index" of several thousand liberals and leftists who would be tossed in prison without trial during any national emergencies.
Then the stolen files helped rip the lid off the FBI's COINTELPRO "dirty tricks" program. The stolen files mentioned COINTELPRO in passing, and Carl Stern, an intrepid reporter for NBC, filed Freedom of Information requests for years, seeking information about COINTELPRO. His subsequent court suits revealed the FBI had ran a dirty tricks campaign since 1956 against anyone to the left of the Republican party. Without the stolen files that directed Stern's queries, we never would have learned that:
Under the COINTELPRO program, the FBI burglarized, bugged, and wiretapped the Socialist Workers Party headquarters and its officers' homes at least 92 times from 1960-66. The FBI hired 1600 informers to snitch on the 2500-member SWP.
They FBI paid a bonus to an informant who identified, on a floor plan, where Fred Hampton's bed was in his apartment. The Chicago police then raided the apartment, shot up the bedroom, and killed Hampton, a Black Panther leader. The FBI's internal documents indicate the FBI took "credit" for the killing.
Geronimo Pratt, another Black Panther, was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 27 years in prison, because the FBI suppressed evidence of his innocence.
The FBI sent Martin Luther King a tape of him having sex with a woman not his wife, and suggested he commit suicide before they exposed his infidelities.
The FBI planned kidnapping the infant daughter of the sister of fugitive leftist Bernadine Dohrn, to coerce Dohrn's surrender.
The FBI and the American Legion developed a network of over 108,000 volunteers who spied on their neighbors for evidence of communist sympathies.
the FBI had a network of 12,000 informers working at industrial facilities to spy on union activity.
The FBI hired prostitutes to discredit anti-war activists and to give them venereal diseases.
Finally, the (Senator Frank) Church Committee, which was also investigating the CIA, turned its attention to these FBI abuses, and recommended reforms, which included passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required warrants for counterintelligence wiretaps, and greater congressional oversight of the FBI.
Yet a few years later, President Reagan took the leash off of the FBI, who once again instigated break-ins, this time to investigate groups opposed to US intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
And of course, after 9/11, no one is restraining the FBI.
I wrote this diary by paraphrasing much of the writing in The Burglary, by Betty Medsger, published in 2014. Medsger was a reporter for the Washington Post who wrote about the theft of the FBI files in the 1970s.
Decades later, some of the burglars revealed their identity to her, and she crafted their revelations into this fine book.
Medsger concludes her book by comparing the congressional investigations into the FBI abuses, which what she terms Americans' "muted" response to the NSA misdeeds exposed by Snowden and Manning, and the "paralyzed" politicians who are so fearful of indirectly assisting terrorists, that they are afraid to even question the NSA.
Yet recently a sizable minority of Congress narrowly failed to cut the NSA's funding, so this story isn't over.
Reading about the Media break-in gave me pause for another reason. I'm no fan of Snowden and Manning, but what would we know of the NSA without them? How else would we have found out about their wholesale vacuuming up of domestic phone records?
Like many folks, I've ranted in Kos Diaries about crypto-fascism and the like, and felt brave about my edgy rhetoric. Yet strong words pale against strong actions, and I'll never cease admiring the courage and dedication of these folks, who risked everything to expose a lawless law enforcement agency.
I hope that somehow during my life, I have accomplished a small fraction of what the Media burglars did. Some of them began their journey by registering black voters in the South, where angry mobs beat them up and killed their comrades.
So it may not sound as romantic as breaking into an FBI office, but I'll be out registering voters when I can for the next couple of years, in homage to what the Media burglars risked.