NEW YORK — Before WikiLeaks, before Edward Snowden, and before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned most government offices into fortresses, there were eight people with suitcases who broke into an FBI office housed in a suburban apartment building.
They knew the building superintendent would be preoccupied that night. Like millions of Americans on March 8, 1971, he was next to his radio, transfixed by the “Fight of the Century” between heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and challenger Muhammad Ali. They stuffed the luggage full of documents, which within days were slipped into large envelopes headed for the desks of journalists, politicians and activists.
More than 40 years after the break-in, which revealed a spying program run by J. Edgar Hoover that targeted anti-war and civil-rights activists, some of the burglars went public Tuesday to discuss an event that they say is more pertinent than ever in this age of ramped-up surveillance.
“We’re hoping that by coming forward today, we can remind Americans of the abuses unchecked police power can lead to,” said Bonnie Raines, now 72, who along with her husband, John, took part in planning and carrying out the burglary in the small town of Media, Pa., about 12 miles west of Philadelphia.
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The statute of limitations on the burglary ran out in 1976, but the five years leading up to that were tense. FBI agents once visited the Raines’ home. A sketch of Bonnie Raines — who had visited the FBI office in a ruse to study its security setup — had circulated around FBI offices.
Luck and timing helped the burglars elude capture.
In a conference call with reporters timed to coincide with the release of a book about the break-in, the Raineses and another participant, Keith Forsyth, described a hands-on, cloak-and-dagger operation to steal documents that today might be seized with the push of a button.
But “the burglars,” as they frequently were referred to during the call, said one thing had not changed: the need for whistle-blowers.
“Snowden had the same purpose in mind that we … had in mind,” said John Raines, who is now 80. “Namely, to reveal information to the general citizenry that would allow them to formulate opinions that were well-informed.”
The theft revealed that under Hoover, the FBI conducted an illegal spying operation that included blackmail, opening of personal mail and forging documents, with the aim of disrupting student anti-war groups, black civil-rights organizations, suspected communists and others. The revelation led to congressional hearings and reforms that scaled back the government’s freedom to spy on U.S. citizens.
The group recruited for the break-in was drawn from thousands of activists in the Philadelphia area, who had suspected they were being spied upon but did not have documents to prove it.
William Davidon, a Haverford College physics professor and fellow activist, suggested they break into an FBI office to get what they needed. The FBI office in Media seemed an easy target compared with those in larger cities.
Bonnie Raines posed as a college student researching FBI career opportunities in order to visit the bureau and survey the security. She saw that the file cabinets were not locked and that there was no electronic-security system. Forsyth took a correspondence course to learn how to pick a lock. They chose March 8 because they knew most people, including police, would be following the Frazier-Ali fight.
After clearing out the file cabinets, they drove to a farmhouse and began reading the documents. “It became clear … that what we had known personally, we now had documentation for,” said John Raines, referring to the secret surveillance. “The proof, the evidence, was there.”
Once the documents were photocopied and distributed, the burglars felt their work was done. They returned to normal life. John and Bonnie Raines raised three children. He was a professor at Temple University; she ran a day-care center. They still live in Pennsylvania. So does Forsyth, who became an engineer. Bob Williamson, who did not speak Tuesday, moved to New Mexico.
Three other burglars were not named.
Frazier won his fight that night. The burglars said they did too, by exposing secrets they believed Americans needed to know.
Retired FBI Agent Patrick Kelly, who was involved in the Media burglary investigation, disagrees. “They’re rationalizing a criminal act,” he told NBC’s “Today.”
In a statement, FBI spokesman Michael Kortan acknowledged that the burglary had “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.”
And the FBI website now has documents from the secret-spying program revealed by the theft on its website, with the note that the program was “rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights and for other reasons.”