Before Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks, Watergate, or even the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a group of anti-Vietnam War activists in early 1971 broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania and unleashed one of the most consequential exposures of classified information in U.S. history.
If you’ve never heard of “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” the moniker the burglars gave themselves, it’s because the burglary itself has receded into semi-obscurity. The people involved were never caught and remained anonymous in the decades following the break-in.
But with a public debate raging over domestic surveillance in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks, five of the eight burglars have now come forward to tell their story and weigh in on Snowden’s actions.
“It has recently come to light that our government is again conducting mass surveillance of Americans and again lying to Congress and the public about it,” Keith Forsyth, the lock picker of the crew, said in a news conference Tuesday. “We hope that by coming forward today we can remind Americans of the abuses that unchecked police power can lead to and contribute in some small way to the ongoing public debate about these recurring issues, which are essential to democracy.”
The burglars broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, and loaded roughly six large suitcases with secret documents. They escaped in a getaway car to a farmhouse where they sorted through the cache before sending select documents to journalists.
The haul led to extraordinary revelations that began to unravel some of the most damning intelligence community scandals in U.S. history. One memorandum exposed how Director J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI sought to disrupt dissident groups by interviewing activists merely to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles.” A document dated 1968 gave the world its first glimpse of the enigmatic word “Cointelpro.”
No one at the time could decipher the term, but several years later a reporter learned the word was shorthand for “Counterintelligence Program,” the umbrella operation for many of the FBI’s most notorious activities. It was under the auspices of Cointelpro that the FBI tried to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide by threatening to reveal his extramarital affairs, the New York Times reports.
The burglary set off a public debate over domestic surveillance that led eventually to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That legislation created the FISA Court, the judicial body responsible for overseeing the national security apparatus that Snowden’s leaks have helped expose.
“I consider him a whistleblower of significance,” Bonnie Raines, one of the burglars, said of Snowden. “I think in a democracy we need whistleblowers, regularly, and I do not think he’s a criminal. I do not think he’s a traitor.”
Praising Snowden for taking his documents to “responsible journalists” rather than WikiLeaks, Raines said “some consideration should be given to not punishing him over a long period of time of his young life.
A new book titled “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.,” written by Betty Medsger, one of the first journalists to whom the burglars sent copies of the documents, comes out this week. A documentary on the subject titled “1971,” is forthcoming.