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In 1971, eight people stole and disclosed FBI records that proved the agency was spying on black and anti-war activists under the now-infamous COINTELPRO banner. Four decades later, a new book reveals the burglars’ identities, answering questions about how they pulled off the historic heist, and fueling renewed debates over whistle-blowers and government surveillance of its own citizens.
- Betty Medsger Author, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I" (Knopf, 2014)
- Sarah Davidon Faculty member, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Daughter of William Davidon, one of the Media, Penn., burglars
- Paul Coates Founder, Black Classic Press
Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a documentary film explores how protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square experience the ongoing convulsions in their country. But, first, it's the burglary that rocked the nation and changed the course of history, but faded quickly from the spotlight, eclipsed by other newsworthy events in a tumultuous decade. The story also suffered from a lack of protagonists, because the thieves were never found.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1971, burglars broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and cleared out the file cabinets, taking everything. Two weeks later, a few reporters received documents proving that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was not only spying on black and anti-war activists, it was trying to instill fear and disrupt their operations. Despite a huge dragnet, the FBI never caught the burglars. But their revelation of the FBI's secret counterintelligence program dubbed COINTELPRO led to congressional hearings and reform of an agency out of control.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, 43 years later, a new book by the reporter who broke that story reveals the identities of the burglars who dubbed themselves as the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI and believe that, if no one else in the country would hold the FBI accountable, they would. Two were college professors and one was a taxi driver. They were civil rights and anti-war activists, and all vowed to take the secret of their amazing heist to the grave. Joining us to talk about this is Betty Medsger, author of the book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's a former Washington Post reporter, former chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, and founder of its Center for Integration and the Improvement of Journalism. She joins us from studios in New York City. Betty Medsger, thank you for joining us.
MS. BETTY MEDSGERThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Colorado is Sarah Davidon. She is a member of the faculty of the University of Colorado's School of Medicine. She is the daughter of William Davidon, who conceived of the burglary and recruited the rest of the group to join him. Sarah Davidon, thank you for joining us.
MS SARAH DAVIDONThank you so much.
NNAMDIBetty Medsger, for listeners who are not familiar with the story of the burglary, tell us what happened on the night of March 8, 1971.
MEDSGERWell, on that night, a group of eight people burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. As you said, it was a small office. It had apartment -- the FBI office was on the second floor. Above the FBI office were two floors of residential apartments. And, on the floor below, lived the manager of the building. These people had planned the burglary very carefully. And one of the things that they planned was to conduct it on that night, because that night was the night of the first Mohammed Ali/Joe Frazier fight.
NNAMDIIt certainly preoccupied my night.
MEDSGERThey counted on -- well, the two things. They thought that any self-respecting FBI agent or police officer would be somewhere listening or watching to the fight that night. Maybe not -- the police might not be doing patrols on the streets of Media. But they also hoped, especially the locksmith in the group, who picked the lock, hoped that any noise that he might have to make, which he did have to make, might be covered by the sounds of the fight. And, as he was having a harder time than he thought breaking in, he did in fact hear the sounds of the fight.
NNAMDIYou're one of the reporters who started getting packages in the mail filled with copies of the stolen FBI documents. How did you know they were authentic and important? And how did The Washington Post decide to go with the story, even though the government asked it not to?
MEDSGERWell, it was easy to establish that they were authentic. Although I must admit that, when I read the first document on that pile of 14 that I received two weeks after the burglary, I wondered, because the language seemed so extreme that it was hard to believe that it would be left in a file. It said -- it instructed agents to enhance paranoia, to make people feel that there was an FBI agent behind every mailbox. Now, lots of people in various movements felt that way, but there was no evidence. And that's what the Media burglars, under Bill Davidon's leadership, were trying to do.
MEDSGERNow, as for whether they were authentic, that did seem like it might not be real. But we quickly found out, when we asked the FBI and the Justice Department, that it was real, that they said that they were copies of files that had been stolen from Media two weeks earlier, and the same files that other people, including two members of Congress had received.
MEDSGERThey also spent a lot of time that afternoon, the Attorney General John Mitchell, calling two editors at The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee and Ben Bagdikian, and later Katherine Graham, the publisher, trying to convince them that they should not be published.
NNAMDIEven though he, himself, had not read the documents.
MEDSGERThat's right. I didn't find that out, until I read the 34,000 pages of the FBI's investigation of the burglary, that he -- even though he said that they would endanger national security and endanger lives, he had neither read or been briefed on the actual contents of the files. This was a very hard decision for the Post. I didn't see it this way. I mean I looked at it and saw just, this is important information that the public needs, once I knew that they were authentic.
MEDSGERBut it was -- if the publisher had a difficult time, this was the first time that a journalist had received secret government files from someone on the outside who had stolen the files, like in contrast to an inside whistleblower. It was also the first time that Katherine Graham had been confronted by a demand from the Nixon administration to suppress a story. And so she was reluctant at first, but by ten o'clock that night, made the decision to publish. And the story appeared on the front page the next day, not only at the Post, but on various papers around the country who took the Post wire.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number, if you'd like to join the conversation with a question or comment. Were they whistleblowers or thieves? How do you regard the burglars who stole FBI documents and revealed that the agency was spying on and trying to undermine American activists? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Davidon, your father was a physics professor at Haverford College and a civil rights and anti-war activist. The burglary was his idea. He recruited the rest of the group.
NNAMDITell us about him and how his deep concerns about nuclear weapons prompted this idea.
DAVIDONSure. Thank you. You know, when I was growing up, inaction just didn't seem to be an option. I would travel on my dad's back when he would go to anti-war demonstrations, so it just -- it never seemed to be an option to not act when you felt strongly about injustice or threats. My dad felt a deep commitment and responsibility to action when he saw or suspected injustice or threats to human beings, such as the use of nuclear weapons, you know, but also threats to people that were less concrete, like civil liberties and civil rights.
DAVIDONWhen he was leading various anti-war activities, he was also raising two young children, my sister and myself, and also serving as a physics professor at Haverford College. And, you know, I think he had many dimensions to him that seemed to all be able to converge: family, activism, and his academic activity. And I actually think his academics and his role as a professor of physics at the time at Haverford College really was not so divergent from him being a leader in the Media action.
DAVIDONHe -- it was -- he felt strongly that he needed to do something. He had a, sort of a very scientific mind. He had seen the potential devastation of nuclear weapons. And his motivation was to do whatever he could to make sure that, you know, people continued to have the right to dissent and to protect what, you know, really is sort of the core of our democracy.
NNAMDIBetty Medsger, tell us a little bit about the other burglars.
MEDSGERJohn and Bonnie Raines -- John was, at the time and for the rest of his career, was a religion professor at Temple University. He had been long involved in the civil rights movement. He went south almost every summer during the early and mid-1960s. And that was the birth of resistance in both of their lives. Bonne, at the time of the burglary, was a daycare center director and later became executive director of two major organizations in Philadelphia that worked for -- to better the lives of children, especially poor children.
MEDSGERThey had made a decision early in their marriage that they wanted to be willing to participate in acts of resistance, including together, as they did at Media. They didn't want the fact that they had children to exempt them, in effect, from being activists. This was an unusual decision on the part of a couple with children. They had three small children.
NNAMDIIt's remarkable. They were risking going to jail. Yes?
MEDSGERThey were. As Sarah's father was too. He had two small children at the time. But the Raines made arrangements. I mean, they were clear-eyed about this. They made arrangements with John's brother and also with Bonnie's parents that, if they went to prison, they agreed that they would raise the children.
NNAMDIThat's the kind -- go ahead, please.
MEDSGERGo ahead. So John and Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth. Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson were younger members of the group. They were around 20 at the time. Like a lot of students then who were in the anti-war movement, they were so serious about it that they dropped out of college specifically to stop the war and wanted to be engaged as much as possible as activists. They were in non-violent actions -- all of these people, by the way, were involved in the Catholic peace movement and learned the art of burglary from Catholic activists who had raided draft boards.
MEDSGERKeith was from Ohio. His main contribution to the burglary was that he took a correspondence course in locksmithing and learned to pick locks and practiced quite a bit. But on the night of the burglary, what he thought would take a few minutes, ended up being something that would take quite a long time, because when he arrived at the FBI door, there were two locks, not the one that he had seen when he walked by the office door before. That required...
NNAMDIA crowbar became necessary.
MEDSGERThat's right. A crowbar became necessary. But they almost called off the burglary because of that, because, of course, they wondered if the FBI knew and was waiting for them inside. And Bob William...
NNAMDICan you explain -- go ahead.
MEDSGERSure. No, go ahead.
NNAMDICan you explain how you discovered the identities of the burglars? You already knew John Raines as a professor of religion at Temple University. You knew him from your days as a reporter in Philadelphia in the 1960s. You'd stayed in touch. How'd you discover that he was a burglar?
MEDSGERWell, it was quite by accident. I never tried to find out who the burglars were. Back at the time when I received the documents, my total focus was on the substance of the documents, no matter how we had received them. But many years later, after I was in California, I went through Philadelphia one weekend and saw many old acquaintances, including the Raineses. And, at dinner at their place one evening, their fourth child, whom I had not met came into the room, and John introduced her and said, Mary, many years ago when your dad and mother had documents from the FBI that we thought the American people should have, we gave them to Betty.
MEDSGERWe think you should know Betty. And she didn’t care too much and know what that meant, but I was enormously surprised. And the rest of the evening we talked for hours as I asked many questions. He had blurted it out, didn't intent to. And in fact, the burglars had -- as they completed their work ten days after the burglary and were ready to distribute the files, they had agreed that they would take the secret to their graves.
NNAMDISarah, you were in your early 20s when your father told you he'd been involved in the burglary. How did you react?
MS. SARAH DAVIDONI was, yeah. It was in the early 1990s that he told me about his involvement in this action. And honestly, at the time I don't think I really understood the significance of it at first. It, for me, I think was more of an evolution of understanding of the impact. When he first told me I actually viewed it as one of his many mechanisms for his activism that I had known about. I had known he had been arrested for trying to plant a tree in front of the Pentagon. He, you know, had been involved in many antiwar activities.
MS. SARAH DAVIDONAnd so when he initially told me, I actually -- I probably should have understood the significance a little bit more, but overtime I really did have more of a chance to talk to my father about the impact of this and the significance. And in 2010 my father moved out here to Colorado and I had a lot of time to spend with him. And it actually wasn't until then that my dad expressed to me any regret around -- and his word was being foolhardy about the risks that he took and the confidence that he really had at the time.
MS. SARAH DAVIDONHe felt that this just -- it had to be done to provide evidence of the FBI's so-called intelligence gathering. And at that point there were just no other ways to show the evidence. He really -- you know, he -- the significance of this was very clear to me at that point after sort of 20 years or so of having conversations with him and talking about this. And the real significance is that he was exposing the criminal and unconstitutional spying and infiltration that the FBI had resorted to in order to really discredit legitimate civil rights and antiwar groups.
MS. SARAH DAVIDONAnd unfortunately it wasn't until the last three years or so when he developed pretty significant Parkinson's and dementia that I was able to live close enough to him that I could see him almost every day. But over -- so he told me in the early '90s so really over 20 plus years there was this evolution of the conversation about his leadership in Media.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the book "The Burglary: Exposing (sic) the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." We're talking with the author of that book and with Sarah Davidon whose father was one who conceived the burglary and recruited the rest of the group. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do these new revelations about the FBI burglary 40 years ago change the way you view Edward Snowden and his release of NSA documents to reporters, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the burglary in 1971 that exposed how the FBI spied on Americans. Our guest is Betty Medsger. She is author of the book "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." She's a former Washington Post reporter, former chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University and founder of its center for integration and improvement of journalism. She's joined by phone from Colorado by Sarah Davidon who's a member of the faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She is the daughter of William Davidon who conceived of the burglary and recruited the rest of the group to join him.
NNAMDIBetty Medsger, one of the things the FBI files revealed is that the bureau spent a huge amount of time and energy spying on African Americans. You wrote that simply being black was enough to make you a suspicious person to the FBI at that time. Explain how every field office was required to set up a so-called racial squad and to find informants to infiltrate what the FBI considered to be black nationalists and black revolutionary groups.
MEDSGERYes. When I looked at the -- everything that was in the Media files and then later what was discovered as a result of other people and parts of the government conducting investigations, in the end what I felt was sort of most surprising or worst was the massive surveillance of African Americans. In fact, in my -- the title of the chapter in the book that details the Media files, I've called it Being American While Black and Other Insights From Media, because that was such a dominant theme.
MEDSGERFor instance, the files described the fact that FBI agents were supposed to have black people all over Philadelphia -- and this was true in other places too -- under surveillance in the perfectly normal places where people would go. I mean, this wasn't just what they considered militant or violent organizations. The surveillance was sweeping, involved nonviolent people, nonviolent organizations, what they thought were violent organizations and just average African Americans.
MEDSGERThey were surveilled at their corner store, their classrooms, their churches, their libraries, their bars, their restaurants, just anywhere that someone might go. And the FBI prescribed the types of people that you might have do such surveillance. And then the rules that were specified -- and this is from the Media files. Every FBI agent at that time -- we're talking about the '60s and the early '70s -- every FBI agent was required to have an informer reported to him regularly on the activities of black people.
MEDSGERAnd then in -- that was true everywhere except in Washington, D.C. at that time where FBI agents were required to each -- every agent was required to have six informers who reported to them on the activities of black people. This rule was such an important thing that the only way that you could get out of that, having such informers, was if you were an agent in an all white community. And even that wasn't taken for granted. There was a special form for the purpose of an agent getting an exemption for having informers report to them on black people, a special form that they had to fill out to exempt them from that obligation.
NNAMDIWhich explains why I received a visit from the FBI at my home in Washington in late 1970 or early 1971. I was involved with an organization called the Center for Black Education. I was a student at the time. And the organization, along with Drum and Spear Bookstore and Drum and Spear Press were all formed by former SNCC activists here in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDII was at the Center for Black Education ultimately working at Drum and Spear Bookstore. And one day two FBI agents simply showed up at my home and started asking me questions about all of these organizations, threatening me with my immigration status. I was a student at the time. And I couldn't exactly figure out what was going on but in a way we suspected that this was going on. And in order to validate that suspicion we are being joined by phone now from Baltimore by Paul Coates. He is the founder of Black Classic Press, one of the oldest independently owned black publishers in the country.
NNAMDIAnd Paul ran the Black Panther chapter in Baltimore during the period that we're talking about. Paul Coates, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JEHANE NOUJAIMKojo, thank you. And Betty and Sarah, thank you for having me in this call.
NNAMDII should mention that Paul is an old friend of mine. Paul, you've said that for black activists, this burglary and the revelation of the FBI spying and infiltration would incredibly important because they confirmed our suspicions. What made you think the FBI was watching us?
MR. PAUL COATESYeah, Kojo, we certainly -- in our work we certainly experienced what you experienced. And what you just described was a classic maneuver -- and Betty probably can confirm -- this classic maneuver of the FBI feeling folks out. And if they interviewed you and if they felt there was any weakness at all, they would've turned you into an informer right there, you know.
MEDSGEROh, that's right.
COATESI mean, and that's what -- they regularly, regularly did that as a tactic. So we knew at the time -- always knew at the time that the community was so filled with informers. But this particular break-in, this particular heroic act and this particular act of bravery, you know, was the first and most significant exposure of these type of activities. And I don't think anything else parallels with it. I don't think there's any other activity during that whole period of time or since that period of time -- and I'm setting aside the Watergate papers and the work of Edward Snowden. I'm speaking specifically as it relates to the Black Liberation Movement. I don't think anything else compares to it.
NNAMDIPaul, talk about how J. Edgar -- oh I'm sorry, Betty. I interrupted you. Go ahead, please.
MEDSGERWell, I'm sorry. I just wanted to endorse what you said so much and come back to Sarah's father, Bill Davidon, who got the idea for this. I mean, he had in mind exactly what you're talking about, the suspicions that people were feeling in various movements. He was very much involved in several peace movements in the Philadelphia area. And beginning in late 1979, people started saying to him sort of quietly on the side, you know, we feel sure that there are informers in our groups.
MEDSGERAnd at first, he being very scientific minded and so forth, refused to believe it and thought -- had doubts about it. And he doesn't -- he wasn't somebody who believed in conspiracy theories. But the more that he heard it from many people in various organization and quite reasonable people, by the end of 1970 he believed it was true. And that what he thought was crucial though was to not just be cynical and not be rhetorical but to find the evidence. The evidence that would present the American public with the kind of information that they could act on. And...
NNAMDIAnd I could tell you what stoked his and some of our suspicions. Paul, if you could talk a little bit about your experience with the FBI trying to influence the reputation of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore, specifically the mailings the FBI sent out to people in the community to undermine you and what you were doing.
COATESYeah, that was definitely -- and Betty has experience with that as well -- the mailings that they would put together and make them seem like they had come from creditable Panthers. And they would send them to community leaders. But, Kojo, I want to double back because I think this point -- see Baltimore is significant for another reason. There was a police informer killed as a result of a co-entailed pro operation. The interesting thing -- and this is all documented, it's all in the court -- the interesting thing, Betty, is there were six informers -- six informers who participated in that killing and torture in the Baltimore headquarters.
COATESThis is before my time, right before my time. But I was struck by your saying how each agent had to have six. There were six informers including the person who founded the Baltimore chapter, Warren Hart, who was an NSA agent. So I'm just struck by what you shared over the phone -- I mean, over the radio, you know.
NNAMDIBetty, the timing of your book -- and feel free, Sarah and Paul, to respond to this also -- the timing of your book is prompting comparisons of course with Edward Snowden who's living in exile in Russia after giving reporters top secret documents about NSA spying on American and world leaders. Are there, in fact, parallels between the FBI burglary and Snowden's NSA leak? What do both of these events tell us about government oversight?
DAVIDONWell, this is Sarah, if I could...
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Sarah.
DAVIDONYou know, I've been very enthusiastic about the energy that Betty's book has generated around the relevant issues today. But I do have to say I'm disheartened by those who sort of dumped the action into the bucket of being a crime. It's not that cut and dry and it's a very complex issue. So, I mean, my father's motivation as the mastermind behind the FBI action had everything to do with bringing justice and oversight to an errant government agency.
DAVIDONAnd I think that that's what Snowden's motivations were today as well. I mean, breaking the law in order to remove files from an FBI office was not something that my father took lightly, but saw no other means of exposing the criminal actions that he and other suspected that the FBI was responsible for. And I see a parallel there with what Edward Snowden has done today as well.
DAVIDONAnd I do want to emphasize that this wasn't sort of a massive distribution of all of the documents that they found. There really was some -- both with the documents that Snowden released regarding the NSA as well as in the Media break-in, that there was some painstaking care that was put into reviewing what documents were going to be released. And it wasn't just a mass release of things that they really didn't contain true accurate FBI investigation material that related to crimes. So I want to make sure that that's emphasized that both now with Snowden and in 1971, the documents were reviewed before they were sent out.
NNAMDIPaul, I'd like Betty to have the last word. But before we do that, how does your experience with the Black Panther Party and the revelations that the FBI was targeting blacks influence the way you think about Edward Snowden and the documents he released to the press?
COATESYou know, significantly. Significantly. And I think the interesting thing about those two connections for me is that I'm just feeling that people have hardened and people have gotten used to the idea that the government actually spies and acts in an undemocratic way. And so I'm just floored by the fact that there isn't more protests and isn't more support around Edward Snowden. And think I'll stop there.
NNAMDIThank you so much, Paul. Here is Betty Medsger. What do you think about this in comparison?
MEDSGERWell, I agree with Sarah. The motivations are almost precisely the same between what her father and the Media burglars and what Snowden has done, both of them deciding to take the action because of their feeling that the public needed this information in order to bring justice and oversight, and then taking the great risk -- and truly great risk in both instances. Many years in prison were the potential for the Media burglars and certainly now with Snowden, and then presenting it and the public having to make a decision.
MEDSGERAnd back then it was a slow process at first. But what finally happened was that congress made a decision to investigate. And then after that came the effort to reform. Now what's happening is investigation is not being talked about. And I think that's an issue that needs to be on the table. And instead the discussion is about reforms or the lack of reform. But I think that one missing factor today is not talking about an investigation of the intelligence agencies.
NNAMDIBetty Medsger is author of the book "The Burglar: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." She's a former Washington Post reporter, former chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. Betty Medsger, thank you so much for joining us.
MEDSGERThank you very much.
NNAMDISarah Davidon is a member of the faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She is the daughter of William Davidon who conceived of the burglary, recruited the rest of the group to join him. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVIDONThank you so much for this opportunity.
NNAMDIAnd Paul Coates is the founder of Black Classic Press, one of the oldest independently-owned black publishers in the country.
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