Dissidents who burgled FBI, turned up crimes against activists, step out into daylight decades later


FBI field office in Media, PAPhoto Betty Medsger

…On a night nearly 43 years ago…burglars took a lock pick and a crowbar and broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in a suburb of Philadelphia, making off with nearly every document inside.

They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.

The burglary in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, is a historical echo today, as disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden have cast another unflattering light on government spying and opened a national debate about the proper limits of government surveillance. The burglars had, until now, maintained a vow of silence about their roles in the operation. They were content in knowing that their actions had dealt the first significant blow to an institution that had amassed enormous power and prestige during J. Edgar Hoover’s lengthy tenure as director.

“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” said one of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”

Mr. Forsyth, now 63, and other members of the group can no longer be prosecuted for what happened that night, and they agreed to be interviewed before the release this week of a book written by one of the first journalists to receive the stolen documents. The author, Betty Medsger, a former reporter for The Washington Post, spent years sifting through the F.B.I.’s voluminous case file on the episode and persuaded five of the eight men and women who participated in the break-in to end their silence…

“It looks like we’re terribly reckless people,” John Raines said. “But there was absolutely no one in Washington — senators, congressmen, even the president — who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability.”

“It became pretty obvious to us,” he said, “that if we don’t do it, nobody will.”

The tradition that proceeds from Upton Sinclair to Ellsworth to Snowden now has another fine chapter. I saw the [ineffectual] FBI agent assigned to track these folks down 42 years ago – on TV, today. He was whining about their criminal guilt.

He was one of the criminals. They are the heroes.

One thought on “Dissidents who burgled FBI, turned up crimes against activists, step out into daylight decades later

  1. god says:

    Another tale backing up my contempt for TV talking heads who say they can’t support Snowden because he should have used official procedures for whistleblowing. If he tried that, he’d be in jail and we wouldn’t have heard of a tiny fraction of the NSA scumsucker activities.

    All power to people like these with the courage to challenge government criminals – even though they had to break the law to do it. Civil disobedience is almost always more honorable than conformity.

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