On March 8, 1971, eight people broke into an FBI office in Media, PA and stole over 1,000 documents that exposed FBI surveillance activity and leaked them to newspapers and congressman. The Washington Post printed the incriminating documents, helping to bring about the end of the career of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Two of those burglars, Bonnie and John Raines, as well as Betty Medsger who reported on the documents for The Post came to Brandeis on Wednesday for a panel discussion, hosted by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
The panel discussion followed a screening of Johanna Hamilton’s film “1971” which tells the story of the break-in and its aftermath through interviews with reporter Betty Medsger and burglars have stepped forward and revealed their identity.
On Wednesday, Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute, was joined by Medsger and “burglars” Bonnie and John Raines. Graves described the married couple as “analogous to Edward Snowden.” The burglary occurred three months before The New York Times began to release excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and several years before Watergate or WikiLeaks.
On March 8, 1971, they broke into an FBI office in Media, PA, stole the documents and leaked the most incriminating, thereby bringing about the end of the regime of the notorious J. Edgar Hoover. These eight burglars were never caught; that is, not until Medsger told their story in her book, “The Burglary,” published in 2014.
The story of the burglary began, according to John Raines, in 1968, when America was “falling apart.” That was the year of North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and the United States, the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the murder of Robert F. Kennedy. In 1970, at Kent State University, in Kent, OH, the Ohio National Guard opened fire at unarmed students on the college campus. Eleven days later, two more students were killed when police fired into a dormitory building at Jackson State in Mississippi.
During the panel, Raines said he sees a similar “culture of resistance” and “enough is enough” in America today, citing issues like wealth inequality.
Prior to the release of the files, the FBI had been both loved and feared. As an organization, it was popular and even had its own television show. However, according to the film, “politicians were afraid of the FBI. Even the president was afraid.” Hoover’s agents were instructed to make Americans fear that there was an “FBI agent behind every mailbox,” the film said. All black communities across the nation were placed under strict surveillance, regardless of the threat presented.
At the time of the burglary, John and Bonnie Raines were already the parents of three children and understood the risks that they were taking. The planning of the crime took place in the basement of the Raines household. Information about the FBI office was collected from frequent casings of the street, and even involved Bonnie Raines going into the office disguised as a Swarthmore student asking about opportunities for women with the FBI.
In the film, Bonnie Raines spoke about the challenge of being forced into the “woman’s” role during the planning period, but an audience member commented that her fake interview was one of the most important actions.
“There was not equality in the movement at that time,” said Bonnie Raines during the panel. She would put the kids to bed and then help with the planning.
“I had to push … I had to insist,” she said of maintaining a role in the project.
The date for the burglary was chosen because it was the same night as the “Fight of the Century,” better known as the final boxing match between champion Joe Frazier and his undefeated challenger Muhammad Ali, when anyone who might catch them would be preoccupied with the fight.
The heist did not go off flawlessly, but thanks to Bonnie Raines’ earlier reconnaissance and significant degree of quick-thinking, improvisation and patience, all eight members made it inside the office and out with all of the documents, files and correspondence.
After selecting which documents they wanted to release out into the public, John Raines mailed the files from a post box in Princeton, NJ. Copies were sent to two congressmen and three newspapers. Many returned the documents to the FBI, but not Medsger. The Post published the papers on the first page of the next morning’s edition.
Of the documents they stole, 60 percent were political and 40 percent dealt with true crimes, according to the panelists. The bulgars distributed only the former, in packets every 10 days.
During the panel, the Raines’ explained they had known Medsger from her work with the anti-war movement while reporting for The Philadelphia Bulletin. The Raines had not revealed their part in the burglary to her until 1989 when the friends were catching up over dinner. Medsger was shocked to hear the news and felt that the burglars’ story needed to be told.
The greatest accomplishment of the burglary is said to be the discovery of COINTELPRO, a series of covert and illegal FBI projects aimed solely at discrediting American political movements. As a result of the reveal in 1975, out of the Senate arose the “Church Committee” which was charged with investigating the overly aggressive and criminal activities of the FBI. Such activities ranged from placing agents within the mail rooms of college campuses and opening student mail, to mailing threatening letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., advising him to commit suicide. The findings of the Church Committee have since led to the formation of permanent oversight committees over the United States’ intelligence agencies.The event was part of ’DEIS Impact, a weeklong festival of social justice. To kick off the night, Graves asked the question, “Can ordinary citizens really make a difference?” In the spirit of ’DEIS Impact, the answer would be yes.