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Activists Who Burgled FBI in 1971—Led by a Jewish Physicist—Finally Out Themselves

New book documents the break-in that revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance, decades before Snowden

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On the night of March 8, 1971, a group of antiwar activists broke into a small FBI satellite office in the town of Media, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In the course of a few hours, they stole more than a thousand classified documents outlining the existence of a huge surveillance apparatus, nicknamed COINTELPRO, put in place by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on—and undermine—American civil rights organizers, Vietnam War opponents, and anyone else he deemed a threat.

Within a few weeks, the burglars, who called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, began mailing the pages—anonymously, in manila envelopes—to reporters at major newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. From them, the public learned that the FBI had employed letter carriers and a switchboard operator at Swarthmore College to spy on local activists. Burglars found a document amid their loot from Hoover’s realm that urged agents around the country to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles, and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” A panoramic picture would ultimately emerge of a rogue agency that had deployed illegal wiretaps to smear everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the actress Jean Seberg (who had given money to the Black Panther Party) and had also infiltrated political groups, including the Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee, and the Woman’s Strike for Peace.

Furious, Hoover dispatched about 200 agents to scour Philadelphia, the capital of Quakerism and a hotbed of antiwar activism—but no one was ever caught. The five-year statute of limitations on burglary expired in 1976, but the FBI never declared an end to its manhunt. The mystery has lingered for more than 40 years—but now, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s widespread collection of America’s private communications, five of the burglars are publicly identifying themselves in a new book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger, a former Post reporter who broke the first story from the group’s documents.

For the first time, Medsger reveals that the Citizens’ Commission had eight members, five men and three women. Their leader was William Davidon, a soft-spoken Jewish physics professor at Haverford College, a Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, who marched with King to Selma in 1965, the same year he was arrested for handing out antiwar leaflets with the Committee for Nonviolent Action. His crew included John C. Raines, a Methodist who was a professor of religion at Temple University, where he taught classes about the Holocaust inspired by survivors he met as a Freedom Rider. Another participant was himself the son of Holocaust survivors.

“The FBI was for decades a virtually untouchable institution, and part of its power was in its ability to intimidate activists and others who might be activists with an impression of its own omnipresence,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and former president of the Students for a Democratic Society. The Media break-in, he said, was essential because it revealed how initiative could be taken by individuals to counter the inappropriate use of government power. “The break-in was a crack, more than a crack,” Gitlin went on. “It was prying open their armor and revealing them to not be only capable of malfeasance, but vulnerable in a way.”

***

Davidon, who died in November of Parkinson’s disease at 86, was the one who thought of the break-in and recruited the group. He was the son of an emigré from Eastern Europe who attended Cooper Union and liked it so much he made Cooper his son’s middle name; people called him Bill. He was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, earned his degrees in physics from the University of Chicago, and served two years in the Navy. Sarah Davidon, his daughter, says his attachment to his Jewishness prompted a regular search for the ideal secular-humanist Haggadah for the family Seder. “He was a very authentic person who would not have kept a relationship with a religion or an activity if it did not touch the core of his life,” she said.

Slightly built, dark-eyed, with dark hair in earlier years, he combined a self-effacing manner with firmness. In 2006, when I called him for a piece I wrote about the 35th anniversary of the break-in for the L.A. Times—he had been recommended to me as an “expert” on the incident—I asked if he knew any of the burglars. With suggestive lightness, he replied: “Maybe.”

According to Medsger’s book, Davidon selected members of the break-in team from the swirl of antiwar factions active in 1970 Philadelphia, asking: “What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?” Steering clear of celebrities in local antiwar circles, he found seven low-profile but committed activists he could trust. They didn’t know one another well but soon got along. At 43, Davidon was the oldest when the planning started; others were as young as 19, some of them were students in theory, though they’d given themselves over to full-time activism. Two were married—Raines, the religion professor, along with his wife, Bonnie, a specialist in childhood education. Three were, like Davidon, Jewish—one an admirer of Hannah Arendt who believed the FBI presented a totalitarian threat in the United States, and one a man, who remains anonymous, whose parents were Holocaust survivors whose families were largely decimated. (Only five of the eight are identified in Medsger’s book.)

If the past gave the members of the group a moral context, what united them was a more immediate sense of immoral power. “We were all pretty outraged and frustrated and worried about the future, because of the war,” Bonnie Raines said, when I reached her at home in Philadelphia. “We’d tried to disrupt the draft and done all the other things, rallies and marches and getting arrested at the Pentagon, and nothing. And the body bags were coming back and the Defense Department was lying to the American citizens. We felt like something had to go to a different level than we had attempted until then, to a more radical level.”

Davidon shared that urgency and offered a means of engaging in a focused way. “He had a reputation and was consistently active and on the right side of things as we saw them,” Raines told me. “He persevered and was willing to be in the face of the authorities he thought were not acting responsibly.”

In her book, Medsger described a crime in which very little went wrong, from the thorough preparations and skillful execution of the operation itself to the vanishing act that lasted more than 40 years. “Bill Davidon took every opportunity to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt by making sure we thought about everything carefully,” Bonnie Raines said. “I didn’t feel the risk so much because I had such faith in him. He was a smart guy, a very strategic thinker.”

The FBI’s two-man office in Media was on the second floor of a nondescript apartment building. The burglars didn’t know it at the time, but Hoover so believed in the impregnability of his many outposts that he copied his most secret, incriminating documents to every one. When Bonnie Raines visited the office on a scouting mission, pretending to be a student seeking insights on FBI hiring practices—she wore gloves as she took notes to avoid leaving fingerprints—she saw that the office had no alarm, no locks on file cabinets. The floor had a carpet that would muffle noise as the place was ransacked.

Bonnie’s husband John, who drove the get-away car, says he never felt as frightened as he did on the way to commit the crime. He says he remembers asking himself, “Why are we doing this?” He thought about the possible impact on his three children. But on that March night, with the country transfixed by the first of three now-legendary prizefights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, he was, like his accomplices, dressed in “uptown clothes”—so they looked like people on their way out to a sophisticated evening.

When they arrived at the office, they found a second lock on a door to the FBI office where they’d previously seen just one. The burglar assigned to lock-picking went into near-panic, but Davidon proved his leadership by calmly calling for a crowbar to be used instead. The four members of the “inside crew” entered the office, each carrying two large suitcases, Medsger writes. They opened “every drawer and every cabinet door,” breaking locks on some, working with flashlights covered in tape to emit only narrow bands of light.

They filled the suitcases with every piece of paper there, except for a stack of blank personnel forms, and spirited the papers away to the farmhouse where they studied their trove. “We began to notice that only about 40 percent of the records involved crime-solving,” Bonnie Raines said. “Those, we did not do anything with, did not share them with anyone.” The other 60 percent covered the bureau’s political work—fair game, as far as the group was concerned. Raines recalled shouts of satisfaction that went up when the document pushing agents to foster paranoia was found. Another page bore the acronym COINTELPRO; a dogged NBC reporter named Carl Stern would eventually to unlock the letters to reveal the vicious nature of Hoover’s “counterintelligence program,” which included efforts to destroy King by patching together wiretap snippets of him in the company of a woman not his wife.

The documents “expanded the ability to write history,” said the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis, a professor emeritus at New York University and the author of a pioneering biography of King, which he wound up having to update after the release of the COINTELPRO documents, a year after his book King: A Critical Biography was published. Now 77, he was living on Capitol Hill, and had interviewed Department of Justice officials for the book. “I became so aware of the resoluteness of Hoover to besmirch the key people in the civil rights movement,” he said. “A number of journalists told me Capitol Hill was saturated with agents and others in the service of agents, whispering and offering information on Communist infiltration of the SCLC and the moral turpitudes of Dr. King.” When he wrote a letter to Hoover, asking for an interview, he received a prompt and civil reply declining the request. “But immediately thereafter,” Lewis went on, “my Washington telephone had the clicking tones we recognized as a tap.”

***

After 10 days of sifting documents, the octet said goodbye to each other, agreeing that safety required them to never talk to one another again. And they didn’t, not for decades—until Medsger discovered that her old friends John and Bonnie Raines were part of the group that had sent her the documents she wrote about in 1971. (The originals were ultimately destroyed.)

Before going to the Post, Medsger had been a reporter for the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, covering the antiwar movement. “We knew her from that,” said Bonnie Raines. “We’d stayed in touch.” During a visit to Philadelphia in 1988, Medgser joined the Raineses for dinner with their daughter Mary. Suddenly, John Raines announced to his youngest child: “We want you to know Betty, because many years ago, when your dad and mother had information about the FBI we wanted the American people to have, we gave it to Betty.”

In her acknowledgements, Medsger writes, “I was stunned. I could tell from Mary’s face that the comment meant nothing to her.” But it meant everything to Medsger, and it was the beginning of her effort to piece together the true story of the break-in, which included obtaining 35,000 pages through the Freedom of Information Act showing the fierce but ultimately futile efforts the FBI made to catch the burglars. In a visit with Medsger, now 71, at her apartment in Manhattan, I asked whether it would be right to say the burglars have been living underground all these years. “Not if you mean going in disguise,” she replied. “They lived normal lives.”

But they have now lived long enough to see their victory at least partially undone by the emergence of new electronic surveillance programs to replace the analog efforts of Hoover’s army. I heard some disappointment in the voices of the Media burglars when they talked about Edward Snowden’s revelations about the invasions into the privacy of American lives today. “Somebody asked would I ever do anything that extreme again and my answer is, ‘Yes, if I am confronted with the same slippery slope that our government is on in terms of peoples’ rights,’ ” Bonnie Raines told me.

Of course, Snowden is now a public figure—perhaps the least anonymous man in the world. In November, when Haverford hosted a Quaker memorial service for Davidon, the gathering included both Bonnie and John Raines, as well as another of the burglars. A Quaker memorial is an egalitarian affair; people stand at their seats when they feel moved and speak of the departed. One by one, old friends, colleagues, and former students stood and spoke of Davidon’s passion for social justice and his abhorrence of war. I’m told no one brought up the time he led a group of principled dissenters into the heart of the FBI and took out a car-load of raw material.

Thanks to Medsger’s book, Davidon’s role is no longer secret. But what would Davidon have made of this attention—and of the burglars breaking their silence? “I think he felt that when they left things in 1971 that they would never speak about it again,” said Sarah Davidon. “But, knowing my dad, he would want the message about this to be about the responsibilities citizens have to protect their rights, to do what has to be done for themselves.”

***

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Activists Who Burgled FBI in 1971—Led by a Jewish Physicist—Finally Out Themselves

New book documents the break-in that revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance, decades before Snowden