Whistleblowers Who Broke Into The FBI 43 Years Ago Finally Reveal Themselves

from the speak-up dept

Whenever NSA overreach is discussed, many—even the NSA’s biggest advocates—refer back to J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal FBI domestic surveillance program in the 1960s and 70s as the prime example of an out-of-control intelligence agency and the dangers of a surveillance state. But rarely, if ever, does anyone refer to how the public first found out about this program.

An amazing new book by journalist Betty Medsger reveals for the first time exactly how anonymous activists who broke into an FBI office, took every document they had, and sent them to the press, which exposed the highly illegal and unconstitutional programs. The New York Times has a front-page article and video on the incredible story, but we also obtained an advance copy of the book, and highly recommend it to readers, both as a lesson from the past and an analogy for the present.

It takes place during a time in which J. Edgar Hoover was viewed much differently as he was now; journalists were afraid to report on him and Congressmen even feared loosing their seats if they criticized him on the floor of the House. Many anti-war activists and civil rights protesters suspected the FBI of monitoring their constitutionally protected speech, but none had any proof. But just months before Daniel Ellbserg would reveal the Pentagon Papers in 1971, faced with no other way to expose what was going on, eight activists—led by William C. Davidon, a physics professor—burglarized an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania on the night of one of the most famous boxing matches in history, the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

The activists, calling themselves the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI, pored over the stolen documents, sending the newsworthy ones to reporters at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. When the Post published a story on the documents a few days later, the activists and hundreds of others became the subjects of a massive, five-year long investigation involving over 200 FBI agents. The revelations also led to the formation of the now famous Church Committee and several major privacy reforms were passed by Congress.

Unbelievably, the eight activists were never caught and remained anonymous until today. Four of them have now revealed their identities for the first time.

Not only does the story present an analogy to Edward Snowden today—as concerned citizens who had no other choice but to go to the press with documents exposing secret surveillance—but it also exemplifies the courage (or lack thereof) that can be shown by newspapers, and consequences of their willingness to act as our last resort for government oversight.

In the Washington Post, there was an intense fight about whether to publish stolen documents or not, with Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, trying to pressure them not to publish. This was before Supreme Court opinions in the Pentagon Papers case and Bartnicki v. Vopper, which have solidified newspapers’ First Amendment rights to do so. The Post bravely went ahead anyways. The book’s author, Betty Medsger, was the author of the first stories.

The others papers’ decisions were not nearly as admirable. According to Medsger’s book, even though the New York Times eventually published a story based on the documents, a reporter of theirs apparently handed the documents back to the FBI to help with their investigation. And the Los Angeles Times never published any story and may have also handed the documents back to the FBI.

Besides the fight in the newsrooms, there was also an intense push inside the government to punish those who exposed the crimes of the FBI instead of punishing those inside the FBI who been violating the constitutional rights of Americans for so long. In the New York Times op-doc, the activists explain they feel a kinship with Edward Snowden and see today’s NSA scandals as analogous to how they felt at the time. Nothing exemplifies this more than this line by one now-revealed member of the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI, John Raines:

“It looks like we’re terribly reckless people,” Mr. 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.”

An accompanying film, 1971, will follow the book’s release and is directed by Johanna Hamilton. Laura Poitras, founding board member of Freedom of the Press Foundation, is an executive producer on the film.

Republished from Freedom of the Press Foundation

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Comments on “Whistleblowers Who Broke Into The FBI 43 Years Ago Finally Reveal Themselves”

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ethorad (profile) says:

Re: Grammar

On a similar vein, what’s with the word “burglarized”? How does it differ from plain old “burgled”? I’ve seen it cropping up increasingly frequently in American English and it seems to be a case of inventing a new longer word for no real reason?

Same goes for “terroristic”. Surely terroristic threat = terrorist threat. There’s no need for the “ic”?

IrishDaze says:

Re: Re: Grammar

To my American English ears … Burgle/s is antiquated/deprecated in favor or burglarize/s because a person who burgles is a burglar, not a burg. ๐Ÿ˜‰

We seem to strongly prefer our adjectives and adverbs to be the noun forms/roots with suffixes.

This applies to terrorist and terroristic as well. To my American English ears … Terrorist is a noun (because of 9/11 I’m sure), and terroristic is ajective or adverb dependent upon its placement within the sentence.

On a related note, we also seem to strongly prefer different versions of a noun for an object/place and a person. Example: Clinic (place), clinical (adjective or adverb), and clinician (person). I have no idea how other variants of English handle this one, but this is what we do. This isn’t quite the same as the burgle/terrorist examples, though, because there just aren’t object/place uses for those words except in the possessive (e.g. burglar’s tools, terrorist’s target.)

I’m not saying what we do to English is right, proper, or correct … Just explaining why I think it is we Americans tend to do these things.

ethorad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Grammar

Makes sense, thanks. Although (or because?) I’m a native english speaker my grip of grammar – adverbs, etc – isn’t what it should be

Although I would comment that a burglar is one who burgles, in a similar manner to a fighter is one who fights – I haven’t (yet) heard of people fighterizing ๐Ÿ˜‰

Agree that there’s no universal “right” way of speaking English – only the right way for a given dialect, such as UK / US / Australian / etc – eg colour / color. Presumably the situation is the same for European / American spanish.

Anonymous Coward says:


This was well before my time and had no idea of it before today. Did anybody go to jail for violating everybodies rights? Lol what a joke.

Funny how the Constitution doesn’t provide a penalty for rights violators, its almost like it…. encourages them knowing the worst that can happen is their party gets voted out next election cycle, after their spying has provided enough dirt on the newbies to ensure leverage.

Is that fantastical?

@blamer says:

1971 v. 2013

Were the doc burglars of ’71 tipped off to “secret surveillance” by someone who was (ex) FBI? That there’s our anonymous whistleblower I think.

I note the Post circa ’71 successfully resisted (FBI) State pressure to give up the name of their source for 43yrs. Our whistleblower has so far decided to remain anon it sounds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Breaking into a business office, rifling through files, and then absconding with many, if not most, of the files is garden variety burglary. Calling them whistle-blowers diminishes the actions of actual whistle-blowers. The former hid for years, and only recently came out now that the SOL had passed and they were conviction-proof. Snowden was different. While not a whistle-blower given his employment status, at least he admitted to his acts well within the timeframe that the SOL applies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That is missing the point. The whole point of whistleblowing is the public revealing of wrongdoing. Not if they were employed or not. Notn how they got them.

There were cases a while back of agents losing classified documents on the subway. If someone found them, checked them for any signs of ownership and saw that they said say, plans to frame political rivals it is still whistleblowing.

Even if they were in fact a house burglar and they happened to steal a laptop and turned it on to find that they stole it from a juvenile court judge who was selling convictions of minors to private prisons and they brought it out to the public it is still whistleblowing.

Anonymous Coward says:

those concerned need to be careful even now, given the vindictiveness of the DoJ!
and as for making a film about what happened is complete ‘pot and kettle’ stuff, considering how far the industries have gone to get the ‘security services, Congress and the President’ to make sure they survive in the dark ages, screwing every citizen in every country while they’re at it! only difference i can see is who is at the head of the table!!

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