Distorted photograph of J. Edgar Hoover by Weegee. Image via Getty Images
For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules—even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing, and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: they would raid an FBI office.
On March 8, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents, and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burglarized the FBI.
Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker, and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in Federal Prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.
As they ate, Davidon outlined his plan. We are going to break into an FBI office, steal every document, mail the internal FBI files to the press, and expose the FBI’s crimes to the nation. He was neither loud nor flashy. His was a leadership that came with the spark of conviction, the sensibilities of a lifelong educator.
But to attack the FBI meant directly confronting J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most powerful men in America. For nearly five decades, Hoover had shaped the FBI to his liking, personally deciding who was a true American and who was an enemy of the state. “When Hoover was director there were no guidelines. He was the guideline and he told agents what they can do and they can’t do,” said former FBI Special Agent Wes Swearingen, who was active from 1951 to 1977. “He did not ask any president or any attorney general what he could do. In fact, he kept it secret. That gave him a lot of power because everything was so secretive.”
Hoover used FBI agents to draw up a list of tens of thousands of “subversive” Americans to be rounded up and arrested in the event of a national emergency. He organized nationwide programs to harass and disrupt political activists. “We used to set up Black Bag Jobs which were actually illegal searches because we did not have search warrants… and I did or knew about approximately 500 [of these] in the Chicago area alone,” Swearingen told me. “Hoover was very abusive because we were talking about innocent people being put in jail and people being assassinated like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark [leaders of the Black Panther Party] in Chicago. That was a definite arrangement by the FBI for the Chicago Police to go in and kill all the members. And I was told personally by an agent that I used to work with, that that’s what happened.”
Despite his reign of abuse, no one in Washington dared challenge the man who knew too much. “Somebody had to do it. And those of us who referred to ourselves as the ‘Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI’ took that task as our task in the early months of 1971,” says John Raines, a professor of religion at Temple University and, along with his wife Bonnie, a former member of the Citizens' Commission. “If we did not do it, it would not get done. And J. Edgar Hoover would have continued to turn his FBI into a kind of proto-Gestapo.”
It had been Davidon’s idea that burglarizing the FBI would show how the venerated bureau was out of control, running illegal operations, ignoring the US Constitution, and disrupting fundamental democratic rights. Secrecy was a must. They each knew that if even one of them talked, slipped up or got caught, the entire group was going down.
An FBI office in the small town of Media, Pennsylvania, caught Davidon’s attention. Media was just outside of Philly, and when he drove by the offices, Davidon was convinced that the three-story brick office building was vulnerable. These smaller FBI offices, known as “Resident Agencies,” often housed less than a half-dozen agents and had less sophisticated security measures. The Citizens' Commission now had their target.
Throughout January and February 1971, the Raines’s third floor attic morphed into a command center. Sheetrock was hung on one wall and quickly filled with handwritten notes and operational details. Escape routes were planned. A large map of Media was hung on the wall and a diagram of the FBI office slowly took shape. Brainstorming sessions led to a chart with questions: How long does it take the courthouse guard to make rounds? Is it predictable? Are there regular police patrols?
Davidon wanted no detail left unstudied. He assigned each team member a specific set of tasks. John Raines was chosen to drive the getaway car—the family station wagon. He would wait in a parking lot miles from the operation, ready to receive the stolen goods. Once the documents were squirreled away in a safe house, it would be John and Davidon who would write up the analysis. They were both in their early 40s, long-term strategic thinkers, men who had joined the Civil Rights Movement long before it was hip and risked their life by traveling to rural Mississippi in the early 1960s, part of a movement known as “The Freedom Riders.”
Forsyth was the one-man entry crew. While the others sat around a table up in the attic, Forsyth installed a board with multiple locks lined up like a hardware store collection. While the others debated entry strategies, escape routes, and how to avoid being arrested, Forsyth picked locks. “Every lock is an individual, they all behave differently so I would go up and down practicing. I would do all [the locks] clockwise rotating and going up and then back counterclockwise. Every so often I would either swap out a lock or I would take a lock out, take it apart and put a new combination in it. When I was really good, I probably could do most locks in about 30 seconds.”
As the burglary plan took shape, Forsyth was given another task: he would help with surveillance. The burglars began night operations, staking out the Media FBI office in pairs. They developed a formal routine. Every weeknight from 7 PM to midnight the crew spied, took notes, and honed the details of the operation.
“It was boring. You’re watching out the door, constantly waiting for a cop car to go by. A cop car goes [by] and then you wait another hour before you see the next one,” said Forsyth. “You have two people sitting in the back of a van with curtains over the windows in the dark, for hours at a time. It would be pretty hard to explain that if a cop actually saw your eye move behind the curtain.”
The activists were clear that the raid had to take place at night, after the agents had left but not so late as to raise suspicions. They found an ideal date. On March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier was scheduled to fight Muhammad Ali. Millions would be watching and listening. While Ali and Frazier fought inside Madison Square Garden, the burglars could use the noise of the radio and TV broadcasts as cover.
After two full months of casing the FBI by night, the team understood well the outside routines. But what was happening inside the FBI offices? The Citizens' Commission agreed that someone needed to spend some time undercover in the offices.
Bonnie Raines volunteered. She looked younger than her 29 years, had a bubbly Midwestern charm, and was extremely attractive. In late February, she disguised her long hair by carefully tucking it inside a woolen hat. She wore oversized glasses that were not part of her normal getup. A pair of leather gloves allowed her to take notes without leaving fingerprints. Under the guise of investigating work opportunities for women at the FBI, Bonnie set up an appointment to interview an agent inside the office. While Bonnie kept the conversation on track, she made a handful of mental notes. The filing cabinets did not appear to have sophisticated locks, and there was no visible alarm. There was also a second entryway, a door barricaded by huge filing cabinets. Loaded with information, Bonnie left the office surer than ever that the operation was possible.
As plans began to solidify, Jonathan Flaherty, one of the burglars, got cold feet. With little explanation, Flaherty left the group, hardly explaining his fears or motivations. The group was stunned. Flaherty could sink them all with a single phone call. Davidon pushed on. He tried to ignore the possibilities of the defector. He’d already hurdled dozens of challenges.
At 7 PM, on March 8, the burglars gathered at a Holiday Inn several miles from the FBI office. They arrived in separate cars and waited. Forsyth was sent to pick the locks. He had already scouted the premises, found a pair of locks he could pick, and figured his well-practiced routine would take approximately 30 seconds. He approached the office in a Brooks Brothers suit and tie, clean-shaven and confident, but when he saw the door, he panicked. A second, far more sophisticated lock had recently been added, one that would be impossible for him to pick. “I was very upset, because immediately my plan had been to go up there, open those two locks, make sure there was no alarms, and leave. I planned to be out of there in five minutes or less. And so my immediate instinctive reaction was that this whole thing was down the tubes.”
Forsyth returned to the Holiday Inn, “I can’t do it,” he bluntly told the gathered crew. Davidon marshaled the frustration and began to think aloud. What other ways might work? Do we have a second door? During her casing mission, Bonnie had seen another door, but it was barricaded by a huge filing cabinet. Davidon thought it would work, while also warning that knocking over the file cabinet meant near-sure arrest. They decided to go for it and headed back to the office.
Now Forsyth’s bragging rights were tested. He found the barricaded door, which had just one lock. He picked that in his standard 30 seconds. Then using a crowbar and part of a car jack he painstakingly inched the massive file cabinet away from the door. Instead of a quick 30-second entry, it was closer to an hour of painstaking work. “My feet are braced up against the wall and I am pulling the jack very, very slowly trying to feel what is happening on the other side. Trying to feel whether this thing is slipping or tipping or not,” said Forsyth. “I was trying to stay calm but you know, what are you going to say if somebody walks up and says, ‘By the way young man, why are you laying on the floor with a four-foot steel bar in your hands stuck inside the FBI’s door?’”
While he strained, Forsyth silently thanked Ali as sounds of the heavyweight fight echoed throughout the building. Then he panicked. “I heard this sort of banging, a bang sound from inside and of course I froze instantly. It was an old building. Was this the steam heat? Or was it an FBI agent who tripped over something? I had no way of knowing. “
Forsyth finally wedged the door open far enough to slip his skinny frame into the FBI offices. “I had this little moment where I thought, Well, if they’re in there I’m going to find our right now. I squeezed through and tried to be as calm as I could. I looked around and there was nobody there.”
Next, a two-man, two-woman team entered the FBI offices carrying empty suitcases. They worked stealthily in the dark. A flashlight dimmed with tape was used sparingly. The “inside crew” methodically wrenched open desk drawers and file cabinets. Careful not to make noise or leave the slightest evidence they quietly filled up their oversized suitcases with documents. They also grabbed an autographed photo of J. Edgar Hoover as a trophy. The well-dressed burglars then strolled out to waiting cars in front of the offices, loaded up two cars with suitcases and were driven off.
Davidon had long before decided that the documents should be kept at a central location, preferably rural. He didn’t want to risk an FBI raid in Philadelphia so he quietly asked a friend to lend him the farmhouse at Friendship Farm, a Quaker retreat. Once the burglars reconvened at the farmhouse they immediately opened the suitcases and began sorting documents. From the onset they had agreed to destroy any legitimate criminal records—alerting bank robbery suspects that the FBI was after them was not part of the plan. They wanted evidence the FBI was harassing political activists. As Davidon had repeatedly stated to the group, if Hoover was trying to squash dissent in the United States, the documents would prove it.
The group spread the documents across the kitchen table, counters, a dining room table, and even atop chairs as they began sorting. Within an hour they found evidence. In an internal FBI document, agents were taught that harassing and infiltrating legitimate political organizations was a particularly effective technique. It might help, the document suggested, to “enhance the paranoia… get across the point there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Another document was a routing slip with the word COINTELPRO—short for Counter Intelligence Program—a top secret program little known outside the FBI which was at the heart of the Bureau’s dirty tricks and harassment campaigns versus political activists.
“We discovered very quickly that we had not acted in vain. Now we had documentation that proved our suspicions to be accurate,” said John Raines. “And then with those documents… we were able to get the proof on what J. Edgar Hoover was making his agents do.”
The burglary had literally turned the FBI inside out. The masters of covert entry and burglaries had themselves been targeted. “I don’t think anyone [at the FBI] ever thought anyone would have guts enough to try to break into the FBI,” said Swearingen, the former agent. “The frame of mind in the FBI was ‘Nobody’s going to break into an FBI office. They’ve got to be crazy.’ But hey, people break into banks all the time.”
Hoover’s paranoia flourished. Was Media the first of many attacks? Would all his secrets be revealed? Already weakened by age and losing his grip on power, he panicked. He ordered armed agents to sleep inside FBI offices nationwide. “I would go to the Santa Barbara [FBI] office and lock the door at night and I would sleep in there overnight. We had old army cots…and that was nationwide,” said former FBI agent Swearingen. “They spent millions of dollars putting in a security system for all these different resident agencies around the country. It’s like they locked up the barn after the horse was stolen.”
The next hit on Hoover, however, came not from the burglars but from The Washington Post. The Citizens' Commission sent the Post a packet of 14 government documents. Attorney General John Mitchell got wind and pressured executive editor Ben Bradlee to keep the information secret. Bradlee refused, citing the public interest in the FBI’s activities. It was clear to Bradlee and young reporter Betty Medsger that the original documents mailed to the Post were the tip of a far larger scandal. Medsger poured her energy into the story—the documents had been addressed to her, and she quickly figured that her previous job writing about anti-war activists for Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin was directly connected to the burglars choosing her.
The Post supported her work with front-page exclusives and a harsh editorial condemning the FBI. For Medsger, it would be the story of her life. In her recently released book The Burglary, Medsger weaves together the tales of the burglars and the long history of Hoover’s disdain for democracy.
For Hoover, the lack of investigative leads in the burglary was infuriating. Particularly galling to the FBI director was the lack of arrests. Despite a six-year investigation and a file that stretched to 33,000 pages, no member of the Citizens' Commission was ever charged. The case was eventually closed, but the FBI was never the same. “It brought the FBI to its senses. Up until that time, they were just kind of free-ruling and doing whatever they felt they might want to do or maybe should do,” said Swearingen, the former agent. “But [the Media break-in] brought that to a screeching halt.”
RetroReport just put out a short documentary on the Citizen's Commission. Watch it right here.
Jonathan Franklin is an independent reporter who writes often for the Guardian. He can be followed @Franklinblog. Email inquiries, news tips, and secret documents can be sent to email@example.com.