The Amazing True Story of 8 Ordinary Americans Who Blew the Lid Off Government Spying
Eight more patriots can be added to the roll of whistle-blowing heroes Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Joining them are Bonnie and John Raines, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, the late William C. Davidon and three others who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, and stole up to 1,000 documents revealing that the law enforcement agency was spying on Americans. The FBI targets were political groups that opposed the Vietnam War, fought for civil rights and committed other acts that struck J. Edgar Hoover as dangerously liberal.
The Media 8 were unknown until their names were revealed in a just-published book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by Betty Medsger. As a reporter for The Washington Post at the time, she had been given the documents anonymously by the burglars shortly after the break-in and published them in the paper.
They had stolen the documents a month before The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, which had been taken by Ellsberg. Although Ellsberg, Manning and now Snowden are well known for their resistance, the Media burglars were anonymous until Medsger interviewed them for her book. The names of three of the eight have still not been revealed.
As I watched the brief and moving documentary on the New York Times website that accompanied the paper’s story about the book’s revelations, I thought of my experiences with other dedicated, nonviolent women and men who took on the government during the Vietnam War and the impact they had on later protest movements.
Almost half a century has passed since they marched on the streets, raised hell in political meetings, broke into draft board offices or, in the case of the Media 8, an FBI office near Philadelphia to fight federal authorities who were determined to destroy opposition to the war. At the same time, the FBI targeted African-American civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.
As a conventional young mainstream journalist, I watched the protesters emerge at Berkeley and San Francisco State, at street demonstrations and at meetings of a liberal and increasingly anti-war organization, the California Democratic Council. Like most of my generation of reporters, I was appalled to observe these protesters pour vitriol on President Lyndon Johnson. Contrary to the myths that have grown up around ’60s and ’70s journalists, most of us were overly respectful of authority figures.
But I began viewing the world differently during this period as I talked to two nontraditional reporters, Steve Murdock and Sam Kushner, both writers for the Communist Party paper People’s World. Also helping me think more deeply was a traditional reporter, Jim Wrightson of the McClatchy Newspapers, who, as a Quaker, had been a conscientious objector during World War II.
I didn’t become a radical. Far from it, as those of you who read these columns know. But as a person whose views are shaped, to a certain extent, by instinct and emotion, my gut feeling was that these were good people. I began to look at the protesters more sympathetically, listening to what they had to say and thinking it made sense. That feeling was reinforced in 1967, when I saw thousands of people assaulted by the Los Angeles Police Department at the Century Plaza Hotel when they demonstrated against President Johnson, who was speaking there. Many were moms and dads who, not expecting trouble, brought their children, some in strollers.
The Raineses reminded me of them.
“A nightmare was unfolding,” said Bonnie Raines, 72, her hair — long in her youth — cut short, her face pretty, clear and determined. “I took what was outrage and horror about what was going on and I realized I had to take it somewhere.” John Raines, handsome at 80, looked at her with love and pride as she spoke. “At one rally, I had one of my children on my back and not only did they take my picture, they took her picture,” she said.
John Raines said, “We knew they were systematically trying to squash dissent and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy.”
He was a professor of religion at Temple University who had been south with the civil rights movement. She directed a children’s day care center. They had three children, 8, 6 and 2. Forsyth, then 20, drove a cab. Davidon, leader of the group, was a professor of physics at Haverford College who felt street demonstrations weren’t enough.
They planned the job for months. Bonnie Raines, posing as a college student, tucking her long hair under a hat, cased the FBI office. Forsyth took a correspondence course in lock picking. The night they chose, the attention of American sports fans, including law enforcement officers, was on a heavyweight championship fight. They came out with suitcases containing documents revealing the extent of FBI spying, known by a cryptic word, COINTELPRO, which a few years later was revealed to be a powerful, insidious snooping effort. Then they returned to their lives, never detected by the FBI.
Successful whistle-blowing is now in the hands of the technically adept like Snowden and Manning. Self-taught lock picker Forsyth is from a more innocent era, as is Ellsberg, who photocopied the Pentagon Papers.
But what the Media 8 represented continues to shape protest movements. They were motivated to risk the security of their traditional lives to reveal the FBI’s assault.
The direct descendants of the Media amateur burglars and other protesters of that generation are the men and women of the Occupy movement. Contrary to traditional media analysis saying Occupy fizzled, it made a lasting impression on the political debate by raising American awareness of income inequality. It was Occupy that first centered in on the rich 1 percent, a concept scorned at first but now a rallying cry for progressive politics. Would that have happened without Occupy’s protests?
As John Raines said, “Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy.”