The Burglars Who Exposed the FBI

Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Washington D.C., May 1969

On the night of March 8, 1971, eight activists in the movement to end American involvement in the war in Vietnam broke into the small office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Media, Pennsylvania, a town near Philadelphia, and stole all its files. One of the burglars, William Davidon, who died recently, was a professor of physics at Haverford College and a veteran of many protests against the war. He enlisted the others by persuading them that it was an opportunity to obtain files that he thought would show that the FBI was trying to suppress the anti-war struggle by surveillance and harassment of its participants.

This was not a wild guess. It was a period in which there were many hundreds of federal prosecutions of opponents of the war. Some of those charged with crimes and, in many cases, sentenced to prison were young men who declined military service after their draft boards rejected their claims of conscientious objection. Others had publicly burned their draft cards; and some were prominent critics of the war, such as the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Yale University chaplain Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., who were among the defendants prosecuted on charges of obstructing the draft in a show trial in Boston in 1968.

Others had taken part in more aggressive protests, such as the Berrigan brothers, Catholic priests who conducted raids on draft boards. In one of those raids, they seized files on draft registrants and burned them in a parking lot with homemade napalm. Testimony in those cases by FBI agents made it clear that the bureau was closely monitoring opponents of the war. Also, the FBI was a visible presence at many demonstrations against the war.

In a few episodes, FBI surveillance practices that did not involve prosecutions had come to light. In November 1969, for example, a New York City–based organization, the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, chartered hundreds of buses to take opponents of the war to a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. A clerk in the bank where the committee kept its account revealed that the FBI came to the bank to photograph the checks of those who reserved places on the buses so as to identify participants in the demonstration. One way that protesters were punished in that era was that young men who took part in antiwar demonstrations were reclassified by their draft boards to accelerate their call-up to perform military service.

It was also a period in which Americans found out that other agencies of the federal government were engaged in political surveillance. More than a year before the burglary in Media, Pennsylvania, Captain Christopher Pyle revealed that the United States Army had deployed more than a thousand soldiers full-time to conduct domestic political surveillance, focusing on opponents of the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.