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 war. That disclosure led to hearings by the US Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, chaired by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin Jr., and to a lawsuit against the Army sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was apparent to at least a few Americans like Professor Davidon in 1971 that there was much more to be discovered about their government’s efforts to gather data on dissenters.

Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, is a former reporter for The Washington Post who covered the break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, when it took place in 1971. Many years later, she discovered the identity of the burglars. Though the FBI had devoted extensive resources to its investigation of the break-in and made it a matter of high priority over five years, it never succeeded in solving the case.

Having previously worked for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and as a specialist in reporting on religion, Medsger had known two of the burglars enlisted by Davidon: John Raines, a freedom rider a decade or so before the burglary, and a professor of comparative religion at Temple University when the burglary took place; and his wife Bonnie Raines, a children’s education specialist. At a casual dinner many years after the burglary, John and Bonnie Raines disclosed their involvement to Medsger, leading her to seek out the other participants and to write The Burglary.1

A factor in making William Davidon think that the burglary would pay off, and apparently in persuading the others to take part, was his estimation of the FBI’s long-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover. According to Medsger, Davidon

thought that if Hoover was a consummate bureaucrat, perhaps he kept and distributed within the bureau detailed records of his opinions and his operations. And, he thought, perhaps he also required those who carried out his orders to file detailed reports.

Just so.


The putative burglars cased the FBI office and the neighborhood where it was located for several weeks, including through a visit to the office by a young-looking Bonnie Raines wearing oversized glasses and gloves (so as not to leave fingerprints). She posed as a student doing research for a class project so she could see where the files were kept and what security measures might be in place. The members of the group then chose a date for the break-in. It was the night when almost everyone’s attention would be focused on the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier heavyweight boxing championship fight taking place at Madison Square Garden.

Though not a great many files were kept in that office of the FBI, they included some that became notorious as a result of the burglary. An FBI newsletter advised agents to “enhance the paranoia” and “get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” A directive by J. Edgar Hoover ordered that “all BSUs [Black Student Unions] and similar organizations organized to project the demands of black students” were to be targets of surveillance; another ordered the creation of a dossier on every black student at nearby Swarthmore College, where the bureau’s informants included a campus security officer, the local chief of police, the postmaster, the secretary to the college registrar, and a college switchboard operator. A student at the college who was the daughter of Henry Reuss, a representative from Wisconsin who spoke out against the Vietnam War, was targeted for surveillance; and a routing slip in the files used the then-unfamiliar term “COINTELPRO,” with no explanation of its meaning.

The burglars made copies of these documents and sent them anonymously to two members of Congress who had spoken critically about the FBI and to journalists who they thought would cover the story. The members of Congress turned them over to the FBI, and copies of the documents sent to at least one of the journalists, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, were apparently diverted and never reached him. Betty Medsger at The Washington Post was the only recipient of copies of the documents to pursue the story. Whether to publish stolen documents was debated at The Washington Post. Publisher Katharine Graham decided to go forward with Medsger’s articles despite Attorney General John Mitchell’s warning that publication “could endanger lives” and “disclose national defense information [that] could injure the United States”—specious claims.

Another journalist, Carl Stern of NBC, after Medsger’s reports had been published, sought the meaning of the reference to COINTELPRO in the Media files. After nearly two years of persistent effort, including litigation under the Freedom of Information Act, Stern was able to discover that COINTELPRO was a program launched by the FBI in 1956 to “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” a large number of organizations—old and new left, anti-war, black activist, American Indian, and others—by such means as creating and fostering personal conflicts and arousing suspicions about sexual misconduct and financial irregularities. As part of the program, the FBI sent “poison pen” letters to break up marriages; there were incitements by the FBI to gang warfare; and members of a violent group were falsely labeled as police informers. The bureau attempted to persuade the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.—the target of what seems to have been COINTELPRO’s most sustained campaign—to commit suicide just before he traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Some COINTELPRO activities were carried out by the FBI through burglaries, the method the antiwar activists used to expose the bureau’s practices.2

Medsger argues that the disclosures resulting from the Media burglary brought the FBI and its surveillance practices under scrutiny by congressional committees and by the American public that was never possible previously. It was not only that the bureau had become a sacred cow through its relentless and expensive public relations campaigns to cultivate its image as a supremely effective crime-fighting agency and, simultaneously, as guarantor of the nation’s security. In addition, Hoover used the resources of the FBI, and its claim to omniscience, to smear and blackmail those so bold as to criticize its practices.

Medsger cites several examples. One involved Representative William Anderson of Tennessee, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a decorated veteran of World War II who had become critical of the Vietnam War. When Anderson made public a letter to Hoover questioning his public denunciations of the Berrigan brothers, the FBI smeared Anderson—apparently without basis—as a patronizer of prostitutes. Anderson, who had been elected to Congress four times by large margins, was defeated for reelection.

Another smear involved Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was noted for his coverage of the southern civil rights movement before he was appointed Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Nelson published several articles critical of the FBI. Hoover claimed that Nelson was a drunkard and attempted to get the Los Angeles Times to fire him. Although Hoover himself met with officials of the newspaper, in that case he did not succeed.3


Much of Medsger’s book tells the stories of seven of the eight burglars (two of them identified by pseudonyms) and reports why they took part, how they pulled off the break-in, and how they fared during the long period when they feared the FBI investigation was closing in on them. In addition to Davidon and the Raineses, the two who are identified by their real names were young men who had each dropped out of college to work against the war. One of those for whom a pseudonym is used was a graduate student preparing for a career in public health. The other was a woman who, like John Raines, had gone south during the 1960s to take part in the civil rights struggle. Medsger provides no information on the one participant she failed to locate, except for identifying her as a woman.

The stories of the burglars are beautifully told by Medsger. They unfold against the background of that period in the vicinity of Philadelphia when antiwar activity included not only raids on draft boards but even actions to disable bombs and planes destined for Vietnam. The Burglary vividly recreates the atmosphere of the era.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden; drawing by James Ferguson

Even at a time when such protests were taking place, burglarizing an FBI office seemed inordinately audacious. Many opponents of the war were incredulous that anyone would try something like that. All those who took part recognized that they had a substantial chance of spending long periods in prison. Medsger writes that John and Bonnie Raines, the only married couple in the group, thought a lot about whether their status as parents should make them leave it to others to take such risks. They decided to go forward, and took care that family members would raise their three young children if they were caught and convicted. A focus of the FBI investigation was an effort to find the young woman who had cased the Media office. A police artist produced a good likeness of Bonnie Raines, but the investigators narrowly missed in their attempt to find her.

Though not mentioned by Medsger, the FBI’s operations had been discussed critically many years earlier in a well-researched book published in 1950 by Max Lowenthal, simply entitled The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Lowenthal was a Washington lawyer who served as an aide to Harry Truman when the latter was a US senator, and he had a long association with Truman.

Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover’s biographer, reports that the FBI director orchestrated an attack on Lowenthal’s book by members of Congress. One said that “Lowenthal’s book is serving the cause of Moscow. Stalin must be well pleased.” Hoover’s friends in the press chimed in. A New York Herald Tribune editorial about the book was headed, “Smearing the FBI.” The campaign to discredit Lowenthal extended to his publisher. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and “quizzed about the associations of his wife’s brother.”4

When Lowenthal’s book was published, public hysteria about the threat of domestic subversion in the United States was reaching a high point. It was the year that Senator Joseph McCarthy first made his sensational charges. Public displays of reverence for the FBI as the country’s protector were the order of the day and Lowenthal’s documentation of abuses had little effect.

By 1971, however, when the Media burglars disseminated the files they had stolen, a sea change was taking place in the country. Civil rights leaders and a few journalists, such as Jack Nelson, had criticized the bureau’s performance in dealing with the southern racial equality movement of the 1960s. Millions of Americans had taken part in protests against the Vietnam War and many of them knew, or sensed, that the FBI was hostile to dissent. Political surveillance by the FBI and other government agencies had become a target of a number of civil liberties lawsuits; and Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina had lent his considerable prestige to denunciation of the Army’s engagement in the practice. Also, of course, after its office was burglarized, the FBI could not simply deny practices that were set forth clearly in its own documents.

Political surveillance in the United States has a long history. The federal government’s engagement in the practice goes back at least to 1908 when US Attorney General Charles Joseph Bonaparte (a collateral descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte) established the Bureau of Investigation—later, the FBI —in the Justice Department. The practice of surveillance eventually peaked under President Richard Nixon at about the time of the Media burglary. Nixon established “the Plumbers” in the White House because he was not satisfied that agencies such as the FBI were going far enough in their surveillance of his political opponents and of those who might be making public information that he wished to keep secret—such as the American “incursion” into Cambodia in 1969.

Disclosures of Nixon administration wrongdoing that were collectively known as “Watergate”—including wiretaps ordered by the president that were not authorized by the courts, burglaries by his Plumbers, and the compilation of an “enemies list” for tax audits by the Internal Revenue Service—had a big effect in discrediting surveillance. Also effective were the previous revelations by the Army Captain Christopher Pyle about Army surveillance, publication of the FBI documents stolen by the Media burglars, and the subsequent disclosures about COINTELPRO that resulted from the Media burglary.

They led to several sets of congressional hearings that culminated in 1975 and 1976 with the work of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, headed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho. As a result, major reforms were made through legislation and litigation, and by administrative changes. A large part of the country’s surveillance apparatus, along with many of the files, was dismantled in the late 1970s. The disclosures resulting from the Media burglary were not the only cause of these reforms, but they played an important part.

Ironically, one of the reforms stemming from the Church Committee hearings, the adoption of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, led to the creation of the present-day operations of the National Security Agency (NSA) that have made the surveillance practices of the United States government again a matter of major concern to defenders of rights. Amendments to FISA, the manner in which it has been interpreted by the NSA and by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret, and interaction between FISA and the post–September 11 USA PATRIOT Act have all contributed to the establishment of a system of electronic surveillance in recent years that gathers vast amounts of information on Americans, and that is also global in scope.

Much of what we now know about the NSA’s activities is attributable to Edward Snowden, a present-day counterpart of the Media burglars. The 1971 burglars made use of such skills and methods as casing the FBI office, and one of them taught himself to pick locks. In our time, Snowden has used his computer skills to gain access to a vast trove of NSA documents that he has been selectively releasing since last June. A question that arises in both instances is whether those who have violated the law to make these disclosures about surveillance were justified in doing so.

It is not an easy question to answer. Without going into all the issues that need to be considered, however, I think it is possible to say that two subsidiary questions seem particularly important. First, should it be known publicly that wide-ranging surveillance was taking place in 1971 and is taking place now, by which the government is gathering an immense amount of information on law-abiding persons? Second, was there a way to disclose this information publicly without resorting to the methods used in 1971 by the Media burglars and more than forty years later by Edward Snowden?

As to the first question, it seems apparent that the information should be known. All of us submit to small-scale violations of our privacy on a regular basis. We generally go along because we get something in return, such as enhanced safety when taking a flight on an airplane, and because we are able to make the judgment that the intrusion on our privacy is minimal. If we do not know that our privacy is being violated and how it is being done, however, we cannot judge whether the supposed benefits make it worthwhile to go along. Our judgments as citizens of executive and legislative decisions have therefore been deprived of crucial information we should have. Rather than being able to control our government, as should be the case in a democratic society, we would be the objects of control by the government.

As to whether the information could be disclosed in some other way, so far as the FBI was concerned in 1971, it had a long history of using its great power to silence those in Congress, the press, and elsewhere who tried to call attention to its misdeeds. In the case of the National Security Agency in our time, the director of national intelligence, General James Clapper, lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee in testimony in March 2013. Clapper said that the NSA did not collect data on Americans “wittingly.” Members of the committee, who seem to have known he was lying, did not challenge him. In both cases, therefore, it appears that alternative means of making known information that should be made public were not available because the government took improper steps to prevent disclosure.

In a crucial respect, the surveillance practices of the NSA that have been disclosed thus far by Edward Snowden are not as bad as those revealed in the Media burglary. Up to now, we have no information from Snowden or anyone else indicating that the NSA targets dissenters or that it attempts to harass or punish those who are the subjects of surveillance. The FBI does not appear to be using many of the practices disclosed by the raid in Pennsylvania.

Of course, there can be no guarantee that we will never again have officials in positions of power like J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon, who will use government-gathered data for their own purposes. The extent of NSA data-gathering that has been made possible by technological advances therefore poses a grave potential danger. In the case of the Media burglars, their disclosures helped to put a stop to many great abuses. In the case of Edward Snowden, his disclosures may help to ensure that the political targeting and harassment of those subject to surveillance will not be repeated. Each in their own time and their own way has done a public service.