In 1971 a burglary happened in Media, Pennsylvania. A satellite FBI office was broken into, and a bunch of documents were stolen. Weeks later, those documents began to be mailed to newspapers; in them were revelations of the FBI's programs for spying on American citizens and J . Edgar Hoover's obsession with stamping out dissent in American politics. People involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements had long known the FBI was planting agents - sometimes agent provocateurs - in their midst, illegally survelling peaceful activists, but it wasn't until these documents were released that it became public knowledge. This break-in is historically credited as being the first blow against a monolithic FBI that had far overstepped its legal boundaries.
But like all great thrillers, the true revelation in the Media papers wasn't even understood at the time. There was a mention of something called COINTELPRO, and it would be years before a Freedom of Information Act request blew the lid off the terrible secret hidden in the FBI's deepest files - COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a secret, and often illegal, program intended to destroy groups deemed subversive from within. COINTELPRO used psychological warfare, spread lies and misinformation about activist groups, infiltrating groups with agents who would cause internal trouble, and working with local law enforcement to set up bogus raids. One such bogus raid led to the police murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton. COINTELPRO was the program through which J Edgar Hoover had an anonymous blackmail letter sent to Martin Luther King Jr, explaining his infidelties were known and the he needed to kill himself immediately.
COINTELPRO targeted black and anti-war groups almost exclusively - only about 15% of COINTELPRO operations went after the likes of the KKK or John Birch types. The depth of the dirty tricks program shocked a nation still reeling from the revelations of Watergate.
From the New York Times:
“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” said one of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”
No one knew who broke into that FBI office... until yesterday. The Media burglars finally came forward now that the statute of limitations on their crime has passed and they cannot be prosecuted. Their coming out coincides with a book written on the subject, The Burglary, released this week. The eight burglars were led by a physics professor. Some had children. All were working class people. They weren't obvious radicals. They felt the need to take extraordinary action and risk themselves to expose a corrupt secret, and they kept their own identities amazingly secret for over 40 years. The FBI eventually quit the case, and their list of suspects included only one of the actual burglars.
From the New York Times:
“We didn’t need attention, because we had done what needed to be done,” said [John] Raines, 80, who had, with his wife [Bonnie], arranged for family members to raise the couple’s three children if they were sent to prison. “The ’60s were over. We didn’t have to hold on to what we did back then.”
The break-in was planned for months, with the crew observing the activity at the office. One of the burglars went in as a student obstensively interested in an FBI career to case the joint beforehand. Everything was planned, including doing the burglary on the night Muhammed Ali met Joe Frazier in the ring, guaranteeing most people would be glued to televisions and paying little attention. It's an incredible story, and one that will make a great movie some day (probably soon. I'm sure the book is already optioned).
After the burglary the group split apart, rarely talking. I'm sure they all waited for the hammer to fall, but it never did. One of the burglars died last year; another wants to remain anonymous. Most of the ones who have come forward see Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing with the NSA as a spiritual successor to their great work. The reality of Snowden is the same as the reality of COINTELPRO:
“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.”
That's possibly the most patriotically American sentiment I can imagine.