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After 43 years, FBI burglars come clean

January 14th, 2014
11:06 AM ET

"The Fight of the Century"

By Mick Krever, CNN

The night of March 8, 1971 was the night for the “Fight of the Century” – Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier – at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden.

Millions of fans around the country were glued to their radios to hear the broadcast – millions, that is, except for eight unlikely burglars, who used the fight as the perfect distraction for their infiltration of J. Edgar Hoover’s feared FBI.

Using lock picks and crowbars, the activists – among them a young married couple with children, a cab driver, and a religion professor – broke into a suburban Pennsylvania FBI office.

Despite a massive FBI manhunt, the burglars were never caught; the statute of limitations ran out, and their identities were never known. Until now.

Journalist Betty Medsger was the first to report the story, and she's just published her book called "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." She writes that long before Edward Snowden and his leaks about the U.S. National Security Agency, American activists believed that there was government malfeasance that needed to be made public.

“J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable,” John Raines, who along with his wife Bonnie was an accomplice in the break in, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday. “He was either admired or he was feared in Washington. Nobody that we elected to supervise something like the FBI would do their work.”

“The motivation really came out of my early participation in the civil rights movement,” John Raines said. “I was a Freedom Rider. We were made very much aware, those of us involved in the civil rights movement, that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI did not want that movement to succeed.”

Their break-in would be a success, and the documents they found confirmed their fears.

One FBI memo, calling for more surveillance of anti-war activists, read “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Meticulous planning

Before fight night, the activists knew that they needed to know all about the building they were targeting.

Bonnie Raines stepped forward for the job. She posed as a student from nearby Swarthmore College, and said she was doing research on “opportunities for women in the FBI, and could I come in and interview the head of the office.”

When they gave her an appointment, she disguised herself as a college student – she was 29 at the time – and went in.

“I took my notes in my little notebook with gloves on,” she said – so as not to leave fingerprints. “They never noticed that I never took my gloves off the whole time I was there.”

The fact that they showed her so little suspicion, she told Amanpour, showed the instigators that they would be able to break in without issue.

“I want to emphasize,” Medsger added, “that they had no idea whether they would find a single piece of paper of importance. And I think this is important. They were willing to take this risk that could have led to many years in prison, sacrificing their freedom, without having any certainty that they were going to find anything significant.”

“And this is quite in contrast with the methods used by Edward Snowden today, when he's an insider. They were an outsider.”

Risking the children

In breaking into an FBI office, the Raineses were taking a huge risk not only for themselves, but for their young children.

The fact that they would both participate in the break-in, Bonnie admitted, was “another level of jeopardy.”

“We were not reckless in any regard,” she said.

They felt that it was their “responsibility as citizens to take this action, even as the parents of young children.”

Had they been caught, John said, they had arranged for his older brother to care for the children.

“We're parents; we're also citizens,” he said. They had a responsibility as parents to their children, but also “as citizens to the nation those children are going to live in and have children in.”

Choosing the right night

Breaking in on the night of the highly anticipated Frazier-Ali fight, Bonnie said, was the “key factor.”

Bill Davidon, a physics professor and one of their fellow accomplices “who was so strategic and smart, realized that we had an opportunity.”

“It was our hope that people living in apartments in that building would be listening to it on their radio and perhaps the police would not be quite as vigilant – they would be listening to the fight as well.”

And it worked.

Collecting a bounty

Departing the building weighed down with documents, the burglars jumped into a station wagon and drove to a nearby Quaker farmhouse.

They set up tables, and immediately set to work sorting through the papers, not knowing what they might come across.

“Somebody would say, ‘Oh, oh, oh, look at this! Look at this!,’” John said. “And we'd all run over there and, you know, it was within an hour, we knew we hit the jackpot.”

One of the documents they found was an internal memo on “COINTELPRO,” or “counterintelligence programs.”

“It was advice on how university administrators should come down hard on student protesters,” Medsger said. “It was really one of the most vicious of Hoover's operations and it would involve dirty tricks, some of them violent, some of them resulted in death.”

The notorious FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, fell under COINTELPRO.

“The program against Dr. King went on for years,” Medsger said. They tried, for example, “to convince him to commit suicide just days before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The burglars would meet with vindication when, a few years later, a Senate investigation – the Church Committee – released its report on government surveillance.

“Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected,” the report read.

History repeats

It draws striking parallels to today.

President Barack Obama is expected to lay out reforms to the NSA, after a special panel investigating Edward Snowden’s leaks called for new limited on the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“Surveillance, it seems to me, is very different now than it was then. It was much easier for the public to react then,” Medsger said.

The activist groups of the 1960s and ‘70s “felt the paranoia” that the government was trying to create, she said.

“You wondered about the person next to you being an informer. Then it was revealed that, that and much worse was true in terms of the surveillance and the dirty tricks taking place.”

Compare that to today, when Medsger said that the surveillance is “much more massive” but harder for the public “to feel surveillance.”

“It really involves everyone,” she said, “and the technological capacity is so great, that it makes it much more personally invasive, but you don’t feel it.”


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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. rhonda

    I look at the time that this was posted and see no responses, which shows to me that the fear of surveillance and gov. is the same only on a different scale. Posts like this remind me of what responsiblities we citizens have to one another, to get this a FREE country.......

    January 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • Tom Laramie

      I wish it was a free country. Only for the rich and those making the rules. I hate even writing that but there is a tilted playing field that is continually denied.

      January 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  2. ONESLYDRAGON

    if you think about it, Hoover and his merry band of thugs were far worse than the NSA has been. Hoover condoned violence and the out and out breaking of the law. The NSA simply gets a file from the phone company or ISPs and scans data.
    Both are abusive programs, neither acceptable.

    January 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • Lee

      Are you sure that is all the NSA is doing? How do we know for sure and how do we know what information the give to other agencies such as the FBI to do the dirty work for them. One thing I've learned in my nearly 70 years of life is do not trust the government.

      January 14, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Don B

      Hoover had dirt on every congressman, and would simply let it be known to them that he knew. Troublesome congressmen would fall into line.
      The NSA can simply search a rep's phone records and ask him: "Haven't you been making a lot of personal calls to that pretty woman who stopped working in your office 6 months ago?"
      Information is power, and the idea that every NSA operative lives by shining ideals is ludicrous.
      The most frightening thing about the "Person of Interest" scenarios is how possible it is.

      January 16, 2014 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • David

      The NSA does much more than what you describe friend, it's just that less is known about them which makes them more sinister. We kid ourselves if we believe this is truly a democracy with anything resembling equal rights or protection under the law. Fear works to the government's advantage and we are a fearful nation.

      January 17, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  3. dwimby

    I appreciate what these people did, the thinking that "made them do it," but I cannot condone the breaking and entering part. It surely is more difficult to be lawful in resolving perceived or real governmental tyrannical acts, but we simply have to solve our problems within the law, even if we have a criminal government, which we do. But how do we hold ourselves above anyone else when we break in and steal stuff? I don't see this as heroic. We resolve unlawful acts by committing unlawful acts? And, really, honesly, what PRECISELY was accomplished by the good folks break-in? Maybe I'll buy the book to find out.

    January 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Reply
    • John Hillman

      The patriots that rebelled against the British to FORM this country were breaking the law. The poster is obviously TOO YOUNG to know just how powerful J. Edgar Hoover was. He had embarrassing files on EVERY member of Congress and EVERY President most judges and Federal Attorneys. There have been many revelations about how HE violated the law at every turn. There was no one he could not control in the "justice system" to pervert justice and incarcerate anyone who tried to oppose him. There was no "Freedom of Information Act". In fact, it was these revelations and others like them that helped GET that passed.

      January 14, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  4. Randy

    Amazing that for all of the noise about the NSA, few seem to care about this article...

    January 14, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  5. Joe

    Really short thing to say, but with the amount detail and historic facts from this story a movie should be made! There is much to build off of and it would be a film that everyone would appreciate.

    January 14, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  6. Ken Barr

    I applaud these people for there actions. I served in the military 1966 – 1970 and it was no secret various government security agencies were taking actions to demean the Vietnam peace movement, peace protest, civil rights movement and civil rights protests. However no could prove it. Many of the peace and civil rights protest that resulted in violence was instigated by security agents who infiltrated peace and civil rights group. All you need do is research as much of this information is now public.

    January 14, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  7. bobo

    So this was done to prove J.Edgar was a Fairy???

    January 14, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  8. jonathan onwukwe

    i think it was Frantz Fanon who said "man is born free but everywhere he goes he moves about in chains " how hapt.

    January 14, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  9. JK

    It's amazing how this strand of American citizens lack the basic capacity to accept complete and total responsibility for their own actions and their own thoughts. No wonder the intelligent, the stable and the rich get ostracized by the majority, at every stage in our lives. These childish activist types always miss the point and attempt to twist it all into something its not, to suit their own fears, their own ignorance, their own schemes and their own instability, without employing one iota of reason in their discourse, to themselves or to anyone else. Well, believe what you want to believe, live in darkness and feed your brain trash if you want to be a loser.

    February 13, 2014 at 2:53 am | Reply

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