DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A group of people determined to prove that the government is spying on its citizens - certainly something we could be talking about today.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
But we are actually looking back more than 40 years to the evening of March 8, 1971. That's when a group of burglars carried out an audacious plan.
GREENE: They pried open the door of an FBI office in Pennsylvania and stole files about the bureau's surveillance of anti-war groups and civil rights organizations. Hundreds of agents were put on the case, but the crime went unsolved - until now. A new book reveals for the first time that the burglars were peace demonstrators who wanted to start a debate about the FBI's unchecked power to spy on Americans.
And details of this past crime come out of course just as the country is weighing the merits of surveillance all over again. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The plotters executed their break-in on a night when millions of people sat glued to their television sets, watching Muhammad Ali square off against Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship of the world. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The boxing match was aired on a closed-circuit network in the United States and was unavailable in homes.]
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The crowd, needless to say, is in a bedlam.
JOHNSON: That 15-round bout was a brilliant distraction exploited by a group of anti-war activists who set out to burgle a small FBI office outside of Philadelphia and expose some of J. Edgar Hoover's secrets. Bonnie Raines was one of those activists, and she's talking publicly about what she did for the first time in 42 years.
BONNIE RAINES: It seemed that no one else was going to stand up to Hoover's FBI at that time, and we knew what Hoover's FBI was doing in Philadelphia in terms of illegal surveillance and intimidation. And we thought that somebody needed to document what many of us knew was happening.
JOHNSON: Weeks earlier, Bonnie had piled her long hippie hair into a winter cap, put on a pair of glasses and posed as a college student interested in the FBI. She wanted to get a look inside the bureau's small office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, to case the joint, even if it meant risking imprisonment. Another member of the team, draft protester Keith Forsyth, was chosen to pick the lock at the FBI office. But when the time came, he got a nasty surprise.
KEITH FORSYTH: When I got there, there was a brand-new high-security lock on the door.
JOHNSON: Forsyth rushed back to confer with the other burglars and they agreed to keep trying. So he returned to the office, got down on the ground, and slowly applied a crowbar to another door.
FORSYTH: It was a great relief because, you know, the original plan was for me to be in and out in a couple of minutes, and I don't know how long I spent up there, but it was probably at least an hour.
JOHNSON: Forsyth and the other burglars chose their name carefully.
JOHN RAINES: We called ourselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI.
JOHNSON: John Raines was a professor of religion at Temple University and Bonnie's husband. The burglars were sure that Hoover, who ruled the bureau with an iron fist, had been carrying out illegal surveillance on Vietnam protesters and civil rights groups.
RAINES: And he was an icon. Nobody in Washington was going to hold him accountable. He could get away with doing whatever he wanted to do with his FBI. And it was his FBI, nobody else's.
JOHNSON: The breaking and entering was supposed to get evidence of that spying so Congress and the public could no longer ignore it. Not long after the burglary, reporter Betty Medsger received an anonymous package at her desk at the Washington Post: secret documents. She published the story.
BETTY MEDSGER: The country learned for the first time that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was almost completely different than what the country thought it was.
JOHNSON: Medsger's new book, "The Burglary," covers the history of that episode, and the revelations those documents helped bring to light. For one, the FBI had been opening files on so-called subversives, people who simply wrote letters to the editor objecting to the war in Vietnam. The papers also showed the FBI was encouraging agents to infiltrate schools and churches in the black community using secret informants, turning people against each other.
MEDSGER: I think most striking in the Media files at first was a statement that had to do with the philosophy, the policy of the FBI. And it was a document that instructed agents to enhance paranoia, to make people feel that there's an FBI agent behind every mailbox.
JOHNSON: Powerful stuff for people like John Raines, who had traveled south as a Freedom Rider and marched in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.
RAINES: The distinction between being a criminal and breaking laws is very important. When the law, or when the institutions that enforce laws, interpret laws, become the crime, as happened in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, then the only way to stop that crime from happening is to expose what's going on.
JOHNSON: Before long, the purloined files from that tiny FBI office published by Medsger and other reporters began to attract wide attention, such as on this CBS broadcast in April, 1971.
(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)
WALTER CRONKITE: Last month, burglars hit an FBI resident office and took files which subsequently have been made public. Now the nation's security agencies are wondering whether small offices like that are adequately protected.
JOHNSON: It took years, revelations by other reporters and a congressional investigation led by Senator Frank Church, but eventually lawmakers did rein in the FBI and the CIA. Betty Medsger's new book about the FBI investigation fills in some details. Hundreds of agents were dispatched to find the burglars. The FBI narrowed its search, building profiles of seven prime suspects. But they got almost all of the suspects wrong.
The burglars had been meticulous. They left no fingerprints, and they surreptitiously photocopied the files at the colleges where they taught. FBI agents did visit Raines, but he deflected their inquiries.
RAINES: With no physical evidence left from the burglary itself, they were faced with having to sort through a thousand or 2,000 suspects, and that was an overwhelming job, which of course did overwhelm them. They never found us.
JOHNSON: The burglars went about their lives, vowing never again to talk or meet to protect their secret. John Raines started writing the first of many books. His wife Bonnie, a child and family advocate, describes carrying on this way.
RAINES: In my case, it was working and pursuing a degree and driving carpool.
JOHNSON: After five years, the statute of limitations passed on the crime of burglary, and members of the group say they breathed easier. But still they kept their mouths shut until one night, years later, when Betty Medsger happened to be eating dinner in the Raines house. That's when John Raines mentioned in an offhand way that he had anonymously sent Medsger documents from the FBI burglary in 1971.
MEDSGER: I said, Are you telling me that you were burglars in Media? And they said yes. And I was very shocked and very eager to know more.
JOHNSON: The Raines family helped her locate the others involved in the burglary and most of them agreed to break their silence - four decades after they took on J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and won. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.