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'It Was Time to Do More Than Protest': Activists Admit to 1971 FBI Burglary That Exposed COINTELPRO

How John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth broke into a Media, Pa., FBI office and uncovered COINTELPRO.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Anthony Correia

 
 
 
 

One of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era has been solved. On March 8, 1971, a group of activists — including a cabdriver, a day care director and two professors — broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa. They stole every document they found and then leaked many to the press, including details about FBI abuses and the then-secret counter-intelligence program to infiltrate, monitor and disrupt social and political movements, nicknamed COINTELPRO. They called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. No one was ever caught for the break-in. The burglars’ identities remained a secret until this week when they finally came forward to take credit for the caper that changed history. Today we are joined by three of them — John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth; their attorney, David Kairys; and Betty Medsger, the former Washington Post reporter who first broke the story of the stolen FBI documents in 1971 and has now revealed the burglars’ identities in her new book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI."

Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now! of the episode: "This was quite a remarkable event. The Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI was the central office for a large region. There was an enormous amount of information stored there. The files were liberated, available for the public. And the—what was exposed was quite dramatic. For one thing, it turned out that the major activity of the FBI was essentially as a national political police. Fighting crime and other things were quite marginal. And their activities as a national political police were extremely significant. They were—a large part of it was the program that was called COINTELPRO. That was a massive government subversion operation. It started in the late '50s, but it really picked up through the 1960s. The first target was naturally the Communist Party, but it very quickly moved on to Puerto Rican independence, Native American movement, the entire New Left, the women's movement. The major target was black nationalist movements, which were practically decimated.

And it—the activities, the subversive activities, went from defamation, character assassination, efforts to create conflicts within groups by spreading false rumors and so on, all the way up to direct political assassination. 1969 was the peak. It was the assassination of Fred Hampton, the black organizer in Chicago, very effective organizer. Turns out—turned out—this didn’t come out from Media, but a couple years later it came out in court cases that the FBI had tried to have him assassinated by a black gang in Chicago, Blackstone Rangers. They sent fake messages written in kind of their version of black dialect to the Rangers, saying that Fred Hampton and the Panthers were trying to kill their main leader, hoping that the Rangers would react by killing him. Well, they were closely enough integrated so that that didn’t work. And right after that, the FBI essentially set up an assassination. They faked information that the Hampton apartment had guns. They gave it to the Chicago police. The Chicago police broke in at, you know, 4:00 in the morning, murdered Hampton, who was sleeping in bed, maybe drugged, and Mark Clark, another organizer. It turned out that Hampton’s bodyguard was an FBI informer. There was—the police pretended that they had been defending themselves from fire, but it turned out very quickly that all the firing was into the apartment. This was—I mean, this is pretty serious business, going up to Gestapo-style assassination. And, in fact, the black nationalist groups were decimated, and many others were disrupted.

Well, part of that came out from the Media files, but the major exposure was the extent to which theFBI was functioning as a political police, a national political police, as distinct from the pretext that they’re somehow defending us from crime. That’s kind of on a par with the claims that, you know, international—we should call it what it is, international terrorism—like, say, the drone campaign—is intended somehow to defend us. It has quite different aims. And, in fact, whenever the government pleads security, we should be very skeptical. That’s—for one thing, it’s kind of predictable. That’s the plea no matter what is exposed. You can think of that in connection with the Snowden exposures. So, since it’s predictable, it really doesn’t tell you anything. And when you look closely, it turns out that those pretexts quite typically dissolve rapidly on exposure, as is the case with the revelation of what the FBI was in fact doing under four administrations. It was finally—at least in theory, this was all stopped by the courts in the early 1970s, but undoubtedly, similar operations go on. [inaudible] can’t be on that scale anymore. That was unusual. But it’s very significant."