The burglary that exposed COINTELPRO: Activists mark 50th anniversary of daring FBI break-in

The burglary that exposed COINTELPRO: Activists mark 50th anniversary of daring FBI break-in
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AMY GOODMAN: Fifty years ago this week, a group of activists staged one of the most stunning acts of defiance of the Vietnam War era. On March 8th, 1971, eight activists, including a cab driver, a daycare director, two professors, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every document they found. They wanted to document how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was spying on citizens and actively suppressing dissent. The break-in occurred as much of the nation was fixated on a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which was billed as the "Fight of the Century." The identity of the burglars would remain a mystery for over 40 years.

Soon after stealing the documents, the activists, calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, began leaking shocking details about FBI abuses to the media. The documents exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI's secret Counterintelligence Program, a global, clandestine, unconstitutional practice of surveillance, infiltration and disruption of groups engaged in protest, dissent and social change. Targets included the Reverend Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords, antiwar groups, Black booksellers and other groups. The leaked documents triggered congressional investigations, increased oversight and the eventual passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The FBI never knew who was involved in the break-in until 2014, when several of the burglars made their identity public to coincide with the publication of The Burglary, a book by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who had reported on the leaked documents back in '71. In 2014, Betty Medsger appeared on Democracy Now!

BETTY MEDSGER: One of the things that I remember most from those files was the truly blanket surveillance of African American people that was described. It was in Philadelphia, but it also prescribed national programs. And it was quite stunning. First, it described the surveillance. It took place in every place where people would gather — churches, classrooms, stores down the street, just everything. But it also specifically prescribed that every FBI agent was supposed to have an informer, just for the purpose of coming back every two weeks and talking to them about what they had observed about Black Americans. And in Washington, D.C., at the time, that was six informers for every FBI agent informing on Black Americans. The surveillance was so enormous that it led various people, rather sedate people in editorial offices and in Congress, to compare it to the Stasi, the dreaded secret police of East Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: Three of the burglars also appeared on Democracy Now! back in 2014 in one of their first joint interviews. Keith Forsyth served as designated lock-picker during the break-in. He hoped the break-in would speed the end of the Vietnam War.

KEITH FORSYTH: The war was escalating and not deescalating. And I think what really pushed me over the edge was, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia, there were four students killed at Kent State and two more killed at Jackson State. And — I'm sorry, I'd think I'd have this down after all these years. And that really pushed me over the edge, that it was time to do more than just — than just protest and just march with a sign.

AMY GOODMAN: John Raines was another one of the burglars. At the time of the break-in, he was a professor of religion at Temple University.

JOHN RAINES: The problem was, J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable. He was a national icon. I mean, he had presidents who were afraid of him. The people that we elected to oversee J. Edgar Hoover's FBI were either enamored of him or terrified of him. Nobody was holding him accountable. And that meant that somebody had to get objective evidence of what his FBI was doing. And that led us to the idea that Bill Davidon suggested to us: Let's break into an FBI office, get their files and get what they're doing in their own handwriting.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Raines speaking on Democracy Now! in 2014. He died in 2017. Raines' wife Bonnie Raines also helped break into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, 50 years ago. At the time of the break-in, John and Bonnie had three young children. She's joining us now from her home in Philadelphia. We are also joined by Paul Coates, the founder and director of Black Classic Press and BCP Digital Printing. He's a former member and defense captain of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore. As a Black bookseller, he was targeted by the FBI as part of its COINTELPRO, its Counterintelligence Program. And, yes, he is also the father of the acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bonnie, you were the one who cased the joint — is that right? — who went to these Media FBI offices — that's Media, Pennsylvania — beforehand to get a sense of the blueprints of the two rooms, whatever it was.

BONNIE RAINES: That's right. I mean, we had cased the exterior environment, so we knew what the police patrols were. But we had to get inside the offices to see whether there were alarm systems and to see what the layout of the offices were, where the doors were that we hoped we could get through. And so, I had to call and say that I was a Swarthmore College student doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI, and I wondered if I could have an interview with the head of the office. And they very graciously gave me an appointment. And I showed up trying to look not at all like my usual identity. I disguised my appearance as much as I possibly could. But they were very gracious and gave me a half an hour or so. And that gave me the opportunity to get the layout of the office, to see that there were no alarms, to see that the file cabinets were not even locked, and to check out a second door that we might need to use to get through on the night of the burglary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bonnie, you told Will Bunch at The Philadelphia Inquirer in a recent interview that "Fifty years ago, we were criminals, and now we're heroes." Could you talk about how — your decision to get involved in this? At the time, you were 29 years old, a mother of three.

BONNIE RAINES: Well, my husband and I, we had been involved in the draft resistance movement, the so-called Catholic left, previously, going into draft boards in the middle of the night and removing draft files to destroy the files and try to disrupt the draft system. So, we like to say that we got our burglary skills from nuns and priests.

But when all of the protests against the War in Vietnam were not making any difference and we realized that the government was lying to citizens about the war, we thought that we needed to take another — a different kind of step in civil disobedience and get proof to show what FBI agents were doing in the Philadelphia area, things that were unconstitutional, immoral and illegal. And the only way to do that was to get our hands on documents, so that it seemed like a rational thing to do to get the truth out to the American public.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I'd like to bring Paul Coates into the conversation and ask you, Paul: From your perspective, your involvement in the Black Panther Party at the time, what the group looked like and what the impact of this break-in, these revelations about COINTELPRO, had on you and your organization?

PAUL COATES: You know, the large impact, I think, at the time, was — we already knew that we were being infiltrated. We knew that provocateurs were all throughout. We knew that the FBI had us under constant surveillance. But I don't think anyone at the time really knew the full extent of the program, of COINTELPRO. We saw the surveillance, we saw the interference and the setups that were being done as acts that the government, as a broad government, was doing. But the break-in actually, I like to think of it as, put flesh to the bones of what became known as COINTELPRO. And they did it in a way that, like — I guess like they intended to do, they did it with the FBI's own documents. They named people. They named places. And that documentation not only served us then, but the documentation serves us — it continues to serve us today. And I think that's the major, major impact. It made visible what we knew was there but could not really see.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in fact, this was the first time — wasn't it? — that COINTELPRO was being made known, Bonnie, these documents that you were putting out everywhere. And then, Paul, this whole story of not only the FBI's war on the Black Power movement, but specifically — and this directly related to you — Black-owned bookstores, why they saw Black-owned bookstores, like yours, as such a target?

PAUL COATES: Yeah, this is true, Amy. I think a lot of that comes out of certainly the FBI history in following socialist groups and knowing that the bookstores were critical information centers, as they were in our community. And the store we established certainly was, because that was its intent. It was intended to be an information center, particularly for people — not just Panthers, but people who were incarcerated in jail, coming out of jail and becoming contributing members of the community. We felt we could do that with information.

And certainly, we came under a lot of — a lot of pressure from the FBI, a lot of pressure from the state and the city at the time, who saw this, perceived this as a threat. The very thought that information, the very thought that knowledge, could equip people to be better in their community and contributors in their community was a threat to them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Juan, at the beginning of this story, we talked about the people who were targeted — Black Panthers, antiwar movement, peace activists and the Young Lords. You're one of the co-founders of the Young Lords. Can you talk about what you understood at the time?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think what Paul is saying about, we understood that there were agents within our organizations, but we never understood how systematic and how widespread it was. And I recall, particularly — this is about a year before the break-in of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania — I was traveling with another Young Lord member, we thought secretly, to Puerto Rico to look at the possibility of opening up new branches. And we're on the plane heading to San Juan. We suddenly see a young African American attorney who we knew from Legal Aid in East Harlem. And he came over, sat by us, started joking. And we said to him, "So, Bobby, what are you doing? You're in Legal Aid. Why are you going down to Puerto Rico?" And he said, "Well, I don't work for Legal Aid anymore. I work for the U.S. Justice Department. And I've been assigned to the two of you. And I want you to know" — he looked at us directly in the eyes, and he said, "I want you to know that every second that you are in Puerto Rico, you are going to be tailed by the agents of the CIC." That's the Puerto Rico equivalent of the Red Squad in Puerto Rico. "And wherever you go in Puerto Rico, we're going to be there." And, sure enough, they were always not only following us, but interviewing anybody who we talked to or we met with, because they saw the need to appear to be everywhere.

And I want to ask Paul, because people don't realize the psychological impact it had on these organizations to know that there were agents within them but not know who they were. And often people were targeted who were innocent people but were mistaken for agents, and the real agents were still providing information on a regular basis and creating dissension within the groups.

PAUL COATES: Yeah, Juan, you're so right. You're so on. It was like a double whammy, because, on the one hand, you would have agents who would make themselves known, and then you knew there were plenty of other agents who were unknown, but you would — let's say if you're doing something today, information on that would be broadcast in multiple ways the next day, and so you know someone from the inside did it.

And, Juan, you probably have this experience, as well. Certainly, COINTELPRO had its impact when the events were taking place. But now we're talking about 50 years later, five decades later, Juan, and we're still trying to figure out who were agents at the time. You have to — it's that going on, but also the rumors that were started, the identification of people who weren't — like you were saying, who weren't agents, but they were labeled as agents. And even today, among comrades in the Panther Party, you'll have a conversation with someone, a name will come up, and you say, "Well, you know he was a snitch, don't you? Or he was an agent, don't you?" And that may not be the case at all. We're still living through and picking through the rumors that literally split our movement at the time. We're still living through those rumors now, and they still split us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to also bring in Bonnie Raines to talk about the latest member of the Media 8, the burglars, including you, who has just come forward in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, "50 years after an FBI office burglary, a San Rafael man reveals his role."

And it says, "Before the Pentagon Papers, before WikiLeaks, before Edward Snowden's NSA files, a group of eight Vietnam War protesters teamed up to steal FBI records from a Pennsylvania office." And it goes on to say, "Ralph Daniel squeezed himself through the door and looked around the dark room. They had cased this small FBI office in the Philadelphia suburb of Media for months. Now he was inside. Rows of file cabinets beckoned. This was the moment the group of eight had planned. They had long suspected FBI malfeasance and were convinced these records would prove it." Daniel was 26 at the time, "rolled out the first metal cabinet drawer, scooped up the files and threw them into a suitcase. His gloved hands shook. The burglars had to hurry. They had chosen March 8, 1971, because Muhammad Ali's title fight against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden would keep most of the country and world — and most importantly, FBI agents and police — glued to closed-circuit screens and radios for a few hours. One of the intruders could hear the broadcast in nearby apartments."

So, they thought that the sound of the fight would cover your actions, is that right, Bonnie? And were you surprised to see that Ralph Daniel has come forward?

BONNIE RAINES: Well, I'm delighted that Ralph has. He played a key role in the burglary. And he was reluctant to come forward earlier because he was afraid that it would affect his professional life. But he's always been in communication with us, since 2014. And it's great to have him be able to tell his story now, which is significant.

We scooped up every single document, I think about a thousand documents. We didn't leave anything behind. And going back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago in the broadcast, one of the memos that we discovered, a document said that agents should increase the paranoia among the left to have them believe that there's an FBI agent behind every mailbox. So they wanted to give this impression that everyone everywhere was under surveillance and no one could believe that their constitutional rights would be protected.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bonnie, we only have about 30 seconds, but could you — the lessons for today, for the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists, of this COINTELPRO era?

BONNIE RAINES: Well, we've just come through a Trump era, and I think we saw the effects of a lack of transparency and accountability. And now we really have to insist that the powers that be are transparent and accountable. And it's up to the average citizen to pay attention, be informed and be vigilant, and then call the powers that be to account for their decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to have to leave it there. And I thank you so much for being with us, Bonnie Raines, one of the 1971 break-in burglars at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and Paul Coates, founder and director of Black Classic Press. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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