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Activists Who Burgled FBI in 1971—Led by a Jewish Physicist—Finally Out Themselves

New book documents the break-in that revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance, decades before Snowden

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On the night of March 8, 1971, a group of antiwar activists broke into a small FBI satellite office in the town of Media, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In the course of a few hours, they stole more than a thousand classified documents outlining the existence of a huge surveillance apparatus, nicknamed COINTELPRO, put in place by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on—and undermine—American civil rights organizers, Vietnam War opponents, and anyone else he deemed a threat.

Within a few weeks, the burglars, who called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, began mailing the pages—anonymously, in manila envelopes—to reporters at major newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. From them, the public learned that the FBI had employed letter carriers and a switchboard operator at Swarthmore College to spy on local activists. Burglars found a document amid their loot from Hoover’s realm that urged agents around the country to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles, and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” A panoramic picture would ultimately emerge of a rogue agency that had deployed illegal wiretaps to smear everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the actress Jean Seberg (who had given money to the Black Panther Party) and had also infiltrated political groups, including the Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee, and the Woman’s Strike for Peace.

Furious, Hoover dispatched about 200 agents to scour Philadelphia, the capital of Quakerism and a hotbed of antiwar activism—but no one was ever caught. The five-year statute of limitations on burglary expired in 1976, but the FBI never declared an end to its manhunt. The mystery has lingered for more than 40 years—but now, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s widespread collection of America’s private communications, five of the burglars are publicly identifying themselves in a new book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger, a former Post reporter who broke the first story from the group’s documents.

For the first time, Medsger reveals that the Citizens’ Commission had eight members, five men and three women. Their leader was William Davidon, a soft-spoken Jewish physics professor at Haverford College, a Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, who marched with King to Selma in 1965, the same year he was arrested for handing out antiwar leaflets with the Committee for Nonviolent Action. His crew included John C. Raines, a Methodist who was a professor of religion at Temple University, where he taught classes about the Holocaust inspired by survivors he met as a Freedom Rider. Another participant was himself the son of Holocaust survivors.

“The FBI was for decades a virtually untouchable institution, and part of its power was in its ability to intimidate activists and others who might be activists with an impression of its own omnipresence,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and former president of the Students for a Democratic Society. The Media break-in, he said, was essential because it revealed how initiative could be taken by individuals to counter the inappropriate use of government power. “The break-in was a crack, more than a crack,” Gitlin went on. “It was prying open their armor and revealing them to not be only capable of malfeasance, but vulnerable in a way.”

***

Davidon, who died in November of Parkinson’s disease at 86, was the one who thought of the break-in and recruited the group. He was the son of an emigré from Eastern Europe who attended Cooper Union and liked it so much he made Cooper his son’s middle name; people called him Bill. He was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, earned his degrees in physics from the University of Chicago, and served two years in the Navy. Sarah Davidon, his daughter, says his attachment to his Jewishness prompted a regular search for the ideal secular-humanist Haggadah for the family Seder. “He was a very authentic person who would not have kept a relationship with a religion or an activity if it did not touch the core of his life,” she said.

Slightly built, dark-eyed, with dark hair in earlier years, he combined a self-effacing manner with firmness. In 2006, when I called him for a piece I wrote about the 35th anniversary of the break-in for the L.A. Times—he had been recommended to me as an “expert” on the incident—I asked if he knew any of the burglars. With suggestive lightness, he replied: “Maybe.”

According to Medsger’s book, Davidon selected members of the break-in team from the swirl of antiwar factions active in 1970 Philadelphia, asking: “What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?” Steering clear of celebrities in local antiwar circles, he found seven low-profile but committed activists he could trust. They didn’t know one another well but soon got along. At 43, Davidon was the oldest when the planning started; others were as young as 19, some of them were students in theory, though they’d given themselves over to full-time activism. Two were married—Raines, the religion professor, along with his wife, Bonnie, a specialist in childhood education. Three were, like Davidon, Jewish—one an admirer of Hannah Arendt who believed the FBI presented a totalitarian threat in the United States, and one a man, who remains anonymous, whose parents were Holocaust survivors whose families were largely decimated. (Only five of the eight are identified in Medsger’s book.)

If the past gave the members of the group a moral context, what united them was a more immediate sense of immoral power. “We were all pretty outraged and frustrated and worried about the future, because of the war,” Bonnie Raines said, when I reached her at home in Philadelphia. “We’d tried to disrupt the draft and done all the other things, rallies and marches and getting arrested at the Pentagon, and nothing. And the body bags were coming back and the Defense Department was lying to the American citizens. We felt like something had to go to a different level than we had attempted until then, to a more radical level.”

Davidon shared that urgency and offered a means of engaging in a focused way. “He had a reputation and was consistently active and on the right side of things as we saw them,” Raines told me. “He persevered and was willing to be in the face of the authorities he thought were not acting responsibly.”

In her book, Medsger described a crime in which very little went wrong, from the thorough preparations and skillful execution of the operation itself to the vanishing act that lasted more than 40 years. “Bill Davidon took every opportunity to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt by making sure we thought about everything carefully,” Bonnie Raines said. “I didn’t feel the risk so much because I had such faith in him. He was a smart guy, a very strategic thinker.”

The FBI’s two-man office in Media was on the second floor of a nondescript apartment building. The burglars didn’t know it at the time, but Hoover so believed in the impregnability of his many outposts that he copied his most secret, incriminating documents to every one. When Bonnie Raines visited the office on a scouting mission, pretending to be a student seeking insights on FBI hiring practices—she wore gloves as she took notes to avoid leaving fingerprints—she saw that the office had no alarm, no locks on file cabinets. The floor had a carpet that would muffle noise as the place was ransacked.

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Activists Who Burgled FBI in 1971—Led by a Jewish Physicist—Finally Out Themselves

New book documents the break-in that revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance, decades before Snowden