By Edirin Oputu
On the night of March 8, 1971, when almost all eyes and ears were on Muhammad Ali battling Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century,” a group of burglars broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Media, PA, and stole almost every document inside. They sorted through the files—which revealed the FBI’s ruthless campaign to crush everyone from anti-war protesters to civil rights activists—and sent some of them to the press. The documents were sent anonymously, and despite the efforts of around 200 agents, the burglars were never found.
One of the packages was sent to Betty Medsger, then a reporter for The Washington Post. She wrote the first stories based on the files.
Years later, in the late 1980s, Medsger accidentally discovered some of the burglars and was determined to learn more. She persuaded them to talk to her, and also waded through some 33,800 pages about the FBI investigation that failed to catch them. CJR spoke with her about new her book on the break-in, The Burglary.
After all these years, what drew you back to the story of The Burglary?
I recognized it as a very powerful act of resistance, probably one of the most important acts of resistance in American history, and once I accidentally found them, I thought it was a very important story to be told.
How exactly did you find the burglars?
Well, it was a complete accident. I wasn’t looking for them, and I never had looked for them. But I was visiting Philadelphia… and two of the acquaintances I made an appointment to see were John and Bonnie Raines. I was visiting them at their home, and we had dinner together. And in the presence of their youngest child, whom I had never met, John Raines said, “We want you to meet Betty because, many years ago, when we had FBI records that we wanted the American public to know, we sent them to Betty.”
And I was utterly shocked. I had no idea that they were the burglars, and that began a conversation that night that lasted many hours. I had many questions to ask about how they’d done it and who else [had been involved]. And I thought it was really quite exciting to learn that. And then a few weeks later, I got in touch with them and said, “I’m interested in writing a book and I’d like for you to think about that. And if you are interested, I’d like to know if you would help me find the other burglars.” They had told me that night that they had all vowed to take the secret to their grave, assuming that they were not arrested… They got in touch with the others, helped find and ask them the question. And we found seven out of the eight, and they all agreed to cooperate—but two did not want to be identified.
It’s impossible to hear this story and not think about the Snowden revelations. What do you think the parallels are between the two?
The first parallel is that, then and now, it has been necessary for oversight to rely on burglars, and that’s a very sorry state of affairs.
In Hoover’s era, which lasted a half-century, there really was no avenue of oversight. There was no formal mechanism in Congress, no committees that were specifically oversight committees… Most administrations also did not do oversight, and in fact Hoover considered himself more powerful than the Attorney General, [who] was technically his boss.
As a result of the revelations that came out then, the oversight mechanisms were established in Congress, permanent committees of oversight, Attorney General guidelines, and also the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court.
Then, after 9/11, I think that those avenues of oversight were very much weakened. And so, even though they exist, by the time Snowden came along, we once again were faced with the situation of having extremely lax oversight, and having to rely on essentially another burglar to give us documentary evidence of excessive overreach by intelligence agencies.
Do you hope the book will help spark another conversation about surveillance versus privacy?
They [the burglars] really did ignite the first national conversation on the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. And it’s not that I think that my book will start another discussion. Snowden did that last year. He reignited the conversation that they started all those years ago. And what I hope, and what I think they hope, is that by what they did becoming public and thoroughly explained in terms of the depth [and] significance of the revelations, that that’ll feed into a discussion that is now already taking place.