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Burglars who embarrassed FBI in unsolved document heist come forward (+video)

Five of the eight burglars who looted at least 1,000 documents from an FBI office in 1971, exposing the vast reaches of the bureau's clandestine surveillance programs, identify themselves in a new book.

By Staff writer / January 7, 2014

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (c.) speaks with President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961. Some of the burglars who exposed the reaches of Mr. Hoover's surveillance programs during his tenure as FBI director have now come forward.

Henry Burroughs/AP

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On March 8, 1971, a group of burglars used a crowbar and a lock pick to slip into the FBI field office in Media, Pa. There, the group packed into suitcases what they had come for: papers containing untold, but expected to be embarrassing, secrets about the bureau’s domestic spying activities. The suitcases were then lugged to getaway cars.

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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One night in 1971, files were stolen from an F.B.I. office near Philadelphia. They proved that the bureau was spying on thousands of Americans. The case was unsolved, until now.

The burglars never came forward, and they were never caught. It was an old-fashioned stealth crime – impressive if not in ingenuity, then in strategic prosaicness. In 1996, the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the biggest unsolved burglary in American political history.”

But if the crime was quiet, its reverberations were loud. Out of the looted documents, which were mailed to reporters, unfolded years of newspaper articles tearing into the FBI's vast and clandestine surveillance programs under the tenure of its storied director, J. Edgar Hoover, as well as an even longer national meditation on the proper scope of government spying.

The theft also turned out to be heraldic of what was to happen almost 43 years later, when Edward Snowden, a burglar of the Digital Age, downloaded the National Security Agency documents that have since incited uproar over the reaches of US government surveillance. Now, in the midst of the Snowden uproar, and well past the expiration date of the statute of limitations on the 1971 criminal charges, five of the eight Media burglars have come forward, explaining the theft in a book by a reporter who was among the first to receive the stolen papers.

In "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI," published Tuesday, author Betty Medsger explains the crime as the idea of William Davidon, a physics professor at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., and an antiwar activist who said he had become frustrated with how little the simmering protests against the Vietnam War seemed to accomplish.

In 1971, Mr. Davidon assembled a group of antiwar activists and plotted a theft that the group hoped would have explosive consequences for the FBI, without exposing their own identities. 

None of us were into the martyrdom stuff,” John Raines, at the time a young professor of religion at Temple University and one of the burglars, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If we had not been pretty confident that we could get away with it, we wouldn't have done it.”

On March 8 – the same night that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier threw punches for the heavyweight championship of the world, a fabulous distraction on which the burglars were hoping to capitalize – the burglars approached the FBI office. They wore suits, ties, and gloves, NBC reported. And they knew just where to go. Bonnie Raines, Mr. Raines’s wife and a fellow burglar, had visited the office for weeks, posing as a college student inquiring about employment opportunities for women at the FBI. She understood the office’s security system.

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