How A Few Protesters Exposed The FBI

“The relationship between those who are constantly watched and tracked and those who watch and track them is the relationship between masters and slaves.” —Chris Hedges, “Our Only Hope Will Come Through Rebellion”

In A Nutshell

Long before Edward Snowden exposed the NSA, there was William Davidon. A college professor and antiwar activist, Davidon was convinced the FBI was spying on the so-called New Left. That’s when Davidon assembled a crew of protesters to invade an FBI office, steal all the documents, and turn them over to the media.

The Whole Bushel

It was 1971, and William Davidon was angry. A physics professor at Haverford College, Davidon was a member of the antiwar movement, n 1971, there was a whole lot to protest. US troops had invaded Cambodia, four students were shot dead at Kent State, and Davidon suspected the FBI was spying on members of the New Left—the men and women opposed to the Vietnam War. Convinced J. Edgar Hoover was tapping phones and hounding protesters, Davidon decided it was time to strike back, Ocean’s 11 style.

Davidon wanted to prove the FBI was abusing its power, and what better way to expose the feds than raiding an FBI office, stealing all the documents, and sharing the info with the media? But what office should he hit? At first, Davidon considered raiding the FBI’s main office in Philadelphia, but after thinking it over, he decided the security was probably too tight. He then turned his attention to a smaller office in Media, Pennsylvania.

Of course, Davidon couldn’t raid an FBI office on his own. Like any good mastermind, he needed to build a team. So the physics professor assembled a group of seven people (not including himself), and the group set about staking out the Media office. They made maps of the area and plotted getaway routes. They took note of who went in and out and when the FBI agents left for the day.

Plus, every member had their own special job. For example, Keith Forsyth (a 20-something taxi driver) took correspondence classes on locksmithing so he could pick the door lock. And Bonnie Rains (a mother and daycare worker) actually went undercover inside the FBI office. Posing as a student who was doing a little research into the FBI’s hiring policies, she got a good look at the filing cabinets, saw there was no alarm, and realized there weren’t any security guards.

The group finally struck on the evening of March 8, 1971. If that date sounds familiar, sports fans, that’s because March 8 was when most Americans were crowded around their TV sets to watch the “Fight of the Century.” Davidon and his crew knew that if the police were distracted by Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, they might have a better chance of getting in and out of the building without being detected. And for the most part, the plan went off without a hitch.

After Forsyth successfully opened the door, the rest of the thieves—all wearing business suits—marched inside, stuffed almost all the documents into suitcases, and sped away to a Pennsylvania barn. Once inside, the crew started sorting through papers, looking for the good stuff.

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And they found some pretty damning information.

Equipped with enough ammo to bloody J. Edgar Hoover’s nose, they sent the documents to major newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Obviously, the government was not happy to learn about the break-in. Around 200 FBI agents were put on the case, and when they learned the newspapers had received sensitive information, the Nixon administration demanded the media scrap the stories. Fortunately, the newspapers ignored the government’s pleas and published several of the documents.

So when Americans opened their newspapers, they learned how the FBI was trying to “enhance” paranoia among the New Left by spying on protesters, infiltrating their groups, setting up interviews with activists to make them nervous, and keeping tabs on black students. But the biggest coup for Davidon and Co. was a little slip of paper they’d found which contained the mysterious word “Cointelpro.” At first, nobody knew what this meant, but a few years later, NBC reporter Carl Stern got to the bottom of that mysterious phrase.

As it turns out, “Cointelpro” referred to the Counterintelligence Program, and when Stern dug deeper, he found some pretty horrifying stuff. Under Cointelpro, the FBI had threatened everyone from high-ranking sports figures to diplomats with blackmail and violence. They’d bugged offices, gone through mail, and committed numerous burglaries.

Even worse, Stern revealed the FBI had actually sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., demanding the civil rights leader commit suicide or else the government would reveal his numerous affairs to the public.

Thanks to Davidon and his gang, Congress took action against the FBI by forming the Church Committee (which exposed even more federal corruption) and the FISA Court (which grants warrants for federal departments to spy on American citizens). And as for the thieves, they totally escaped prosecution. The FBI never found out who broke into their building, and in 1976, the statute of limitations for burglary finally expired. Still, the eight thieves kept silent until 2014 when journalist Betty Medsger—who published some of the original documents in The Washington Post—revealed the names of several people involved in the operation.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: The Greatest Heist You’ve Never Heard Of
NY Times: Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows
Daily Beast: The FBI File Heist That Changed History