By Mick Krever
CNN, January 14th, 2014
Millions of fans around the country were glued to their radios to hear the broadcast – millions, that is, except for eight unlikely burglars, who used the fight as the perfect distraction for their infiltration of J. Edgar Hoover’s feared FBI.
Using lock picks and crowbars, the activists – among them a young married couple with children, a cab driver, and a religion professor – broke into a suburban Pennsylvania FBI office.
Despite a massive FBI manhunt, the burglars were never caught; the statute of limitations ran out, and their identities were never known. Until now.
Journalist Betty Medsger was the first to report the story, and she's just published her book called "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI." She writes that long before Edward Snowden and his leaks about the U.S. National Security Agency, American activists believed that there was government malfeasance that needed to be made public.
“J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable,” John Raines, who along with his wife Bonnie was an accomplice in the break in, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday. “He was either admired or he was feared in Washington. Nobody that we elected to supervise something like the FBI would do their work.”
Their break-in would be a success, and the documents they found confirmed their fears.
One FBI memo, calling for more surveillance of anti-war activists, read
Before fight night, the activists knew that they needed to know all about the building they were targeting.
Bonnie Raines stepped forward for the job. She posed as a student from nearby Swarthmore College, and said she was doing research on
When they gave her an appointment, she disguised herself as a college student – she was 29 at the time – and went in.
“I took my notes in my little notebook with gloves on,” she said – so as not to leave fingerprints. “They never noticed that I never took my gloves off the whole time I was there.”
The fact that they showed her so little suspicion, she told Amanpour, showed the instigators that they would be able to break in without issue.
“I want to emphasize,” Medsger added, “that they had no idea whether they would find a single piece of paper of importance. And I think this is important. They were willing to take this risk that could have led to many years in prison, sacrificing their freedom, without having any certainty that they were going to find anything significant.”
In breaking into an FBI office, the Raineses were taking a huge risk not only for themselves, but for their young children.
The fact that they would both participate in the break-in, Bonnie admitted, was “another level of jeopardy.”
“We were not reckless in any regard,” she said.
They felt that it was their
Had they been caught, John said, they had arranged for his older brother to care for the children.
“We're parents; we're also citizens,” he said. They had a responsibility as parents to their children, but also “as citizens to the nation those children are going to live in and have children in.”
Breaking in on the night of the highly anticipated Frazier-Ali fight, Bonnie said, was the “key factor.”
Bill Davidon, a physics professor and one of their fellow accomplices “who was so strategic and smart, realized that we had an opportunity.”
Departing the building weighed down with documents, the burglars jumped into a station wagon and drove to a nearby Quaker farmhouse.
They set up tables, and immediately set to work sorting through the papers, not knowing what they might come across.
“Somebody would say, ‘Oh, oh, oh, look at this! Look at this!,’” John said. “And we'd all run over there and, you know, it was within an hour, we knew we hit the jackpot.”
One of the documents they found was an internal memo on “COINTELPRO,” or “counterintelligence programs.”
The notorious FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, fell under COINTELPRO.
“The program against Dr. King went on for years,” Medsger said. They tried, for example, “to convince him to commit suicide just days before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The burglars would meet with vindication when, a few years later, a Senate investigation – the Church Committee – released its report on government surveillance.
It draws striking parallels to today.
President Barack Obama is expected to lay out reforms to the NSA, after a special panel investigating Edward Snowden’s leaks called for new limited on the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The activist groups of the 1960s and ‘70s “felt the paranoia” that the government was trying to create, she said.
Compare that to today, when Medsger said that the surveillance is “much more massive” but harder for the public “to feel surveillance.”
“It really involves everyone,” she said, “and the technological capacity is so great, that it makes it much more personally invasive, but you don’t feel it.”