The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI was a leftist activist group operational in the US during the early 1970s. Their only known action was breaking into a two-man Media, Pennsylvania office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and stealing over 1,000 classified documents. They then mailed these documents anonymously to several US newspapers to expose numerous illegal FBI operations which were infringing on the First Amendment rights of American civilians. Most news outlets initially refused to publish the information, as it related to ongoing operations and they contended disclosure might have threatened the lives of agents or informants. However, The Washington Post, after affirming the veracity of the files which the Commission sent them, ran a front-page story on March 24, 1971.
“The complete collection of political documents ripped off from the F.B.I. office in Media, Pa., March 8, 1971” was published for the first time as the March, 1972 issue of WIN Magazine, a journal associated with the War Resisters League. The documents revealed the COINTELPRO operation, and led to the Church Committee and the cessation of this operation by the FBI. Noam Chomsky has stated:
According to its analysis of the documents in this FBI office, 1 percent were devoted to organized crime, mostly gambling; 30 percent were “manuals, routine forms, and similar procedural matter”; 40 percent were devoted to political surveillance and the like, including two cases involving right-wing groups, ten concerning immigrants, and over 200 on left or liberal groups. Another 14 percent of the documents concerned draft resistance and “leaving the military without government permission.” The remainder concerned bank robberies, murder, rape, and interstate theft.
The theft resulted in the exposure of some of the FBI’s most self-incriminating documents, including several documents detailing the FBI’s use of postal workers, switchboard operators, etc., in order to spy on black college students and various non-violent black activist groups.
Some 40 years after their successful infiltration, some of the perpetrators decided to go public. In 2014, Betty Medsger’s book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I. was released, which contains the burglars’ description of the burglary and revealed the identities of five of the eight burglars. Filmmaker Johanna Hamilton also made a documentary titled 1971 (2014).
- 1 Members
- 2 Burglary
- 3 Statement
- 4 Investigation
- 5 Documentary films
- 6 In Fiction
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
On March 11, 1976, the FBI closed their investigation of the group’s burglary without conclusively identifying any of the perpetrators. The members’ identities remained a secret until early 2014, when all seven of the eight who could be found agreed to be interviewed by journalist Betty Medsger, who was writing a nonfiction book on the event: The Burglary.
Of these seven, five agreed to be publicly identified: Keith Forsyth, Bonnie Raines, John C. Raines (who 10 years prior to the burglary was a member of the Freedom Riders), and Robert Williamson; the recruiter and informal leader, William C. Davidon, died in 2013 before the book was published but had planned to reveal his involvement, as well. The other two burglars who were interviewed for the hardcover edition chose to be identified by the pseudonyms “Susan Smith” and “Ron Durst”.
The final burglar, Judi Feingold, had, unlike the others, fled across the country in 1971 and could not be found for 43 years. When she discovered that the other burglars were breaking their silence, she contacted Robert Williamson and eventually was interviewed by Medsger as well, which was included in the epilogue to the paperback edition of The Burglary.
Several months after the burglary, Forsyth and Williamson were also members of The Camden 28, a separate activist group which broke into a draft board to destroy documents, in order to impede the war draft and make an anti-war statement.
Delaware County Courthouse in Media, PA
The burglars did extensive surveillance of the FBI office, to ensure they knew when the office was empty. The break-in was perpetrated on the day of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali’s Fight of the Century, in the hope that any security guards would be glued to their radios; Ali was himself a COINTELPRO target due to his involvement with the Nation of Islam and the anti-war movement.
The picture of the office shown in The New York Times’ video corresponds to 1 Veterans Sq, Media, PA., which is just south of the Delaware County Courthouse.
In a 2014 interview, John Raines said that while returning from the burglary early in the morning, the group had stopped at a pay phone, called a Reuters journalist, and delivered the following statement:
On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society. Two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate. Instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs. Finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers.
As this study proceeds, the results obtained along with the FBI documents pertaining to them will be sent to people in public life who have demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to democratic values which are necessary to effectively challenge the repressive policies of the FBI.
As long as the United States government wages war against Indochina in defiance of the vast majority who want all troops and weapons withdrawn this year, and extends that war and suffering under the guise of reducing it. As long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a small clique not subject to democratic scrutiny and control. Then repression, intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected. We do not believe that this destruction of democracy and democratic society results simply from the evilness, egoism or senility of some leaders. Rather, this destruction is the result of certain undemocratic social, economic and political institutions.
The FBI had up to 200 agents working on this case, but it was never solved, and the investigation was closed when the five-year statute of limitations ran out.
A documentary film titled 1971 was produced by Big Mouth Productions and co-produced by Laura Poitras. It had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18, 2014.
Asher Smart released the short live-action film, The Media Heist, in 2018.
This burglary is one of the historical events fictionalized by James Ellroy in his Underworld USA Trilogy.
- Global surveillance disclosures, the 2013 whistleblowing leak by Edward Snowden
- New York Times Co. v. United States, the 1971 case regarding publication of the Pentagon Papers detailing US involvement in the Vietnam War
^ Phillips, Tim (January 7, 2014). “Activists Confess to Breaking Into Federal Bureau of Investigation Office More Than Forty Years Ago”. Activist Defense.
^ Chomsky, Noam (September 1999). “Domestic Terrorism: Notes on the State System of Oppression”. New Political Science. 21 (3): 303–324. DOI 10.1080/07393149908429874
^ Medsger, Betty (2014). The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-307-96295-9.
^ a b Mazzetti, Mark (January 7, 2014). “Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows”. The New York Times.
^ “Breaking 43 Years of Silence, the Last FBI Burglar Tells the Story of Her Years in the Underground”. The Nation. 2014-10-06. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
^ a b Isikoff, Michael (Jan 6, 2014). “After 43 years, activists admit theft at FBI office that exposed domestic spying”. NBC News.
^ Medsger, Betty (June 6, 2016). “In 1971, Muhammad Ali Helped Undermine the FBI’s Illegal Spying on Americans”. The Intercept. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
^ Goodman, Amy (January 8, 2014). “From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out After 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)”. DemocracyNow.
^ “1971: Citizens Who Exposed COINTELPRO”. Independent Lens. PBS. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
^ Smart, Asher (2018). The Media Heist.
- 1971 – A film by Johanna Hamilton – 2014 documentary about the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI
- LA Times – A break-in to end all break-ins
- From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out After 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)
- National Public Radio story The Secret Burglary That Exposed J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, audio; January 7, 2014
- New York Times – Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows mini-documentary by Mark Mazzetti; January 7, 2014
- Democracy Now! interviews:
- “It Was Time to Do More Than Protest”: Activists Admit to 1971 FBI Burglary That Exposed COINTELPRO (Part 1)
- WIN Magazine
- War Resisters League