J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director behind COINTELPRO which was exposed by activists who raided an office in Media, Pennsylvania (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The shrill brigade of critics opposed to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have repeatedly emphasized their belief that if he truly thought he was engaged in civil disobedience he should have remained in the United States and allowed himself to be jailed and prosecuted like Daniel Ellsberg or even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But now, this argument should be even more difficult for critics to make.

Activists who raided an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, while millions were tuned into a fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, have come forward to reveal their identities. A new book by Betty Medsger and film directed by Johanna Hamilton is being released on this courageous act, which helped lead to the unraveling of the massive system of surveillance created by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

None of the activists involved in the act came forward and identified themselves immediately to face the consequences of their actions. They did not go serve time in jail and martyr themselves as many critics argue Snowden should do. They kept silent and concealed their role well after they could be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations (five years for theft of government property). Yet, as one views stories recounting what they did, there is wide praise for them.

Bonnie Raines was a young activist who was part of the Catholic Left in Philadelphia. According to Bonnie, she was a part of efforts to disrupt the draft of “mostly poor and working class” Americans to fight the Vietnam War.

It was widely known at the time but “could not be proved” that Hoover’s FBI was engaged in “illegal and heavy-handed surveillance to squash dissent.” William C. Davidon asked her to join a group, Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI, to raid an office in Media to “remove documents.”

“I was selected to pose as a college student researching opportunities for women in the FBI and to get inside the office,” Raines recounted. “I made an appointment to interview the office head, disguise my appearance and observe the furnishings, doors, and most importantly, to see if there were security alarms or locks on the filing cabinets.”

There were no locks or alarms. The chance of success was excellent.

John Raines, who is married to Bonnie, was active in the civil rights movement in the south. He was also a part of resistance against the war. It was believed that Hoover was using the FBI to spy on activists. He knew that “someone would need to enter and remove files from the FBI office” to “prove our suspicions.”

John was part of a small group that started to observe the office daily. On the day of the raid, they entered the building with around six suitcases. The suitcases were loaded and they walked out with the files.

At a secure location, John recalled, “We were careful to comb through them separating out those files that were clearly political [in content] and demonstrated illegal surveillance programs.” (Files they were not going to release were apparently burned.)

“We then shared those files and only those files with the press and Americans,” John added. It was known that Hoover would throw out a dragnet to find who had done it, but there was no physical evidence left at the scene. “With thousands of active war resisters in the Philly region, those agents faced a daunting task.”

Medsger received an envelope two weeks after the burglary. It had a cover letter and multiple files, one which spelled out a core goal the FBI had: “To enhance paranoia and make people think there is FBI agents behind every mailbox.”

The FBI was conducting mass surveillance of African-Americans at “nearly every place they gathered” – church, work, libaries, etc. One informer was to report activities of Black people every two weeks. In Washington, DC, six informers tasked with spying upon Black people were required for every agent.

Files revealed COINTELPRO programs, including a program to target “New Left” and “Key Activists.” A May 10, 1968, memo indicated the FBI was concerned that the “anarchistic activities of a few” could “paralyze institutions of learning, induction centers, cripple traffic and tie the arms of law enforcement officials all to the detriment of our society.”

“The organizations and activists who spout revolution and unlawfully challenge society to obtain their demands must only be contained, but must be neutralized,” the memo read. “Law and order is mandatory for civilized society to survive.

According to Medsger, “To be subversive all you had to do is express even mild dissent, such as in a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or be black. To be black was considered to be dangerous in Hoover’s eyes.”

Medsger was one of the journalists who did decide to publish stories on the files. The New York Times handed their copy of the files, which was mailed to them, over to the FBI. The Los Angeles Times did not publish a story. But, three months before the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post stood up to power and went ahead and made the information public, even though it owned television stations and had broadcast licenses the government could have revoked.

Keith Forsyth, who was part of the action, explained the silence was obviously maintained because they did not want to go to prison. “The prospect of being harshly punished for revealing immoral and illegal conduct by our government was not appealing,” he said.

Additionally, the activists wanted “the focus of public’s attention to be on the FBI documents” that were “found and the policies that they revealed,” and not on them as individuals.

Once the documents were successfully published by “brave journalists” at the Washington Post and other outlets, the first goal was achieved. Then, when some restrictions on the abuse of power were instituted, a second goal was achieved. Mostly their job was done.

The activists were not looking for glory or recognition. They did not need to come forward and identify themselves.

They did not know for certain that what they would take would actually contain files revealing illegal spying on activists, but the chance that they would steal files that were completely innocuous seemed slim and they were willing to accept the risk.

Today, the activists involved praise Snowden and see what they did as being distinctly similar.

“I consider him a whistleblower of significance. In a democracy, we need whistleblowers regularly. I do not think he’s a criminal. I do not think he’s a traitor. I think he’s made sacrifices to his own personal life,” Bonnie declared.

She added Snowden thought carefully about how to get information out to the public. He revealed the information responsibly by providing the files to journalists at The Guardian, not WikiLeaks. He also decided to reveal his identity so that the NSA would not cast a huge net in an investigation that would make it difficult for a lot of other people. He should be able to return to American society and not be severely punished.

John stated, “In a democracy, the sovereigns are the people, and Snowden had the same purpose as we, the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI—namely to reveal information to the general citizenry that would allow them to formulate opinions that were well-informed, that would allow them to consent or not consent, which is at the very heart of democracy.”

Forsyth pointed out a few days after the documents the FBI spread the word that those who stole the documents had taken national security documents with locations of missile silos and other things like that the Russians could possibly obtain. This was to suppress the documents. It was a “total fabrication.”

Similarly, today it is said that Snowden is a traitor. He has the “keys to the kingdom,” how foreign governments could protect their information from US intelligence. There is no proof, only the allegations of officials with an interest in promoting this perception that what he took included incredibly dangerous material.

What about the fact that the activists never went to jail? What do they think about the criticism levied against Snowden because he fled the country instead of turning himself into authorities to be arrested?

John asked, how would that have helped him achieve his “purpose” (goal)? He also reemphasized, “We were not interested in being heroes or villains. We were interested in being citizens and doing what only we could do at that point.”

“The instruments of the federal government were paralyzed either by being enamored by Hoover or being terrified by Hoover. The important message was not us,” he said. “The important message was the documents themselves and what those documents showed FBI was doing to violate the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.”

Bonnie contended he had made a tactical decision to have certain information released at certain points of time. She called this a “very good strategy” for keeping the debate going.

“It keeps the NSA off-guard. And it maintains the focus where it should be. He would not be able to do that from a jail cell in the United States,” she concluded.

Historically, there are multiple examples of civil disobedience. What the activists did by raiding the office in Media is one form. The other form is what people recognize the most—Dr. King’s going to jail as part of the struggle for civil rights.

Civil rights attorney David Kairys, who knows and advised the activists who raided the FBI office, recalled how the Tea Party threw tea into a harbor in an act of resistance. The Underground Railroad resisted slavery.

Nobody today says they had to go to jail in order for their contribution to be considered positively. And, if one were to suggest that, a person would probably mock them to their face.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald appropriately pointed out, “Just as is true of Daniel Ellsberg today, these activists will be widely hailed as heroic, noble, courageous, etc. That’s because it’s incredibly easy to praise people who challenge governments of the distant past, and much harder to do so for those who challenge those who wield actual power today.”

With age, even the activists who raided the FBI office might be a bit more cautious in their view of what are acceptable acts of dissent. Bonnie said Chelsea Manning and others were different. She preferred to limit comparisons to what was done to Snowden.

Asked to give advice to antiwar activists, John said, “Empires always go to war because they have to justify their military budget.” He highlighted this issue and the importance of voting for people who would challenge the military budget. However, would he be willing to admit that government today should be confronted by antiwar activists or, more broadly, Americans in the same radical way that they confronted government in 1971?

That question is not one which John or Bonnie must answer. While their views might enlighten and add to the current conversation, they are much older now and have made their contribution to preserving a free and open society. It is younger people who are in positions to resist and challenge power, who should answer that question publicly or privately.

In fact, one should probably compare what the activists did then to hacktivists today, who are willing to digitally break into companies or firms and uncover information they believe is in the public interest (e.g. the Stratfor hack, which Jeremy Hammond is currently serving 10 years in prison for committing).

What must be done to build a society where systems of mass surveillance are not being built that can squelch dissent and indiscriminately violate the privacy of millions of citizens?

In the 1970s, they fought mass surveillance by taking files from an FBI office. In the 2010s, Snowden fought mass surveillance by taking files he had access to as a systems administrator for the NSA. And in both cases, as they professed, they wanted to start a debate that would give citizens the ability to know what their government was doing and impose constraints on what their government was allowed to do, if they chose to do so.

There will forever be a need for this kind of action in society, especially against mass surveillance. As John eloquently put it, “It will be a struggle for every generation and every generation will have to fight that struggle.”