Burglars Who Hit FBI in 1971 Finally Come Forward

They famously exposed domestic spying
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 7, 2014 7:52 AM CST
Burglars Who Hit FBI in 1971 Finally Come Forward
J. Edgar Hoover.   (Wikimedia Commons)

The inner details of a March 8, 1971, hit on the FBI office in Media, Pa., are finally coming to light—from the mouths of those who wielded the crowbars. An eight-person antiwar group (made up in part of professors, a day-care director, and a 20-year-old self-taught lock picker) descended on the office while the rest of the country watched Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier go 15 rounds, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The New York Times reports they spent months casing the building, with one member posing as a college student inquiring about job options to gain access and determine there was no alarm system. They picked a lock, used a crowbar to break another, stuffed suitcases with as many as 1,000 documents, and fled in getaway cars, later meeting at a farmhouse to review their haul—which included files they mailed to reporters, files that shook the FBI "to its core," per the Inquirer.

One memo advised agents to question activists in "New Left" groups on campuses to "get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox"; another urged the infiltration of African-American groups. But the break-in most notably led to the first publicized reference to COINTELPRO, a surveillance program started under J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 with the goal of ruining the lives of perceived enemies—like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was sent an anonymous letter written by FBI agents that told him to kill himself or see his affairs publicized. (It also targeted perceived Communists and the KKK before being shuttered in 1972 after the break-in threw light on it, reports NBC News.) "The FBI was never the same," says Betty Medsger, a reporter who received some documents and has a book coming out on the subject this week. With the statute of limitations having expired decades ago, five members of the group decided to speak at her urging. A wild side note: About 200 FBI agents investigated the crime for more than five years, and closed the case with no answers; Medsger says only one of the eight made it onto the final suspects lists. (More burglary stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.