At the end of the business day on March 8, 1971, a day care worker, two professors, a taxi driver and four other civil rights and peace activists quietly broke into the Media, Penn. FBI office. They took over 1000 official FBI documents in order to expose unconstitutional activities by the FBI. They slipped away unnoticed and were never caught. Three of the eight came out of the shadows and revealed their identities in January of this year.
The activist team, titling themselves “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI,” found that Hoover had created an elaborate, clandestine network of spies, including politicians, law enforcement, religious leaders, postal workers and university employees to keep close account of civil rights activists, as well as to “neutralize them.” Fraud, bribery and blackmail were also used to corner powerful U.S. players into the operation.
Hoover named his dragnet of illegal and unconstitutional activities the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it was referred to on the stolen documents. The CCIF and many others like them had been protesting the war in Vietnam for years. The activists knew the FBI was responsible for violently repressing civil rights and anti-war protests and stopping the media from reporting on the human rights movements. But they couldn’t prove it.
The burglary was a last resort to expose the severe FBI violations, according to the three activists who came forward. Bonnie Raines, the day care director, her husband John and taxi driver Keith Forsyth told Amy Goodman in an interview for Democracy Now! that they needed the actual FBI documents to make people pay attention. As John Raines wisely said, “Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy,” and dissent was being extinguished by Hoover’s maniacal campaign.
CCIF sent two copies of the documents to Congress and three copies to reporters Betty Medsger of The Washington Post, Jack Nelson from the Los Angeles Times and Tom Wicker at The New York Times. Medsger was the only one who actually received the documents, and she decided to publish them. Former U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), and former U.S. Representative Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) also received the documents, and both sent them back to the FBI without comment.
After the story broke, Congress was compelled to take action against such illegal and unconstitutional programs. Former U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) organized a committee for investigation. The final report stated that Hoover’s techniques were “intolerable in a democratic society” and that “COINTELPRO went far beyond that … the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech.”
Just like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, the CCIF were not criminals but patriots for human rights. Hoover had implemented methods to “enhance paranoia” of unproven foreign terrorists, and he propagated the idea that peace activists were supporting them to silence dissent. Now our lobby-loving government is doing the same thing. The FBI and CIA do the groundwork while the NSA controls the unconstitutional spy machine, exceeding the diabolical ambitions of Hoover. Unfortunately the Medsgers are few and far between these days. So it is up to us to pay attention and support activism more than ever.