CHASING CITIZENSHIP looks at individuals whose words and actions challenged popular opinion, conventional wisdom, and political correctness in order to make America a more excellent union. The series celebrates the work of people who faced their most basic personal interests and willingly sacrificed them for the good of others. Background on the series can be found under the FEATURED SERIES menu. This article focuses on one of the most controversial burglaries in the history of the United States. The break-in at FBI Field Office in Media, Pa. that served, among other things, as a repository highly-classified FBI documents related to surveillance programs. This article does not promote illegal activities against our government. However, it challenges the reader to consider the personal, group, and societal dynamics at-work when the checks and balances of government fail the citizens of our nation. As always, I encourage you to bring the conversation for a better world and a better us.
COunter INTELligence PROgram [COINTELPRO] was a well-coordinated campaign of legal and illegal activities conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations between 1956 and 1971 in order to neutralize threats to national security. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover devised COINTELPRO in response to Supreme Court decisions that limited the government’s power to prosecute American citizens for espousing political views critical of U.S. policy such as pro-Communist positions and anti-Vietnam War sentiments.
The majority of targeted groups were deemed subversive, including the: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP]; Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]; Congress of Racial Equality [CORE]; Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]; and Black Panthers. COINTELPRO also targeted hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Similarly, the FBI maintained heavy surveillance of influential Congressmen, athletes and actors, and diplomats.
It was March 1971. Nearly 16 months after Americans learned about the Mai Lai Massacre. Eleven months after President Richard Nixon announced plans for U.S. troops to attack strategic locations in Cambodia – a decision that fueled a smoldering anti-war movement, resulting in escalated protests at colleges and universities across America.
March 1971 came just after deadly massacre of students at Jackson State University and Kent State University. On March 8, 1971, a group of eight citizens broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pa., stealing close to 1,000 documents that ultimately exposed some of the most sensitive FBI operations, most notably COINTELPRO.
The burglars, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI [CCIF], were never apprehended. Their identities went unknown for nearly 43 years until now. Author Betty Medsger’s new book, The Burglary, reveals identities of the burglars decades after the statute of limitations has expired and the FBI has closed the case. Medsger’s book, recent interviews, and documentary about CCIF activities reveal not only the planning and execution of the break-in, but also the incredible risks these Americans took while chasing citizenship as prescribed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. In addition to the book and interviews, Johanna Hamilton’s, 1971, provides a detailed account.
CCIF cohorts had diversity backgrounds, ranging from colleges professors to a taxi cab driver. Despite their vocational backgrounds, the individuals involved shared committed to ending illegal practices taking place in America’s intelligence community.
Members were aware of the very risky nature of their plan. John and Bonnie Raines, for instance, made plans for someone to care for their children in the event they were caught and sent to jail for understandably lengthy terms. Further, these individuals operated in a climate a tremendous pressure to to suppress dissent. To The spectacle of the Army-McCarthy Hearings during the Spring of 1954 were still fresh in the American psyche. And unlike charges routinely levied against protest groups, CCIF included professors at prestigious institution of higher learning that placed their political careers on the line.
Yet another twist to the 1971 break-in is role that “no snitching” played into its success. A nineth member initially planned to participate in the burglary, but decided to dropout during the final planning. This individual, according to Raines, knew all the participants and plans. The exiting member could have contacted authorities, spoiled the plans, and altered U.S. history. However, that individual remained secret then and for the four decades to following. The point? The no-snitching is not a cultural phenomena that grew out of hip-hop or the late Tupac Shukar’s Thug Life Code. However, the history of no-snitching was connected with “greater good” actions that date back to slave revolts.
Recent revelations about secret information gathering by U.S. intelligence agencies has re-ignited discussions about the legacy of spying [on Americans] and, by inference, the significance of the March 8, 1971 break-in. Hardliners praise the U.S. government for taking extraordinary measures to neutralize dissent, while moderates remain concerned about intelligence overload. PBS’ NOW captured these diverging views as expressed by conservative journalist David Horowitz and former Department of Justice official Mark D. Rasch:
The new FBI will be able to investigate Americans who pose a threat to national security — and that’s a good thing. While Muslim terrorists penetrate our borders with surface-to-air missiles and make every air traveler a potential target, and while INS screw-ups show daily that we have no borders and no real ability to keep any of our enemies out, a surreal battle is taking place within the ranks of our hostage population itself. The debate is whether Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI should have given agents license to keep an eye on suspected terrorists and their ideological supporters if they have not yet blown up a plane.
–“COINTELPRO’s overdue return,” David Horowitz, Salon.com, June 4, 2002
The problem that the Levi guidelines were intended to solve — and that the new guidelines will exacerbate — relates to the purpose for which the public information is gathered and utilized, not so much with the privacy of the information itself… Magnifying the problem is the fact that the intelligence gathering activities may now be directed at political meetings — particularly unpopular political meetings. Imagine FBI agents taking notes on a pastor’s sermon, a rabbi’s lecture, a priest’s homily — and noting the names and license plate numbers of attendees. Your “Greenpeace” bumper sticker, publicly displayed, becomes sufficient cause for the FBI to open a file on you.
–Mark D. Rasch, J.D., is a former head of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit.
Reflecting on the heist, retired Temple University professor and burglar noted, “We did it…because somebody had to do it… In this case, by breaking a law — entering, removing files — we exposed a crime that was going on….When we are denied the information we need to have to act as citizens, then we have a right to do what we did.”
While not promoting felonious activities, we must ask a number of compelling questions. Is the nation stronger or weaker because of the actions of these 8 citizens? Which journalism culture better serves the American public? The culture exhibited by Katharine Graham, who defied Nixon and Hoover by publishing extensive reports on the FBI program, or a culture of access that favors being “embedded” over serious critique of government policy? To what extent are Americans today reaching across socioeconomic strata (i.e., inter-class) to work collectively on common concerns in our country? Have the upward movement of population segments and widening income gaps in post-Vietnam/post Civil Rights America simplified or complicated inter-class collaboration? What parallels or contrasts, if any, might we draw between the leak of COINTELPRO documents and the NSA leaks involving Edward Snowden? What options did CCIF and other groups have during the Hoover regime to bring accountability to our government’s intelligence apparatus? And finally, how comfortable are you today about U.S. surveillance on American citizens?
These and other questions remain for the American public to raise, debate, and conclude. Be sure to check-out the videos below and leave your thoughts.
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RetroReport video documentary, Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets
Democracy New Interview of Media, Pa. FBI Office Burglars
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