Monday, January 20, 2014

Coming Clean - The 1971 Media Break-in

Updated September 2018

While Edward Snowden's revelations about government snooping opened the world's eyes to the power of the American surveillance state, back in 1971, there was a much less technological intrusion into the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an attempt to prove that J. Edgar Hoover and his Bureau were breaking the law.  For over 40 years, those involved in the break-in at the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania remained uncaught despite a massive manhunt that involved 200 FBI agents however, some of the eight protestors involved have now stepped forward and claimed responsibility including John Raines, now 80 years of age and his wife, Bonnie Raines, now 72 years of age.  Let's start by looking at a bit of history to put the break-in into context.

For those of us that were around during the early 1970s, it was a time of turmoil.  Anti-Vietnam and anti-government protests were becoming increasingly violent.  The violence reached a new peak in May 1970 when the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded nine others during an anti-war protest at Ohio State University in Kent, Ohio.  After the killing, nationwide student strikes took place, resulting in the closing of 450 educational facilities across the United States and roughly 4 million students took part in both violent and non-violent protests.  In Washington D.C., 100,000 protestors demonstrated against the killing of unarmed students and American involvement in the war, resulting in the removal of President Richard Nixon to Camp David for two days to ensure his safety.

With all of this ongoing anti-government action, someone had to take the blame.  The term "The New Left" was coined to collectively describe the college-aged baby boomers who were attempting to change American culture and rebuild society in a cultural revolution.  The early core of the New Left was formed by the Students for a Democratic Society, a radical organization that aspired to overthrow  the American political institution, promoting civil rights, voting rights and urban reform .  As well, the SDS spearheaded the anti-Vietnam war movement and acted to destroy the pro-war Hubert Humphrey's chances at gaining the Democratic nomination for President at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

With the social environment in the United States bordering on anarchy, there were fears that the FBI was targeting and harassing young Americans that were part of the New Left in an attempt to undermine their efforts.  Young Americans in Philadelphia, a centre of the anti-war movement became increasingly concerned that the FBI was using illegal surveillance to prevent student dissent, an issue that was almost impossible to prove.  A physics professor at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania just outside Philadelphia, William Davidon, came up with a plan to break into the FBI field offices at Media Pennsylvania.  He assembled a team of eight people who called themselves "The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI", including Bonnie and John Raines.  The Raines had three young children; Bonnie was working at a daycare centre and John was a professor at Temple University.  One of the group members, Keith Forsyth, trained himself as a locksmith so that he could pick the door locks.  Ms. Raines made an appointment under the guise of looking for a job in the office so that she could make a mental map of the layout and any security system that was in place (there was no security).  During the interview she disguised herself and wore gloves the entire time so that she would leave no fingerprints behind.  The group picked May 8th, 1971 as the break-in date, the night of the first "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.  The group entered the office, filled suitcases with every file present and made their way to a Quaker farmhouse an hour away.  There, they sorted through the hundreds of documents and then mailed the most incriminating ones that proved that the FBI was spying on political activists to the press, including the Washington Post.  In case you wanted to read Ms. Raines recent column on the subject, here is a link to a column written by her, explaining her involvement.

In response to the revelations, the Senate formed the Church Committee which investigated the operations of United States intelligence agencies including the FBI's spying operation known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), the secret program that was used to infiltrate domestic political groups and smear the reputation of America's perceived enemies including Martin Luther King.  The fourteen reports published in 1975 and 1976 were the most extensive review of the nation's intelligence activities that were ever made public and included investigations into U.S. involvement in attempts to assassinate foreign leaders including Fidel Castro and Vietnam's Diem brothers.  Book III opens with the following two pages:

Note the sentence: ""Covert action" is the label applied to clandestine activities intended to influence political choices and social values.".  COINTELPRO, the covert action program, was authorized by J. Edgar Hoover and operated in the years between 1956 and 1972 when its existence was confirmed by the Media, Pennsylvania burglary.  The Church Committee found that COINTELPRO had ignored legal restrictions.

Here, from 1975, is what Idaho Senator Frank Church had to say about government surveillance (ignoring the presence of Rick Santorum on the set of Meet the Press for the moment):

Here is the full quote from the 1975 interview of Senator Church:

"In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return." (my bold)

It's interesting to hear/read the words of a United States Senator who is saying the same thing that the "tinfoil hat" crowd has been saying for years.

With 2013's revelations courtesy of Edward Snowden, one has to wonder if history isn't repeating itself.  With today's advanced technology that allows the gathering of trillions of data points, it is far easier for the government to potentially "influence political choices and social values" through intimidation than it ever has been in history.

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