Tucked away in a corner on the sixth floor of Gladfelter Hall, John C. Raines’ religion department office lends itself well to the softspoken octogenarian. He speaks carefully, laughs easily and sits comfortably, surrounded by relics and countless books accumulated from years as a religious scholar.
You wouldn’t guess that the longtime university professor once shook the foundations of the nation’s most powerful spy agency.
On the night of March 8, 1971, as the world was glued to the championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Raines and a group of ragtag political activists quietly burglarized a small FBI field office in Media, Pa. They made off with suitcases full of classified documents, fiercely guarded files that would eventually reveal the widespread abuses of an agency gone rogue and the sweeping overreach of then-director J. Edgar Hoover.
For decades, the events of that night remained one of history’s most overlooked and unsolved crimes.
But after more than 40 years of silence, Raines and his fellow whistleblowers publicly admitted to the burglary last month, coming clean about the events surrounding the takedown of Hoover’s F.B.I.
Raines and his co-burglars would tip the first in a series of proverbial dominoes that would eventually topple the former spy boss, exposing files that revealed the first classified references to the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence operation designed to undermine and discredit political movements through sweeping domestic surveillance.
“We did what had to be done,” Raines said. “It’s pretty hard for people today to realize how powerful J. Edgar Hoover was… he was untouchable in Washington. Congressmen, even presidents were intimidated by him.”
It’s the preface to a tale that sounds straight off the silver screen: a cast of power-hungry spy bosses and unlikely protagonists, late-night burglaries and getaway cars and one of the most significant leaks of classified information in U.S. history, the echoes of which still reverberate today.
Raines and his wife Bonnie had been active political participants for years, and the anti-war movement was no exception, even with the danger their activism could cause his family, Raines said.
“Those of us who participated in the civil rights movement knew that J. Edgar Hoover was anything but a friend of the movement. He wanted the protests to stop,” Raines said.
The FBI’s efforts to undermine the anti-war movement were widely known and speculated. But hard evidence was elusive. The Raines’ friend and fellow dissenter Bill Davidon knew where to find it so he asked Raines and eight others what would happen if they stole it.
“After the chin came off the floor and we started talking about it, it seemed more and more plausible,” Raines said.
The FBI office in Philadelphia was too heavily guarded and was hardly discreet. But a smaller field office just outside city limits in Media, Pa., was a viable target.
Raines recalls months of planning – including a covert visit by his wife to the FBI’s Media office, disguised as a Swarthmore College student – leading up to the evening of March 8. Of the nine dissenters who had signed on to Davidon’s mission, eight embarked to the office under cover of darkness.
Save a complicated office door lock, Raines recalled the actual burglary being a smooth operation. As he manned the getaway car parked blocks away at Swarthmore College, four others entered the office, and within 45 minutes, left with the FBI’s most precious secrets packed inside suitcases.
“Right away, early on the morning of [March] 9, we spread these files out on tables and began to sort them, always wearing gloves of course,” Raines said. “It didn’t take us long to discover we had not acted in vain.”
Countless files revealed intentions and operations that stretched far beyond the FBI’s mandate: political files on notable movement leaders, domestic surveillance efforts and direct communications between Hoover and high-level agents, aiming to establish increased paranoia and undermine anti-government movements.
“That was wonderful file for us because it showed that Hoover was not simply into surveillance,” Raines said. “Hoover was into taking the voice of dissent away from dissent.”
The files, Raines said, were sent to three newspapers and two politicians. All were returned, except by the Washington Post.
The Post’s Betty Medsger received the group’s first round of mailings around March 24, Raines said. Publishing fights ensued between the paper and the attorney general, who begged for the files to remain private. Late in the evening before, the decision was made and the documents led the Post’s front page the next morning.
That, as it turned out, became the end of the road for Raines and his co-burglars. They said their goodbyes and went separate ways. The files were sent, Hoover’s transgressions revealed and no one knew where the files had come from.
“It was part of our agreement. We knew the jeopardy in which we were going to be because of Hoover’s power, and his anger, so we had agreed beforehand that once the files were mailed off, that we’d go our separate ways,” Raines said. “We knew that if we could leave the scene clean, that then we could disappear into this ocean of fellow fish.”
It was decades before Raines let slip to Medsger that he had sent the files her way. The statute of limitations was long gone, and Medsger knew the extraordinary tale was worth more than a footnote in history. After years of research, “The Burglary” hit shelves last month.
If it hadn’t been for the book, Raines said he would have been OK with never revealing his best-kept secret.
The widespread abuses of Hoover’s FBI eventually led to the establishment of the congressional Church Committee, tasked to investigate the unchecked overreach of the nation’s intelligence practices. Headed by Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, the committee eventually overhauled the laws that governed the FBI and its sister agencies.
The then-temporary committee eventually manifested into a permanent fixture on Capitol Hill that remains to this day: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Raines’ story carries extra weight given the current national debate over widespread surveillance of the National Security Agency, revealed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden. Although Raines said he and his fellow whistleblowers were satisfied with the Church Committee’s work in the 1970s, the balance between national security and civil liberties has once again been tipped in a post-9/11 world.
“Am I satisfied with what happened back then? Yes. Am I satisfied with what’s going on right now with the NSA? No…I see Snowden as a whistleblower in 2013, just like we were whistleblowers in 1971,” Raines said. “Snowden got out information, as we did earlier, to the citizens so that those citizens then could form their own opinion and make their own opinion effective in Washington.”
The question many have asked in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks is “Who elected the 29-year-old contractor to make those decisions?”
Separated by decades, Raines’ answer bore profound similarity.
“When the people we elect refuse to act to protect the civil liberties guaranteed us in the fourth amendment,” he asked, “who’s left but the citizens?”
Ali Watkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AliMarieWatkins.