Ordinary people doing extraordinary things: The amazing story of the people who broke into an FBI office and exposed its crimes

On March 8, 1971 some people broke into the FBI offices in Media, PA, stole all the files, and then released to the media those that blew the lid off all manner of outrageous and illegal activities that the FBI was engaged in to spy on and harass and even murder people in the anti-war and civil rights movements. I wrote about this back in January 2014, when some finally came forward to identify themselves as the ones who carried out the burglary.

Those documents revealed for the first time the name of the program COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) though it would take a couple of years before the full range of the government’s abuse of power would be fully revealed. The documents showed that the government wanted to “enhance the paranoia” of people and make them fear that the FBI and their informants were “hiding behind every mailbox”. They infiltrated all manner of groups that were engaged in perfectly peaceful acts of political dissent and tried to sow dissension and act as provocateurs in order to disrupt the civil rights and anti-war movements.

They also engaged in even more despicable acts like the murder of Black Panther activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4. 1969. Actress Jean Seberg was also a victim of COINTELPRO. She got in their sights simply because she had made a contribution to the Black Panthers. In retaliation, the FBI planted a story with newspaper editors that she was pregnant (true) and that the father was a Black Panther (false). The rumor spread rapidly and the stress likely caused Seberg to give birth prematurely to a still-born baby and, a few years later on the anniversary of her baby’s death, to commit suicide.

These are the things that the government will do to its own people and there is no reason to think that they will not do so again unless a tight rein is kept on them.

What was extraordinary was that this group of eight people consisted of ordinary people who felt driven by their conscience to take risks that could have land then in jail for decades. Two of them, John and Bonnie Raines, had three young children and they made arrangements for their care should they be put away. And yet, despite being complete amateurs to crime, they planned things so carefully (for example, they chose March 8, 1971 as the day for the burglary because that was the day of the much-ballyhooed Ali-Frazier fight and they rightly figured that almost everyone would be glued to their TV sets) and executed it so well that despite a massive search for them by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, not only were they never caught, but managed to keep the secret for 43 years.

Now that they have finally come forward, we can learn more about who they are, how they did it, and why. One source is the new book The Burglary by Betty Medsger. She was a reporter for the Washington Post at that time and was one of only five people to whom copies of the incriminating documents were first sent anonymously but was the only one who published the story and broke it wide open, despite pressure from the government that lied, as they always do, that publishing the story would cause grave harm to national security. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, senator George McGovern, and another anti-war congressman also got copies of the files but they returned them to the FBI and took no action, though the New York Times published stories once Medsger’s appeared.

There is a new documentary titled 1971 that will be shown on PBS TV stations on Monday, May 18 at 10:00 pm (Eastern) though you need to check local stations. Here’s the trailer.

There is a short 13-minute film Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets by RetroReport that covers some of that ground.

Medsger also has written an article about Judi Feingold who went into hiding after the burglary and lived under an assumed name and was the last to come forward and reveal herself. One of the participants in the burglary Bonnie Raines describes what they did and why.

John and Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth (who took a correspondence course on lock picking in order to break into the FBI offices) were interviewed on Democracy Now!, along with Medsger and their lawyer. It begins with a 10-minute excerpt from Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets before they discuss the whole affair. The discussion is nearly two-hours long and I began watching it last evening thinking I would watch just a bit but couldn’t help but see it through to the end, so impressed was I by the integrity, courage, and simple decency of these people.

The burglars felt that people needed to know what the government was doing and that they had to have actual official internal documents in order to convince people of the truth. They felt that the people who could tell the public the truth were not doing so and they felt compelled to take this action. These are all similar to the motives and actions of people like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of a sense of conscience.

I hope this inspires others to do the same.


  1. anat says

    Have you seen this?

    Soon merely taking a photograph on public land in Wyoming might be an ‘extraordinary thing’ if the photograph exposes causes of environmental degradation and gets submitted to a federal or state agency.

  2. Mano Singham says


    It seems to be part of the philosophy of “If no one knows about it, it doesn’t exist”.

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