PHILADELPHIA – A group of Philadelphia-area antiwar activists who broke into an FBI office in 1971 and stole, then gave to the media, documents showing the agency was targeting protesters has come forward for the first time to give details about the break-in.
Until now, the crime was unsolved. But the period to charge anyone also has lapsed.
The group, including three college professors, a daycare director and a cab driver, did much of their plotting in a home in Philadelphia’s Germantown section before the March 8, 1971, raid on the FBI office in Media, 35 kilometres southwest of Philadelphia. Their activities came during the Vietnam War protests that deeply divided the country.
Members of the group spoke to the media in the run-up to two chronicles of the break-in: Journalist Betty Medsger’s book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” released Tuesday, and “1971,” filmmaker Johanna Hamilton’s documentary to debut later this year.
Keith Forsyth, a 20-year-old cab driver at the time of the break-in, said the members wanted to avoid prosecution — the statute of limitations ran out in 1976. But he said they also kept quiet until now because they wanted the public to pay attention on the revelations from the files.
“We wanted the focus to be on the documents we found and not on us,” he said during a conference call Tuesday with reporters.
One of the memos the group took and leaked called for FBI agents to increase questioning of campus leftists, saying the effort would “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The raiders spent weeks casing the FBI office, sending one participant, Bonnie Raines, in to ask about career opportunities in the FBI for women while noting the lack of locks on file drawers in the office. Meanwhile, Forsyth was learning to pick locks.
On the night of a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship boxing match, they carried out their plan, leaving the office with suitcases full of files.
Group members said they sorted the documents and only sent to reporters the ones that showed the FBI targeting civilians — and not those that could have compromised national security.
The envelopes they sent out to journalists in early April of that year came from what they called the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. One of them arrived on the desk at The Washington Post of Medsger, who reported then on the revelations and never gave up telling the story of the break-in and its meaning.
“The FBI was conducting a secret war on dissent,” she said Tuesday, “particularly on antiwar activists and African Americans.”