John C. Raines ’55, and religion professor at Temple University is, in his own words, “the only Carleton grad that has ever appeared on the front page of the New York Times as a burglar.” He suspects that that record will last another thousand years.
On March 8, 1971, a group of nine Philadelphians burglarized Philadelphia suburb Media’s satellie F.B.I. office, taking nearly every document inside. They were looking for evidence of the F.B.I’s surveillance of civil rights leaders, political organizers, and suspected Communists, lead by the Director of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover.
The most significant document they found, dated 1968, contained the word Cointelpro. Shorthand for Counterintelligence Program, Cointelpro was a movement by the F.B.I to spy on Americans, and, in some people’s opinions, destroy lives and ruin reputations.
Although the F.B.I. assigned 200 agents to the case, opened 400 files on possible suspects, conducted 1,800 interviews in the Media area, sampled 4,500 Xerox copiers in search of ones used to copy the file, and created 33,698 pages in the public “MEDBURG” File, 0 fingerprints were found, the case was closed in 1976, and Raines and his accomplices were never discovered.
It wasn’t until recently, after Betty Medsger published a book on the event, “The Burglary”, that Raines and his fellow whistleblowers, including his wife Bonnie, revealed their involvement in the burglary.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Raines, who now lives in Philadelphia, about his involvement in the burglary and his time at Carleton College.
EN: What lead you to decide to take the files from the FBI?
JR: You mean what lead me to burglarize the files? Because that’s what it was, a burglary. I was a freedom writer and part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 and the Selma March in 1965, so I had a background in the Civil Rights Movement.
We didn’t want to have to what in fact we finally had to do because we sent people to Washington to do that; we elect people to oversee and hold accountable powerful institution in Washington and the people in power.
But in the case of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, that was not working. Some people in Washington were either scared of him or enamored of him. And he was an iconic figure in American culture. It’s very hard for people of your generation to realize that he, not the president was the most powerful man in Washington for many of the decades during which he headed the FBI. He headed the FBI for almost 5 decades.
And no one in Washington would officially hold him accountable or ask him the correct right questions. People in the press were also intimidated. Only one of the national presses, the Los Angeles Times, would sometimes be critical, mainly their reporter Mr. Nelson, of the FBI. But otherwise, nothing was happening.
What lead us to do this is, criminal activity was going on. Very dangerous activity was going on in the FBI directed by J. Edgar Hoover that endangered the freedom of all the rest of us. And those who we sent to Washington to protect our freedoms were not doing that. So we, the citizens, under those conditions, had to take actions.
And that’s why we the citizens, under those conditions, had to take action, and that’s why we called ourselves the Citizens Commission to investigate the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover had turned the FBI into his special branch, and very nearly turned it into a police state operation. Your generation just doesn’t know how close we came to replicating East Germany.
EN: What happened after you took the files?
JR: Well, we took the files successfully leaving no physical evidence behind, which is very important. We mailed them to 5 different outlets, 3 of them newspapers and 2 of them progressive politicians. The newspapers were the New York Times, the Washing Post, and Los Angeles Times, and the politicians were Senator McGovern and Representative Ron Dellums.
Now all of them, except one, immediately turned the files back to the FBI; in other words, the story would have never been broken. Except for the Washington Post. Very crucial, in this whole process, was some courageous investigative reporters and some courageous editors, and even owners of this newspaper.
Betty Medsger, a religion reporter for the Washington Post, received the files March 23 and immediately wondered—she was astonished at what the FBI was revealing about itself, and thought perhaps these were forgeries or fakes. Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, called the Justice Department, and the Attorney General John Mitchell, who didn’t go to prison by the way, called her and said, “yes those are genuine files and bear upon nationals defense, and you must never never publish them, and must send them back to us right away.”
Katharine Graham and the editors were in a big debate. The lawyers with the Washington Post said no, we have never been faced- no news organization in this country has ever been faced before with what you do with stolen federal documents that you’re thinking about publishing. That had never been a legal issue that any publishing company in the United States has ever faced.
But the two editors of the post very much wanted to publish these and leaned heavily on Katharine Graham to make that decision, and finally on the 23rd of March she said “yes we will publish then.”
And the next day the article appeared. And then, the New York Times and all the rest of the newspaper, television, and radio editors in the country saw the newspaper and got on the bandwagon and the whole secret FBI that J. Edgar Hoover had managed to establish was exposed.
EN: Were you worried about the safety of your family?
JR: The questions that has always been asked, ever since the story has got out, January 7 is: “you were husband and wife, and the only husband and wife team on the Citizens Commission, and you had three kids under ten, how could you do anything so reckless?”
And that’s a very good question. The answer to that is two-fold. The first part is, we were good burglars; we had learned our burglar skills from priests and nuns in the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives. So one, we were quite confident and would not have gone forward unless we were quite confident we could get away with this.
Second, we had an excellent diversion, a very lucky and excellent diversion. We chose the night of March 8th because it was a big boxing fight, so that worked in our favor.
But what really worked in our favor, and we didn’t find this out until years later, was that there was already a group in Camden NJ that were planning on breaking into the draft office and destroying the files, much as has happened frequently in the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives.
The FBI had successfully placed an informant inside the Camden 28, so everything they were planning to do the FBI knew. So of course when they broke into the office in Camden, they were all busted, and not enough attention was paid to our crime. We were lucky, I mean they sent out 200 agents to try and find us, and obviously they didn’t.
EN: So, did your position as a parent affect your decision to take part in the burglary?
JR: The thing is, you don’t stop being’ a citizen when you become a parent. As a parent, the most important legacy you give to your kids, and hopefully you will have enough money to give them a good education and enough moral stability to give them a good psychological basis—but even if you give them those, the most powerful legacy you give them in terms of their adult lives is the nation you give. So, you don’t stop being a citizen when you become a parent. IN fact, you become even more serious in terms of your obligations as a citizen. That’s why we called ourselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI.
EN: What was your time at Carleton like?
JR: Well, I was a student in the 1950’s, the Silent Generation. I was the class of ’55, and there may have been one person of color, and if so he was an African person of color. We were overwhelmingly a white, Christian group, although there was a good selection of Jewish students there.
As I recall, between 1951-1955 there was only one female professor, and she was in the music department. You have to realize, it was a very different time back then. I recall, and this is significant, in the four years I was in Carleton between 1951-1955 there was not one course offered on race. There was not one course offered on gender. I don’t remember even having a lecture on race or even a conversation on race.
Back then, at Carleton College, race was not an issue. And that was the problem. That was the problem. And here you have a liberal arts, progressive school in the early 50’s, missing a major, major issue of justice in our country. Carleton was not at all unusual; Carleton was just how it was. People of your generation need to realize that that was how it was back then.
EN: Do you think your experience and education at Carleton helped shape your decision to burglarize the files?
JR: No. Very simply, no. What changed my mind was becoming active in the civil rights movement.
EN: And going to Carleton did not inspire that at all?
JR: Maybe some, but there was not a class on race, there was not one lecture on race. Or even one discussion, I don’t think race was a big issue at Carleton in the early 50’s.
I think it was more that my values and upbringings as a young child influenced that, and then, in a certain sense it was kind of accidental that I got involved in the Civil
Rights movement as a freedom writer. And a kind of naivety that I didn’t realize the violence I was getting myself into.
EN: What would you say to students who are aspiring activists?
JR: Don’t give up hope. Let me put it this way, in 1959 nobody who was “a realist” thought the Civil Rights movement could pass a Civil Rights Bill ending legalized segregation… Nobody in 1959 thought that was a political possibility. What the Civil Rights did and what your generation has to do is take your values and make a way where there appears to be no way. That’s what happened before and that’s what always happened when there is significance change.
Your generation is facing two huge moral failures of my generation. My generation has failed. We have given you a world that is more and more unequal in terms of income and wealth, which means more and more unequal in terms of affective political power, which means we have given you a world gravely in danger in terms of its democratic future.
And we’ve given you a world that is unsustainable in terms of the present lifestyles. We have given you a world that in some curious way has a very dangerous future.
We have been failures. My generation has failed, and we have left your generation with very sticky, tough issues. And that was how it was back in the 60’s. And we found a way where there didn’t seem to be a way and your generation is going to have to do the same.