Stealing Secrets

By Joel Hoekstra
Four decades ago, John Raines ’55 helped steal hundreds of classified files from an FBI office in Pennsylvania, fueling a national debate about government surveillance that still rages today.

Stealing Secrets

Shortly after dawn on March 9, 1970, an FBI agent arrived at work at a field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and discovered a shocking security breach. “The place was ransacked,” he would later recall. “The doors of cabinets were open and files were gone.” Someone had rifled through desk drawers and absconded with thousands of classified documents. Soon thereafter, the contents of the purloined papers were published in the Washington Post, exposing the government’s efforts to spy on and intimidate its own citizens. The public was shocked.

The burglars who nabbed the documents and mailed them to major newspapers evaded capture and kept their silence—until last year, when John Raines ’55 and his wife, Bonnie, revealed themselves to be among eight individuals who carried out the theft. The couple’s involvement is detailed in The Burglary, written by reporter Betty Medsger and published in 2014, and their story is also part of 1971, a newly released independent film about the break-in. “It wasn’t something we wanted to do,” John Raines says of the burglary. “It was just that nobody in Washington was willing to do what they were supposed to do.” 

The son of an esteemed minister in a prominent Minneapolis church, Raines was taught to respect authority and conformity. “I was part of the silent generation of 1950s,” says Raines, noting that he and his friends tended not to question the actions of authorities at the time.

After graduating from Carleton, Raines attended seminary and became a minister. And then, in 1961, he received a letter from the Congress of Racial Equality asking clergy to join the civil rights movement. He realized his Christian values aligned with the cause, signed on, rode an integrated bus from St. Louis to Little Rock, Arkansas—where the riders were confronted by a white mob—and got thrown in jail. “For the first time, I found myself on the outside of power, rather than on the inside,” he recalls. “Suddenly, my relationship to power, law, and privilege became much more complex.”

Galvanized by the experience, Raines became deeply enmeshed in political activism even as he married Bonnie, started a family, and took up work as a religion professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Between 1961 and 1965, he traveled to the South several times to fight for civil rights, and he and Bonnie protested the Vietnam War. Like many activists of the time, they grew increasingly suspicious that the government—and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in particular—was working against them.

So when an acquaintance, William Davidon, a Haverford College physics professor, suggested that they break into an FBI office to obtain proof that the government was spying on citizens, the couple believed they were obligated to participate. Raines dismisses the idea that any of the eight people who ultimately participated wanted to be heroes. “None of us
was in martyr mode,” he says. “We weren’t foolish. Bonnie and I had three kids under 10.”

Meeting in secret, the group hatched a plan to raid the FBI’s office in Media, 20 miles west of Philadelphia. For weeks they monitored the agents’ activity and traffic in and out of the building. Finally, they sent Bonnie inside. Wearing a wig, horn-rimmed glasses, and gloves, she presented herself as a college student in search of a job. While she talked with an agent who welcomed her queries, she noted the office’s entrances and exits and the location of the filing cabinets. She saw few locks on the cabinets and no signs of an alarm system.

On March 8, while many Americans were watching a televised boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the activists entered the FBI office, filled several suitcases with documents, and fled to a remote farmhouse. There, they opened the files, began reading, and soon discovered correspondence from FBI headquarters that confirmed the agency wanted to sow dissension among protesters. One document explicitly encouraged agents to “enhance the paranoia . . . [that] there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox.”

“Now we had physical evidence that the FBI was not focused on investigation, but rather on intimidation,” Raines recalls. “Its intent was to suppress dissent, not find out if something criminal was going on.”

A few days later, the activists sent copies of the stolen documents to Senator George McGovern and Representative Ron Perrins and to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. To their surprise, only the Washington Post published information found in the documents, in stories reported by Betty Medsger. But as word of the government’s spying spread, so did public outrage. Calls to stop Hoover (who died in 1972) and limit the powers of the FBI grew, ultimately resulting in the 1975 Senate investigation headed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, which, among other things, limited the term of the FBI director to a decade and established congressional oversight of intelligence operations. “All of that resulted from our burglary,” Raines says.

Raines acknowledges that some people have a hard time excusing the fact that the burglars, who can no longer be prosecuted, still broke the law. “We had to distinguish between ‘breaking the law’ and ‘committing a crime,’ ” he says. “Legalized segregation was a crime, so we had to break the law in order to stop the crime.” 

Recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs serve as a reminder that “our leaders continue to treat us as children who should obey and not speak,” says Raines. “That’s not what it means to be a citizen. Sometimes everyday citizens need to do what [authorities] won’t do. That’s what we did in 1971.” 


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