Stealing secret records about government spying used to be way more complicated

Pub date January 7, 2014
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

In 1971, a group of radicals broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole a bunch of documents about J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance program targeting dissidents and antiwar activists.

Thanks to their criminal act, which they followed up by anonymously sending copies of the files to major media outlets, awareness of FBI spying under Cointelpro penetrated mainstream consciousness.

More than 40 years later, the people behind that theft have unmasked themselves in a new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, authored by Betty Medsger. The former Washington Post reporter convinced some of the burglars to come forward and tell their tale. Medsger previously served as chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University.

A New York Times piece spotlighting the book describes the historic event and draws a comparison with modern day whistleblower Edward Snowden, who used access granted to him as a National Security Agency contractor to shed light on secret documents detailing NSA surveillance programs.

“Unlike Mr. Snowden, who downloaded hundreds of thousands of digital N.S.A. files onto computer hard drives, the Media burglars did their work the 20th-century way: they cased the F.B.I. office for months, wore gloves as they packed the papers into suitcases, and loaded the suitcases into getaway cars. When the operation was over, they dispersed.”

The burglary also entailed lock picking, opening a window with a crowbar, and memorization of FBI staff’s comings and goings; also, they never again met as a group after making off with the files.

Even as technology has given intelligence agencies the ability to build a once unfathomable surveillance system that regularly sweeps in the communications of millions of law-abiding Americans, it’s also made it easier for information about such activities to be brought into the light of day – with just a few simple keystrokes.