If you weren’t alive on the evening of March 8, 1971, you probably don’t understand what a big deal it was when 8 anti-war activists burglarized the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI office. As detailed in Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, the fallout from the break-in changed the way Americans view the FBI. Moreover, the Media burglars set the stage for Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency.
The Media burglary came at the end of a tumultuous decade that included the freedom rides in the South, assassination of President Kennedy, escalation of the war in Vietnam, assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Chicago Democratic convention riots, Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, and Vietnam massacre at My Lai. By the end of 1970, most anti-war activists felt President Nixon and Congress weren’t listening to them. Many activists believed government agents were spying on them and interfering in their lives.
Physics professor Bill Davidon, and 7 other anti-war activists, burglarized the FBI office in order to determine whether their suspicions were justified. They removed all the FBI files and confirmed agents had infiltrated the civil rights and anti-war movements with the intent to “enhance the paranoia.” In addition, the burglars uncovered two top-secret FBI programs. The first was a “security index” that named “more than 26,000… Americans considered potentially dangerous as spies or saboteurs if war or national insurrection developed.”
The second was COINTELPRO, a secret program that spied on civil-rights leaders, anti-war activists, and public critics of the F.B.I.
[These] FBI operations aimed at dissenters went far beyond spying. Some were designed to hurt people physically and to destroy reputations by planting derogatory information that had been fabricated by the bureau.
These revelations produced public outrage and strict Congressional oversight of the FBI and the security establishment. After the Media burglary, Americans became more suspicious of the FBI and the intelligence community. Nonetheless, today most of us find it hard to believe the government would collect all of our phone, text, and email data. But that’s what happened after Congress passed the Patriot Act.
Edward Snowden revealed this surveillance. Like the Media burglars, Snowden broke the law in order to reveal massive US government transgressions.
Writing in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza observed
It is evident from the Snowden leaks that Obama inherited [from George Bush] a regime of dragnet surveillance that often operated outside the law and raised serious constitutional questions. Instead of shutting down or scaling back the programs, Obama has worked to bring them into narrow compliance with rules—set forth by a court that operates in secret.
A recent New York Times editorial noted:
■ The N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor. ■ The agency broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world, allowing it to spy on hundreds of millions of user accounts and infuriating the Internet companies that own the centers. ■ The N.S.A. systematically undermined the basic encryption systems of the Internet, making it impossible to know if sensitive banking or medical data is truly private, damaging businesses that depended on this trust.
Before March 8, 1971, the FBI and CIA vigorously denied they gathering surveillance data on thousands of Americans. Subsequent disclosures revealed they lied. On March 12, 2013, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence who oversees NSA, lied to Congress when he denied that the NSA is collecting data on millions of Americans.
J. Edgar Hoover justified FBI political spying, the Security Index, and COINTELPRO, claiming he was saving the US from communism. But history has shown that it had nothing to do with threats from Russia or China but instead Hoover’s prejudices.
This past June Obama defended NSA surveillance, saying, “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information.” Pro Publica reports that the NSA has provided specifics on only four of these cases and there is little support for the President’s contention that NSA surveillance actually “averted” these threats. In December Federal District Judge Richard J. Leon studied NSA surveillance and observed, “the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”
On March 8, 1971, the Media 8 served the public interest when they burglarized the FBI office and revealed the contents to the press. Amazingly, they were never arrested. On June 5, 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the NSA surveillance process to the press. On June 23 he sought asylum in Russia.
What we learned in 1971 is essentially the same thing we learned from the Snowden documents. The federal government is conducting illegal surveillance on Americans.
Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He is a patriot.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org