Chris White, DCNF
- It’s been over four decades since a mysterious group of political activists stormed into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole a treasure trove of documents showing the bureau’s work spying on Americans for political purposes, and distributed that information to the press.
- The group’s document dump showed how former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used the instruments of his office to target civil rights activists and even a Hollywood actress, who committed suicide after the bureau planted a false story about her.
- Two prominent conservative historians worry the FBI’s handling of the Michael Flynn case shows the bureau is operating in similar territory in the Trump era and being used for partisan political purposes instead of merely for intelligence gathering.
It’s been over 45 years since a ragtag group of activists broke into a small-town FBI office and made off with a giant cache of documents revealing the extent of the bureau’s work spying on Americans for political purposes.
Conservative historians worry history is repeating itself.
A group of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI forced their way into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, with a crowbar in search of documents revealing the extent of the bureau’s spy network. Planning the ruse on the night of an epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier gave the group cover, they believed.
Agents arrived at the two-man office the morning after to find disheveled cabinets and missing documents, past media reports show.
The group gave the first batch of 14 documents to The Washington Post, the contents of which detailed how the FBI recruited a local police chief to surveil black activist groups in the Philadelphia area. A switchboard operator was also employed to tap into the activists’ phone lines. The New York Times and a slew of Democratic lawmakers received similar memos highlighting the bureau’s work.
Two prominent conservative historians see similarities between what the FBI was doing during that time and what the intelligence community did during the Michael Flynn investigation, which eventually culminated in the former U.S. Army lieutenant general pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. Conservatives say the FBI’s investigation was politically motivated.
The commission’s members were never outed despite the FBI building up a six-year, 33,000-page file on the case. Several members of the group eventually confessed to the bold burglary in a 2014 book titled “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” The case is officially closed as the five-year statute of limitations on burglary has expired.
They explained the reason for the break-in to the book’s author, former WaPo reporter Betty Medsger.
“We did it … because somebody had to do it,” John Raines, a retired professor at Temple University and former civil rights “Freedom Rider,” told NBC in 2014. “In this case, by breaking a law — entering, removing files — we exposed a crime that was going on.”
The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI’s break-in predated former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers by three months and prompted former Idaho Sen. Frank Church’s congressional hearings on intelligence agency abuses.
How Did They Do It?
The group waited outside the Pennsylvania FBI office for hours until John Raines’s wife, Bonnie Raines, walked up to an agent guarding the building and posed as a college student seeking to interview the agent about job opportunities.
“I tried to disguise my appearance as much as I could,” Bonnie Raines told NBC in 2014. “I had long, dark, hippie hair at that time and I stuffed it up inside of a winter hat … What [the agent] didn’t notice during the whole interview was that I never took my gloves off.”
Keith Forsyth, a former Philadelphia cab driver and another member of the group, entered the building first.
“I picked door B and busted the deadbolt off in one go with a crowbar,” he recounted during the NBC interview. “And I held my breath.”
They admitted to leaving the office a mess.
Here’s What They Found
John Raines and his crew revealed the spy operation COINTELPRO, a program designed to neutralize political dissidents. Under this program, the bureau worked to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,” as one COINTELPRO memo put it, according to press reports fleshing out the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI’s historical importance.
The documents showed that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was going beyond intelligence gathering and instead focusing on destabilizing and demoralizing public figures.
Agents spied on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. through the program and tried to persuade him to commit suicide. They illegally planted bugs in his hotel rooms and threatened to make public tapes of him entertaining women who were not his wife.
“King, there is one thing left for you to do. You know what it is,” one operative wrote in a 1964 letter.
Hoover also targeted actress Jean Seberg for having donated money to the Black Panther Party. She committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 40. Seberg’s death was due in part to mental distress she endured after a media report planted by the FBI suggesting the father of a baby she was carrying was a member of the Black Panther Party, according to her second husband, Romain Gary.
The story was false.
Historians Say The FBI Is Reverting Back To Its Old Ways
Former President Lyndon B. Johnson used the CIA and FBI to spy on former Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in the late 1960s, according to Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Edwards explained in a Wall Street Journal editorial in 2018 how the former president asked Hoover to keep tabs on Goldwater during the 1964 campaign.
Johnson received advance knowledge of Goldwater’s travel log along with copies of the Republican’s remarks from a CIA spy planted in Goldwater’s campaign headquarters, Edwards noted. Former intelligence officer E. Howard Hunt acknowledged during a Senate committee in 1973 that his CIA superior directed him to infiltrate the campaign, he wrote.
There are parallels between the Goldwater years and the Trump era, Edwards told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“We know that the White House was involved in both the King business and the Goldwater business,” said Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement.
“It’s not clear to me to what extent there is that same connection between the White House and the bureau,” he said of the 39 former Obama-era officials who unmasked Flynn.
Edwards’s comments come as reports show former Vice President Joe Biden, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were among several federal officials who requested classified intelligence reports from 2016 identifying Flynn in National Security Agency reports.
Republicans suspect one of the officials leaked the information to the press to hurt Trump, while Democrats argue the unmasking is part and parcel of a routine intelligence-gathering process.
It’s difficult to believe that former President Barack Obama would not have been aware of these top officials’ requests, particularly given Flynn’s proximity to President Donald Trump, Edwards said. Another historian expressed similar concerns related to the Flynn matter.
“The problem with the FBI is that J. Edgar Hoover was in office for 50 years. Nobody dealt with him. Suddenly in the early 1970s, he died. Open season on Hoover,” Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told the DCNF.
Now, there are several tiny versions of Hoover operating inside Washington at any given time, he noted.
Hanson also mentioned Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, and former FBI legal counsel James A. Baker, both of whom were important figures in the Russia probe.
“It’s different now because there’s not just one boogeyman like Hoover. Now there’s Comey, McCabe and Baker, who are well dressed and professionals,” Hanson said.
Hanson added: “What’s going on now is more sophisticated. These people all have prestigious degrees. They are all deeply embedded … and nobody cares because they are going after Trump. Anything you want to do is okay because you are going after Trump.”
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