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January 19, 2014

Local native’s book details FBI heist

JOHNSTOWN — More than four decades ago, a band of eight anti-war activists pulled off a heist that could be considered inconceivable – even more so by today’s standards.

On March 8, 1971, a Media branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was infiltrated, a large cache of documents stolen and leaked to the press. The burglars, who eluded the FBI until the case was closed five years later, vowed to take the secret to their grave.

Now, 43 years later, their silence has been broken. An area native, who found herself closer to the story’s center than she could expect, has published a book that tells the whole tale.

The author, Betty Medsger, who grew up near New Florence and was a 1960 United High School alumna and Tribune-Democrat reporter from 1964 to 1966, was the first to publish articles based on the stolen files during her time at The Washington Post.

The leaks revealed classified FBI campaigns to squelch dissidence, monitor minority groups and perpetuate the agency as a shadowy, omnipresent network.

“There was a sort of striking policy statement that instructed agents to ‘enhance the paranoia’ and make people think there was an FBI agent behind every mailbox,” she told The Tribune-Democrat in a phone interview.

“What was clear in those files is that most people who were being informed on, like anti-war activists and civil rights activists, were being surveilled because of their (dissentious) ideas,” she said.

Revelations as to the scope of the clandestine surveillance project, dubbed COINTELPRO or Counterintelligence Program, cast a bad light on then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He had, until then, been seen as a defender against domestic, foreign and ideological threats to the nation, Medsger said. When the story broke, it was to collective shock.

She said one of the “worst” discoveries was the unwarranted espionage Hoover was ordering on minority groups.

“The files described requirements that every FBI agent had to have an informer who went into the black community and reported back to them on what black people were doing,” she said. “For black people, it was simply enough to be black to be informed on.”

Medsger said the FBI plants described in the documents could have been switchboard operators or mail carriers.

“Informers would be in your local stores, in the bars, the restaurants, classrooms, churches – anywhere a normal person might go.”

The Media documents led to one of the biggest FBI investigations at that point in history and large-scale reform of government surveillance tactics.

Years after publication, Medsger went on to become the head of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. Around that time, she came to learn much more about the FBI break-in. The timing of the discovery was peculiar – it was during dinner with old acquaintances.

During a speaking trip, she made a weekend stop in Philadelphia and met John and Bonnie Raines for an evening meal. The Raineses introduced Medsger to their young daughter as an old friend who helped them disseminate important information in years past. Medsger said she was awestruck. Two of the Media conspirators were hiding in plain sight.

A few weeks later, Medsger said she felt compelled to tell their story. The Raineses, as well as five others from the original eight burglars, revealed themselves publicly. Medsger’s book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.” was released on Jan. 7.

“It’s not just what they did. (It’s) the roots of their motivation and the values they had that made it possible for them to do something (like this) – to risk spending many years in prison,” she said about the book. “It really is one of the most powerful acts of nonviolence in American history.

“It’s looking at this massive investigation from inside the investigation – unfolding the impact of what they did.”

She said stories of those who risk all for the public interest still resonate with readers today.

For former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, divulging the nature of the NSA’s domestic spying activity meant never returning home – at least not as a free man. The country is still sifting through the implications of what he exposed.

To Medsger, these are acts that can elicit true change.

“It is a fact that the only way that Americans have learned about drastic overreach by the country’s intelligence agencies is (through) burglars,” she said. “Without (the Media burglary) happening, there would have been no reforms that changed the way the FBI and the CIA – and back then the NSA – did things.

“Civil liberties and privacy became important issues.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.

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