Before Snowden and Manning, There Were the Burglars

Congratulations to the nonviolent activists who have come forward after exposing illegal FBI spying 43 years ago.

On March 8, 1971, a group of eight peace activists, including two professors, broke into an FBI office in a Philadelphia suburb and carried away every document they could lay their hands on.

The team of burglars, a sort of real-life “Ocean’s Eleven,” strongly believed they would find evidence of FBI lawbreaking.

They found the evidence they were looking for, and much more.

The seized documents revealed the existence of an illegal, top-secret undertaking, codenamed COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), whose purpose was basically to suppress political dissent in the United States.

This politically motivated program targeted the civil rights movement and peace groups opposed to the Vietnam War and the draft.

The FBI program not only conducted extensive surveillance of citizens who were lawfully exercising their legitimate First Amendment rights, but it also aimed to disrupt their activities through dirty tricks, infiltrators and provocateurs.

The COINTELPRO documents also revealed that during the 1960s, the FBI was trying to destroy the Puerto Rico independence movement by exacerbating internal divisions. It even founded a front group whose purpose was to foil any attempt at unity.

The raiders of the FBI office in Pennsylvania, who called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, sent the explosive files to Betty Medsger of the Washington Post.

“The first file that I read was about a group of FBI agents who were told to enhance the paranoia in the antiwar movement and to create an atmosphere that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox,” Medsger recently revealed on “Democracy Now!” Medsger just published a book on this episode, entitled “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.”

After the story appeared in the Washington Post, the revelations caused a national scandal, and the U.S. Congress responded by ordering COINTELPRO shut down. The Senate Church Committee unequivocally concluded that COINTELPRO “infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens.”

Those of us who revere our liberties owe a huge debt of gratitude to these heroes who have just come out of the shadows.

In a sense, they were the forebears of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, who in our time have taken great personal risks to defy the law nonviolently and reveal the wrongdoing of the U.S. government.

Like Manning and Snowden, the brave members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI revealed the dangers of secret and unaccountable power.

They were forced to take their actions because our system of checks and balances wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. Nor is it working properly now.
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Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Copyright Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero.

Photo: "Burglar with flashlight and crowbar," via Shutterstock.