Political leaders and FBI officials are frantically rushing to address the renewed threat of White Supremacist violence in the wake of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. But as they do so it is worth recalling the lessons of one of the most consequential acts of nonviolent resistance in American history, which happened 50 years ago this month.
On March 8, 1971, a group of Philadelphia-area peace activists broke into a small FBI office, and stole a cache of secret documents which they subsequently shared with the press. Their burglary led to the exposure of mass FBI surveillance of American political dissidents, a chilling example of government power infringing on people’s rights. The FBI had initiated the mass surveillance in a desperate attempt to thwart the Weather Underground and other clandestine leftist guerrillas involved in bombings and attacks on police officers, yet the operation had cast a wide net, surveilling political activists because of their dissident views rather than criminal activity.
This history offers a cautionary note as lawmakers and law enforcement race to address the very real threat of violence from right-wing extremist groups by enhancing policing and law enforcement powers. Safeguarding Americans from the threat of extremist violence can’t lead to the sacrifice of civil liberties.
From 1968 to 1971, leftist militants carried out over 400 bombings to protest the war in Vietnam and police violence in Black communities. While the majority of these attacks targeted empty buildings, a handful were deadly, including an armed raid on a courtroom in Marin County, Calif. and a bombing at the University of Wisconsin, both in August 1970. This domestic insurgency created a major crisis for both the Nixon administration and the FBI, whose response helped forge a doctrine and repertoire of police tactics now known as counterterrorism. The FBI’s efforts included dramatically expanding surveillance of American leftists and reviving illegal spy tactics like break-ins, warrantless wiretapping and mail-opening previously used against suspected communists.
These questionable tactics became known to the public — and ignited a firestorm — thanks to the 1971 burglary of the Media, Pa. FBI office. Suspicions about FBI infiltration of the antiwar movement compelled the eight activists involved to commit the burglary. They timed their heist to coincide with Joe Frazier’s televised championship boxing bout with Muhammad Ali, an event they correctly surmised would serve as a distraction as they picked the locks of the FBI office and loaded suitcases of documents into a getaway car. They then sifted through the documents in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse before mailing select material to journalists. The FBI launched a nationwide dragnet to find them, but the activists parted ways, keeping their participation a secret until 2014, when four came forward to journalist Betty Medsger, who had been one of the first to report on the stolen documents in 1971.
The Justice Department ordered journalists not to report on the stolen documents. Yet, The Washington Post ignored this warning. The paper broke the news that the burglars’ suspicions were correct — the FBI was spying on the U.S. Left. In a November 1970 memo highlighted by The Post, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had personally ordered his special agents to develop informants in every college New Left and Black Student Union group in the country. Another memo conveyed the FBI’s attempts to instill the paranoid sense that activists were being constantly watched by “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Just as revelations of American atrocities in Vietnam had given lie to the myth of U.S. military exceptionalism, news coverage of the stolen documents dragged the FBI’s covert activities into the light of day, exposing troubling realities beneath the bureau’s carefully cultivated image as upstanding crime-fighters and defenders of national security. Editors of major newspapers blasted the FBI’s operations. The Post called the FBI’s tactics “appropriate, perhaps for the secret police of the Soviet Union but wholly inconsonant with the idea of a Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Several Democratic senators joined newspaper editors in calling for oversight of FBI practices, and a poll conducted in May 1971 determined that 43 percent of Americans believed Hoover should resign as FBI director after almost a half century at the helm. Over the next several years, the public outcry over mass surveillance led to expansion of the Freedom of Information Act, congressional investigations of federal intelligence agencies and revelations of the FBI’s disruptive counterintelligence operations (COINTELPROs) against the Communist Party, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers.
Despite the fact that the Weather Underground had bombed the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1971 — just a week before the Pennsylvania burglary — the press gave much less attention to the FBI’s defenders than its critics. Attorney General John Mitchell (who later went to prison for his role in Watergate) accused the burglars of taking the documents out of context by selectively leaking them to the press. While they painted a picture of a government run amok, illegally surveilling political activists because of their views, Mitchell asserted that the documents actually chronicled legitimate law enforcement efforts to stop dangerous radical violence.
Mitchell was partly telling the truth — in fact, the majority of the documents uncovered in the burglary pertained to surveillance the FBI had initiated as part of its war against leftist guerrillas. For instance, Mitchell mentioned a memo revealing the FBI’s surveillance of a Philadelphia professor. While reporters gave the impression that the FBI was watching the man solely because of his political views, in reality, Mitchell claimed, the document was part of an investigation into the September 1970 killing of Massachusetts police officer Walter Schroeder by a group of leftist militants alleged to have included 10 Most Wanted fugitives Katherine Power and Susan Saxe.
But the FBI was not merely pursuing traditional criminal investigations as Mitchell claimed. In fact, Hoover had responded to the insurgency by ramping up surveillance of activists working for peace, racial justice, economic equality and women’s rights, casting entire movements as terrorism suspects.
Mitchell refused to comment on another document, a September 1970 FBI memo authorizing the use of informants aged 18 to 21 to spy on student activists. Hoover had issued this order in response to the Marin County and University of Wisconsin attacks, both of which had included teenagers among the assailants. In a fall 1970 memo that remained classified at the time of the Pennsylvania burglary, Hoover expressed, with fearmongering exaggeration, that campus radical groups were “a breeding ground for revolutionaries, extremists, and terrorists.”
Astounded and aghast at the bureau’s spy tactics, which trampled the privacy and civil liberties of people engaged in legal, constitutionally protected political activities, journalists devoted less attention to what drove the FBI’s efforts. In most cases they did not connect the FBI’s intrusive tactics with the crisis generated by the bombings and other leftist guerrilla attacks.
But in 2021 the motives are newly important.
In recent weeks, Republicans in several state legislatures have invoked the specter of “antifa” while pushing new bills to crack down on left wing protest, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has defended domestic counterterrorism measures, primarily with concerns about right-wing violence in mind. Holding the January 6 Capitol rioters and their collaborators accountable is important, as is investigating the long history of law enforcement having a blind spot when it comes to dangerous groups on the right (as opposed to the left). Yet, the history of the Pennsylvania burglary reminds us that efforts to preempt insurgent violence with mass surveillance can yield unintended consequences and further harm, including the suppression of dissent, violation of civil liberties and fueling cynicism and distrust of government when such tactics get exposed.
While confronting the immediate threat of right-wing violence, Congress and law enforcement agencies need to balance the tools necessary to keep Americans — and American democracy — safe while protecting civil liberties and avoiding stifling Americans engaged in legitimate political advocacy.