One night in March 1971, eight anti-war protesters broke into an FBI office outside Philadelphia in Media, Pa. They stole files that they soon released to the press, revealing the extremes to which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was going in his vendettas against political dissent.
Ultimately, the Media burglary helped lay bare an extensive domestic spying program, known as “Cointelpro,” a clandestine system of life-shattering assaults on Hoover’s enemies. The revelation prompted a major overhaul of the bureau by the U.S. Senate. Even the FBI website today acknowledges the role the Media burglary played in this “significant re-evaluation.”
Despite Hoover’s rage at the Media burglars’ success in countering FBI excesses, they were never caught. Last week, though, with the publication of the book “The Burglary” by the steadfast former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, five of the long-secret raiders identified themselves. They had never sought attention, had kept faith with one another and emerged from anonymity as elderly people who have lived exemplary, if ordinary, American lives. Yet neither had they forgotten what motivated them in the first place. One of them, Brenda Robbins, told Medsger, “The times called for and supported bold actions.” The times, in fact, were mad. The government had gone rogue — with its conduct in Vietnam, its massive attempts to squelch free speech, its routine deceit of the nation, its dirty tricks and its own secret readiness to break the law. What was a conscientious citizen to do?
Last week’s news about the perpetrators of the Media burglary made evident the essential virtue of those who had committed a crime for which, if caught, they would have served years in prison. At the time, they would have been roundly denounced for their action, chided for not raising their complaints in legal ways, lectured on the importance of law for social cohesion and disdained, in the case of a married couple who took part in the burglary, for indifference to their children. But the Media burglars had their eyes on a larger value. They accomplished what Medsger — whose stories first publicized the Media files 43 years ago — now calls “perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American history.”