When a group of anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on 8 March 1971 they hoped that they would be hitting the bureau’s overweening director, J Edgar Hoover, where it hurt most. They would grab whatever documents they could find and in that way expose the culture of Big Brother illegality that Hoover had created.
The plan went better than they could ever have dreamed. Among a huge stash of confidential documents the group retrieved were secrets about the FBI’s blanket surveillance of the peace and civil rights movement, the tactics of disinformation and deception the bureau used to silence protesters and even an attempt by agents to have Martin Luther King commit suicide.
Yet despite a massive police hunt, in which Hoover threw 200 agents, the perpetrators of that audacious break-in have never been identified. They had carried out the perfect political crime, and got away scot-free.
Now, almost 43 years later, five of the eight ordinary citizens who carried out the break-in have come forward and revealed themselves. They have co-operated with Betty Medsger, the former Washington Post journalist who was the first to publish the revelations contained in the stolen documents and who has written a new book on the saga called The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.
Later on Tuesday some of the burglars – Keith Forsyth, John and Bonnie Raines – were due to speak at a press conference organised by the book’s publisher, Knopf. They have also talked to the New York Times, which first disclosed the decision of the five to out themselves. They can no longer be prosecuted for the burglary.