Democracy Needs Whistleblowers. That's why I Broke Into the FBI in 1971

Like Snowden, we broke laws to reveal something that was more dangerous. We wanted to hold J Edgar Hoover accountable

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I vividly remember the eureka moment. It was the night we broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971 and removed about 1,000 documents from the filing cabinets. We had a hunch that there would be incriminating material there, as the FBI under J Edgar Hoover was so bureaucratic that we thought every single thing that went on under him would be recorded. But we could not be sure, and until we found it, we were on tenterhooks.

A shout went up among the group of eight of us. One of us had stumbled on a document from FBI headquarters signed by Hoover himself. It instructed the bureau’s agents to set up interviews of anti-war activists as “it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

That was the first piece of evidence to emerge. It was a vindication.

Looking back on what we did, there are obvious parallels with what Edward Snowden has done in releasing  National Security Agency documents that show the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans. I think Snowden’s a legitimate whistleblower, and I guess we could be called whistleblowers as well.

A look back at what happened

I was 29 when my husband John and I decided to join six other people to carry out the break-in. I was a mother of three children, aged eight, six and two, and I was working on a degree in education at Temple University, where John was a professor of religion.

We had both been heavily involved in the civil rights movement. John had been a freedom rider, and in Philadelphia we participated in anti-war protests against Vientnam. Through that activity we knew that the FBI was actively trying to squelch dissent, illegally and secretly. We knew that they were sending informants into university classrooms, infiltrating meetings, and tapping phones. The problem was that though we knew all this, there was no way to prove it.

A physics professor at Haverford College named Bill Davidon called a few of us together at his home. Bill, who died last November, floated the idea of doing something to obtain evidence. He just came out with it: “What do you think about breaking into an FBI office to remove the files?” If it hadn’t been for Bill, who was so smart and strategic, I’m not sure we would have taken it seriously. But we did.

Bill articulated for all of us the frustration over the foment of those times, and the feeling that we all had of being compelled to do something as ordinary citizens because no one in Washington was holding Hoover accountable. We started looking into the feasibility of a break-in. Right away, we found out the main FBI office in Philadelphia was in a high-rise in the center of the city, and that it was impregnable. Then we learned there were other field offices in the suburbs, and that lead us to Media.

John and I lived in a big old house in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, and we set aside a room in the third floor to be our base of operations. We lined the walls with maps of Media. We had to tell our elder children not to talk to anyone about the maps on the walls. Even though they knew nothing of our plans, we worried the detail might give something away.

We cased the FBI office in Media for about three months. Two of us would go and watch activity in and around that building, record people going in and out and the patterns of police patrols.

I was chosen to carry out the last piece of casing, which involved getting into the office during business hours to check out its security systems. I called and made an appointment to interview the head of the office, under the ruse that I was a Swarthmore College student researching opportunities for women in the FBI.

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