The Burglary that Revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI

Monday, January 27, 2014

Betty Medsger tells the full story of a group of unlikely activists who broke into an FBI office outside Philadelphia to steal files, which they sent to journalists and members of Congress. Those files revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s “secret counterintelligence program” COINTELPRO, set up in 1956 to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the United States, many of them legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups that Hoover found offensive—as well as black power groups, student activists, antidraft protestors, conscientious objectors. In The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI Medsger gives a full account of the break in and how it changed the FBI and the country.


Betty Medsger

Comments [9]

Hylozoic Hedgehog from NYC

I looked at the Media story last year when I wrote a study that in part examined the role of the police department and the national FBI in the attempted destruction of one prominent New Left grouping, the Philadelphia SDS Labor Committee.

(The study is now available on the web as How It All Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971) and is available at

On 9 April 1969 agents from the police department’s “red squad” raided Fraser’s apartment and claimed that they had discovered “bomb making material." Fraser was then charged with being part of a national conspiracy to blow up leading historical monuments such as the Liberty Bell. (For more, see Jonathan Valania’s article “The Phantom Bomb Plot” in the 22 December 2009 issue of Philadelphia Weekly and available on the web.)

Fast forward to the Media raid.

The planning for the burglary began in the summer of 1970, a time when radicalism in Philadelphia was at its height following the invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent killings at Kent and Jackson State. The Quaker schools Swarthmore and Haverford were particularly convulsed by protests.

The Labor Committee group was active on both campuses but especially at Swarthmore where it had virtually recruited the Philosophy Department’s then-acting chairman, Dan Bennett. A well known radical professor, Bennett had earlier taught at Brandeis University at a time when Susan Saxe and Katherine Anne Powers were students there. Both women later became involved with a bank robbery in which a policeman named Walter Schroeder was killed.

Based on an 11 November 1970 informant report that Bennett “might have” some contact with the students, the FBI launched a surveillance operation on Bennett’s circle in the hope of capturing the two fugitives who were then on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

When the 8 March 1971 Media break-in occurred, the burglars uncovered a series of FBI documents that documented the Bureau’s interest in Swarthmore in particular. The Media files further included an informant report on a 28 August 1970 gathering of Philadelphia Labor Committee.

At the time of the Media revelations, the Fraser “Bomb Plot” case was winding its way through the Philadelphia cour. The defense team had pressed the government to disclose its informant operations and admit whether or not it had illegally wire-tapped Fraser’s phone. Given the Media revelations just two months earlier, the prosecution knew it was in deep trouble. When the government continued to stonewall the issue, Judge Edmund Spaeth threw out the charges early that May.

The Media expose made any attempt by the government to deny that it had engaged in illegal actions against Fraser impossible for Judge Spaeth, or anyone else, to take seriously.

Jan. 28 2014 12:10 PM
Susan from Manhattan's far west

A very interesting interview. For more on the subject, including interviews with the activists who broke into the FBI office, see Democracy Now's excellent coverage:

Jan. 27 2014 05:49 PM
Allen cohen

I grew up with my phone tapped.
Probably because of my mothers activist work, protesting the war in Vietnam.
( My parents lawyer friends identified the phone problem, by the clicks whenever you picked it up).
Mom and others from the " women's strike for peace movement would from then on routinely make fun of the FBI over the phone… I remember her nonchalantly describing a cake with a bomb in it to be sent to the White-house…. ( which is something, a freedom of humor, you can't imagine doing today! -- Recently I even heard an announcement once in the Hartford airport that cautioned that making jokes with the homeland Security inspectors was illegal!)

The new revelations about the depth of NSA spying on citizens, did not shock or particularly bother me…
not only am I accustomed to it, and feel I have little to hide, but it seemed to me reasonable against such threats as we now face and the growth of digital technology, that our government would have to monitor, as much as they possibly could…
and yet when I first herd that we now know the people who exposed the people who spied on me as a child… I became suddenly very emotional.

I want to thank them.

i am so proud of them, and so appreciative, of what they proved.

I suppose it was a violation that at the time we could shrug off, but the emotions that suddenly arose in me now are because it was still a grotesque violation of our rights: which some how did hurt me as a child .. I guess some innocence then was first damaged… its was when my faith is our decent governance was first destroyed; to begin think that our government could be so wasteful and so… stupid.

As for spying on us all now, as we do , I am newly aware of how as Mr Snowden has so beautifully put it:

"When we're sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel's phone, if reports are to be believed), there's no excuse to be wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri."

Jan. 27 2014 02:51 PM
Linda from westchester ny

Since so much of this took place in Philadelphia area, were Quakers in particular singled out for scrutiny?

Jan. 27 2014 01:51 PM
john from office

Hindsight is 20/20 Lenny. Lets Poo Poo those paraniod G-Men, of wait, there were Russian spy cells in the USA, as was proven after the fall of the soviets.

Jan. 27 2014 01:51 PM
pliny from soho

the "party" also thought the black community
was fertile ground for infiltration

Jan. 27 2014 01:47 PM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from BK

Thanks to Betty Medsger for doing this great investigative work. Where's Carl Stern when we need him. Professor Raines was a teacher of mine at Temple, a brave and good man. Nothing has changed. Thanks for the good show.

Jan. 27 2014 01:40 PM
john from office

Antonio, they also covered up UFO's and Crop Circles. Very clever those FBI G-men

Jan. 27 2014 01:33 PM
antono from baySide

Not to go on a tangent... but is there any evidence this group help cover up information regarding the Kennedy assassination?

Jan. 27 2014 01:25 PM

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