How a Team Of Activists Leaked Stolen FBI Documents 43 Years Ago

On March 8th 1971, the nation tuned in to watch Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier battle it out in the Fight of the Century. Unawares, the FBI were having hundreds of secret documents stolen from their offices by a team of activists.

The brainchild of William C. Davidon, a professor of physics at Haverford College, a team of burglars broke into an FBI office in Media, Philadelphia, and took nearly every documents they could find. Amazingly, they were never caught—and are only now speaking out about the crime, to the New York Times. Naturally, as you'd expect from a band of criminals led by a professor, that's for good reason: they can no longer be prosecuted for what happened that night.

The break-in resonates with recent events. Though less hi-tech than Edward Snowden's leaks from the NSA, the 43-year-old crime was driven by similar motivations. Disgusted by government spying, the perpetrators leaked the documents they stole to journalists, opening national debate about the practice. Keith Forsyth, one of the members of the team, explained to the New York Times:

"When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it. There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting."

The operation itself saw the team work the old-fashioned way: they cased FBI offices for months, carefully removed documents into suitcases while wearing gloves, and sped off in getaway cards. After the crime, the team quietly dispersed, never to discuss it again. Until now, obviously.

It was clearly well thought through. The team of eight originally planned to break into and FBI office in downtown Philadelphia but thought it too risky. Instead, they plumped for a satellite office in Media; though concerned they wouldn't get the best material, they thought it far safer. Months of surveillance meant the break-in went fairly smoothly—apart from one lock, which refused to be picked and instead was tackled by a crow bar.

Now, Betty Medsger—a former reporter for The Washington Post and the first recipient of the stolen documents—has written a book about the crime and subsequent press stories. It's a timely reminder that government spying is nothing new—but something we ought take as seriously as ever. [New York Times]

Image by Oleksiy & Tetyana under Creative Commons license