Started in the 1950s, a Federal Bureau of Investigation operation, named COINTELPRO, had FBI agents on a campaign to repress dissident voices. In the 1960s and 70s, the agents turned to the burgeoning anti-Vietnam War movement and, through bullying, blackmail and threats, worked to disrupt the anti-war movement, the New Left and other groups.
COINTELPRO was a secret program, its existence obscured even from those higher up in the government.
In the winter of 1971, a group of eight activists broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with a trove of documents. In the years that followed many of the documents, sent anonymously to reporters, fueled an investigation into the FBI, and eventual reforms to the agencies' practices.
As RetroReport says in the video above, “The FBI initially defended its actions... but the bureau's techniques were worse, and the targets more far-reaching than the burglars ever imagined." Little by little, the offenses leaked out. In the video, one archival news clip identifies FBI targets as “diplomats, government employees, sports figures, socially prominent persons, senators and congressmen.” Another clip reports: “Marriages were destroyed, violence was encouraged, many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI, and their tax returns used illegally." And here's one more: “The FBI, at one time, sought to blackmail the late Martin Luther King into committing suicide.”
Now, 43 years later, with the statute of limitations on the theft long run out, the burglars' story is being told in a new book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger. Medsger is a former Washington Post journalist, one of the reporters who originally received the FBI documents. She convinced five of the burglars—William Davidon, Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raines, and Bob Williamson—to talk publicly about the break-in. The three other members of the team, says the New York Times, have remained anonymous.
More from Smithsonian.com: