A Rational Criminal Act: 1971 FBI Burglars Reveal Themselves

This past January, members of the famed Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI stepped forward and revealed themselves in a conference call with the US news media.  

In 1971, the group broke into a small FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, while the nation was followng the Ali-Frasier fight (the 15 round "Fight of the Century," in which Frazier knocked out Ali). They stole thousands of documents. Nearly half of the documents detailed a domestic spying program which had begun under FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who had a year more to live, and was going to serve as bureau director until the day he died, in May 1972.

The statute of limitations ran out on the bugulary in March, 1976, but members of the group decided that now was a perfect time to reveal themselves, less than a year after Edward Snowden's daring theft of Pentagon and NSA materials, and just in time to helop promote a new book on the break-in.

The 1971 FBI bulgulary is one of the most significant acts of whistleblowing in US history. The stolen documents  were xeroxed and distributed to the media, much like the Pentagon Papers were. The proof that the FBI was committing more time and resources to spying on non-violent activists than investigating organized and interstate crime was too much for that era's Congress to ignore, and led to major -albeit temporary- reforms. 

Hoover was a relentless bureaucrat, who cowed presidents and the Congress for decades, because, it was feared, he had dirt on EVERYBODY. No one wanted to hold him to account. And so it took eight private citizens, breaking the law, to reveal the far worse law breaking of the FBI. Does this sound familiar? Edward Snowden come to mind?

When members of Citizens' Commission stepped forward, NBC featured two of them, the married Raines couple, on the Today show. As the mainstream media usually does, they brought out a figure to provide some sort of counterpoint. They found retired agent Patrick Kelly, who charaterized the Raines' as "rationalizing a criminal act." I would argue that their act is very easy to explain: it was a rational crime. It had to be done. The unconstituinal actions of the FBI had to be revealed by a comparitively tiny crime. It was, frankly, a precursor to electronic acts of thivery, such as those by Anonymous and Wikileaks. 

Needless to say, the responses from the right wing to this news story were both predictable and sad.