A break-in at an F.B.I. office in Media, Pa., was followed by a massive leak of documents that provided the first tangible evidence that J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. was systematically targeting and harassing hundreds of American citizens, then known collectively as the New Left. Congressional investigations soon led to more revelations of secret, illegal F.B.I. actions, followed by sweeping reforms. The burglars were never caught, despite a five-year investigation. This 13-minute documentary video explores the events surrounding the break-in, which revealed a nationwide surveillance program known as Cointelpro.
Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets
Long before Edward Snowden, there was the greatest heist you’ve never heard of. On March 8, 1971, a group of eight Vietnam War protestors broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole hundreds of government documents that shocked a nation.
The stolen memos, reports and internal correspondence provided the first tangible evidence that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was systematically targeting and harassing hundreds of American citizens then known collectively as “the New Left.”
That discovery eventually led to Congressional investigations, more revelations of secret, illegal FBI actions, and sweeping reforms. The burglars were never caught despite a massive five-year investigation by the FBI.
The burglars’ identities remained secret until Betty Medsger published The Burglary in 2014. Medsger identified the Media burglars for the first time and detailed the planning, execution, and consequences of the long-forgotten heist, which was carried out by a group that included college professors, graduate students, and a cab driver. Their story is also chronicled in a new documentary by Johanna Hamilton, 1971.
- Producer: Bonnie Bertram
- Producer: Drew Magratten
- Editor: Ben Howard
- Associate Producer: Olivia Katrandjian
- Reporter: Jonathan Franklin
Students will analyze the significance of the break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office and the subsequent exposure of the COINTELPRO program.
- Identify differing tensions and perspectives related to the balance between personal privacy and national security.
- Examine the roles of individuals and the news media in holding the government accountable for transparency.
- Analyze the significance of the break-in at the F.B.I. office and the subsequent exposure of the Cointelpro program.
- What responsibilities does a government have to be transparent to citizens about its activities meant to ensure national security?
- How did government surveillance practices affect the civil liberties of the individuals targeted by Cointelpro?
- What lessons can be learned about government accountability and transparency, and the balance between national security and individual rights?
- Transcript for “Stealing J.Edgar Hoover’s Secrets” (Retro Report)
- Primary Source: Debate in the House of Representatives on the USA Patriot Act of 2001 (House of Representatives)
- Primary Source: Debate in the Senate on the USA Patriot Act of 2001 (Senate)
- Compilation of National Security vs. Civil Liberties briefs (American Constitution Society)
- Article: How Does a Country Balance Its National Security With Civil Liberties? (Colgate Magazine)
- National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
- D2.Civ.4.9-12.Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.
- D2.Civ.10.9-12.Analyze the impact and the appropriate roles of personal interests and perspectives on the application of civic virtues, democratic principles, constitutional rights, and human rights.
- D2.Civ.12.9-12.Analyze how people use and challenge local, state, national, and international laws to address a variety of public issues.
- D2.His.4.9-12.Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.