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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: The Historic FBI Burglary at Media, Pennsylvania

     On a March evening in 1971, eight antiwar protesters burglarized an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, with astonishing ease. A few weeks of elementary surveillance had shown the vulnerability of the target: There were no cameras to elude, no alarms to disconnect. Because the building contained residential apartments, the group choose the night of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali heavyweight championship fight, an ideal distraction. [Frazier came from Philadelphia and was the hometown favorite.]

     It turned out that the Pennsylvania office [a branch resident agency within the Philadelphia field division], like so many others across the country, had almost no physical protection. Security was largely symbolic, resting on the bureau's carefully buffed reputation for efficiency in tracking down America's "most wanted" criminals, from bank robbers to atomic spies. Put simply, no one messed with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI…

     The stolen material included the secret case histories of thousands of Americans. Much of it was malicious gossip about things like sexual deviance and race-mixing, two of Hoover's favorite subjects. Had this been all, the FBI very likely would have weathered the storm. Its pubic relations machine was enormous, and the officials charged with overseeing its operations were themselves wary of what lay in the files. Hoover had served for almost 50 years, under eight presidents, because nobody dared fire a man who, in Richard Nixon's words, could "pull down the temple with him, including me." [Hoover died less than a year after the burglary.]

     But there was more…the most important stolen document was a routine routing slip containing the word "Cointelpro." The term meant nothing to the burglars, for good reason. Cointelpro was among the FBI's most carefully guarded secrets, a huge program of dirty tricks and illegal activities designed to "expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize" groups deemed subversive by the director…

David Oshinsky, "Breaking In," The New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2014

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