On March 8, 1971, burglars carried out an audacious plan, prying open the door of an FBI office in Pennsylvania and stealing files about the bureau’s surveillance of anti-war groups and civil rights organizations. Hundreds of agents tried to identify the culprits, but the crime went unsolved. NPR reports that a new book reveals the burglars were peace demonstrators who wanted to start a debate about the FBI’s unchecked power to spy on Americans. It’s coming out at a time when the U.S. is weighing the merits of surveillance all over again. The plotters executed their break-in on a night when millions of people sat glued to their TV sets, watching Muhammad Ali square off against Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight championship.
That was a brilliant distraction exploited by anti-war activists who burgled an FBI office near Philadelphia and exposed some of J. Edgar Hoover’s secrets. The crime got evidence of spying so Congress and the public could no longer ignore it. Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger got an anonymous package at her desk: secret documents. She published the story. “The country learned for the first time that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was almost completely different from what the country thought it was,” she says. Her book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, covers the history of that episode.