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Three former political activists have revealed their part in a brazen 1971 burglary of an FBI office outside Philadelphia, where they stole as many as 1,000 documents, enraging FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and exposing a domestic spying operation that predated Edward Snowden's leaks by 42 years.
John Raines, an 80-year-old retired Temple University professor, his wife, Bonnie, and Keith Forsyth, a former Philadelphia cab driver, say in a new book they were part of an eight-member ring of anti-Vietnam War protesters who broke into the FBI's Media, Penn., office March 8, 1971.
“We did it because somebody had to do it,” Raines told NBC News. “In this case, by breaking a law -- entering, removing files — we exposed a crime that was going on."
Calling themselves “the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” Raines says the team was unarmed and broke in with a crowbar. They walked away with suitcases stuffed with documents revealing the infamous Counter Intelligence Program, or Cointelpro, set up to covertly monitor civil rights groups and anti-Vietnam war activists.
The activists-turned-burglars say they believed they had to get proof of the FBI's subversive activities.
“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the FBI was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” Forsyth, 63, told the New York Times. “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”
Added Bonnie Raines, “...All the usual things we always did — picketing, marching, signing petitions — didn’t make any difference whatsoever."
One of the documents stolen in the burglary included a directive from Hoover's office to interview activists in an effort to intimidate them. “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox," the memo read.
The plot was hatched by Bill Davidon, then a physics professor at Haverford College and a prominent anti-war protester. He died in late 2013.
Davidon’s daughter, Sarah, told NBC he first told her about it in late 1980s. “He didn’t call it a burglary," she said. "He always referred to it as ‘the Media action.’ ... He did this because he felt strongly about civil liberties.”
The group cased the FBI offices for months, and picked the night of a 15-round title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier knowing millions of Americans, including some guards, would be glued to the broadcast.
The book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” written by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter, is being released Tuesday.
Medsger broke the story after receiving the files anonymously in the mail. “These documents were explosive,” she told NBC. “The FBI was never the same.”
After the heist, Hoover launched a massive investigation that, at times, involved more than 200 agents. Hoover pulled the plug on Cointelpro in 1972.
In a statement released ahead of the book, an FBI spokesman said the burglary "contributed to changes to how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices and the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice.”
The group says they have no fear about revealing their identities now since the the five-year of statute of limitations on the burglary expired in the mid-70s.
But why didn't they come forward then? “We didn’t need attention," John Raines told the Times. "We had done what needed to be done."