by Sue Ann Rybak
Keith Forsyth, 63, of Manayunk, vividly remembers that fateful night on March 8, 1971, when he and seven other Vietnam War protesters, calling themselves The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Media and stole more than 1,000 documents that would eventually expose former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s war on dissent.
Forty-three years ago, 20-year-old Forsyth was driving a taxi and living at Carpenter and Greene Street in Mt. Airy, when he was approached by William Davidson, a physics professor at Haverford College and a well-known antiwar protester, about breaking into the bureau’s satellite office.
In an article in Slate, Forsyth said not everybody Davidson approached was receptive to the idea.
“You know, somebody says to you, ‘Let’s go break into the FBI office,’” Forsyth recalled. “So you look at them and say, ‘Yeah, okay, let’s go break-in. Then, after we finish that, let’s go down to Fort Knox and steal a few million.”
Forsyth, who had taught himself locksmithing in order to raid draft board offices, was essential to the plan. He said the group didn’t know what they are going to find.
“We were guessing that like all good bureaucrats they would keep lots of records,” said Forsyth, whose story and that of other group members is documented in Betty Medsger’s book “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” Medsger is the former Washington Post journalist who first published the findings.
“A lot of the things the government did at that time were unsavory,” said Forsyth, who can not be prosecuted because the statue of limitations on the burglary has expired. “We knew the FBI was spying on people who were protesting, but we needed proof.”
After weeks of staking out the block outside the second-floor FBI office, they set the date as March 8, the same night as the “fight of the century,” a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Forsyth said the original plan “went out the door” when he discovered that sometime before they arrived that night, the FBI had switched one of the two conventional locks to a high security lock.
Forsyth, now a principal engineer at Avo Phontonics in Horsham, said after consulting the others, they decided to try a secondary door. He said what normally would have taken 30 seconds to a minute to get into the main door ended up taking about an hour.
“Basically, I had to pick the lock and use a crowbar to open the door without arousing the suspicion of the building manager directly below where I was standing,” Forsyth said. “There was a giant file cabinet directly behind the door that had to be moved without tipping it over. It took forever.”
After Forsyth made sure there were no security alarms, four other members wearing gloves and suits broke into filing cabinets and stuffed suitcases full of documents that would eventually reveal COINTELPRO, the FBI’s convert counter-intelligence program aimed at systemically surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting civil rights and antiwar organizations deemed as “subversive” by Hoover.
The burglars retreated to their rendezvous at Friendship Farm, a Quaker retreat, located 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. They immediately began sorting the files and separating them into two piles criminal investigations and political investigations.
“We immediately began finding gems,” Forsyth said. “Letters with communications from various people who were spying for the FBI illegally – everyone from switchboard operators to mailmen to police officers.
Forsyth said in one memo FBI agents were told to “make the left think there is a FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Another stolen document instructed FBI agents to “enhance the paranoia.”
“I don’t think any of us fully realized the impact of the reaction – maybe Bill did,” Forsyth said referring to Bill Raines, a religion professor at Temple University who lived in Germantown with his wife and three children.
Later, Forsyth and the other members of the group decided to anonymously mail the stolen documents to several newspaper reporters and a few politicians. A couple of weeks after the burglary, The Washington Post published the first new story, “Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities” written by Medsger, despite the government’s attempts to force the newspaper to return the documents.
The article was the first of a series that would later lead to changes in the FBI’s intelligence policies.
The files sparked an investigation by the Church Committee that concluded five years later that “many techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that … the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.”
Forsyth said the group agreed never to speak to each other again and vowed never to discuss the burglary. But, the FBI heist was not Forsyth’s last break-in. He was a member of the Camden 28, a group of “Catholic left” anti-Vietnam War activists who were arrested for raiding a draft board office in Camden, N.J.
The burglary resulted in a high-profile trial of the activists that ultimately put the Vietnam War on public trial resulting in jury nullification.
When asked about Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, who leaked classified documents to several media outlets, revealing NSA’s massive domestic spying activities, Forsyth said, “ There has never been any evidence that I’ve seen that anything he released did any harm to anybody. The only thing he did was expose the truth.
“James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, recently went in front of Congress and the American public and was asked a direct question whether the NSA was engaged in this kind of surveillance, and he said no, which was obviously a lie,” Forsyth said. “And I think if he had said, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about that because that’s national security,’ I might have had some respect for that answer.”
Forsyth said the difference between the past and today is now “they are patrolling everybody’s data.”
“That’s both worse and better,” Forsyth said. “It’s better that they are not targeting people who are exercising their right to dissent, but it’s worse in the sense that they are doing it to everybody.”