On March 8, 1971, boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier faced off in a bout billed around the world as the “Fight of the Century.” The legendary fight, which took place at Madison Square Garden in downtown New York City, went a full 15 rounds, and both athletes landed devastating blows. The judges unanimously scored Frazier as the winner. It was Ali’s first loss as a pro boxer, one which he refused to admit publicly.
More than 300 million people watched the fight, including about half of the entire British population and millions more from as far away as South Korea. The fight had a significant impact on the civil rights movement. It also provided cover for a daring heist some 115 miles away in Media, Pennsylvania.
A small contingent of activists planned to burglarize a small satellite FBI office, searching for secret files proving investigative overreach. The burglars anticipated the much-hyped Ali-Frazier fight would distract security personnel.
The group of eight waited anxiously as personnel locked up the FBI office building for the night. But the plan hit a snag early on — a shiny new lock on the door. Among the burglars, Keith Forsyth was the designated lock picker. He quickly judged the new lock was unpickable. So the group would have to find a new way in, jeopardizing months of casing work. Forsyth was able to crowbar the side entrance open, and the group entered without resistance.
What the group found inside was beyond its boldest hopes — an empty office building with no guards, unlocked file cabinets, no alarms to trip, and a gold mine of confidential files to pilfer.
The activists hurriedly grabbed what they could — a trove of approximately 1,000 documents detailing grievous overreach by the FBI. And then they fled.
After the burglary’s statute of limitations expired decades later, seven of the original eight thieves came forward in 2014 to give their story to journalist Betty Medsger. In 1971, Medsger was a Washington Post reporter who received 14 of the stolen documents from the Pennsylvania burglary. Five of the seven burglars revealed their names for Medsger’s 2014 book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.
At the time of the 1971 burglary, Bonnie Raines was a 29-year-old mother of three. She had previously disguised herself as a student conducting “research on opportunities for women” to get a look inside the FBI office in Media.
The burglars called themselves the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI,” and they went on to send copies of their stolen files to news agencies, journalists, and two senators. Medsger was the only journalist at The Washington Post to publish a story based on the stolen FBI files and the only journalist who did not return the files she had been sent when the FBI requested she do so.
Medsger’s subsequent stories revealed an FBI counterintelligence surveillance program called Cointelpro.
In response to the Media office burglary, the FBI mobilized thousands of men, flew agents in from other offices, and kicked off an operation code-named MEDBURG. In the burglary’s wake, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director at the time, closed 103 of the FBI’s 538 field offices, suspended the Media office’s agent-in-charge without pay for a month, and eventually terminated the Cointelpro program on April 28, 1971 — just one month after the break-in.
Despite Hoover’s best efforts, the FBI couldn’t quash the leaked revelations, and the fallout eventually reached the Senate floor.
Partially in response to the documents released by the Citizens’ Commission, Idaho Democrat Frank Church headed an eponymous 1975 committee to investigate the activities of the FBI and the CIA. The “Church Committee’s” findings eroded public trust in America’s federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Decades later, that trust has yet to be fully regained.
The Church Committee ultimately became the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, a body that continues to provide guidance and mete out punishments when US agencies overstep their mandates and violate the law.