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How an unlikely group changed the face of the FBI, retold in ‘The Burglary’

In “The Burglary,” author Betty Medsger tells the story of a group of burglars in 1971 who stole files from a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania — a theft that provided evidence of wide scale surveillance of U.S. citizens. Medsger sat down with chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown to talk about the unlikely group and the consequences of their plot.

Back in 1971, when the country was caught up in a growing anti-war movement, the FBI seemed invincible.

According to Betty Medsger, journalist and author of “The Burglary,” mistrust and fear were rampant.

“There was a sense in the anti-war movement that it was being infiltrated by spies, by informers, but there was no evidence,” Medsger told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown during a recent conversation.

A small group of unlikely individuals — including a physicist, a religion professor and a college dropout turned cab driver/lock picker — took it upon themselves to find that evidence.

On March 8, 1971, after months of careful planning and strategy, stole files from a FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. Those files provided evidence of a wide-scale surveillance of U.S. citizens, called the “counterintelligence program.”

“There were many files that were important in the thousand they took out that night in the dark…,” said Medsger, one of the original journalists to receive and publish the information that came from the stolen files. “For the first time, people in Congress called for an investigation of the FBI.”

That investigation eventually led to the downfall of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

And what happened to the unlikely group of burglars? They were never caught.

“They went back to living their lives and for those who were middle-aged that meant continuing with their work as professors and raising their children. For the ones who were younger, it actually turned out to be more difficult because they had dropped out of school to work so strongly to stop the war. It was more difficult and they had to rebuild their lives.”