J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on people in many political movements—the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. They also were harassed, sometimes violently.
Until unknown people burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, the night of March 8, 1971, there was only suspicion, not evidence, that the FBI actively worked to suppress dissent. When some of those burglars stepped forward recently and identified themselves for the first time, they were widely praised for having exposed Hoover’s secret FBI, a step that ignited the first national debate on the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society and, along with other developments, led, by 1975, to the first congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies and bureau reforms.
Searching for evidence of whether dissent was being suppressed was William Davidon’s goal. Given the lack of any official oversight of intelligence agencies, the Haverford College physics professor thought burglary would be the only way to get documentary evidence of whether the FBI was repressing activists. Under his leadership, the eight-member Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, the name the burglars gave themselves, found and gave the public abundant evidence that such suppression was taking place.
One of the Media files was a policy statement so brazen that, as some editorial writers stated at the time, it seemed more like what might be found in the files of the Soviet KGB or the East German Stasi rather than in the files of an intelligence or law enforcement agency in a democratic society. In it, FBI agents were urged to “enhance the paranoia……get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The files revealed that even people who expressed mild liberal opposition to the war or support for civil rights in letters to newspaper editors or in correspondence to their congressional representative acquired dossiers that were added to FBI files. Most of these targets came to the FBI’s attention because of ideas they expressed, or ideas informers surmised they held.
But the Media files revealed that African-Americans, Hoover’s largest targeted group, didn’t have to be perceived as having liberal, or even radical or subversive, ideas to merit being spied on. Nor was it necessary for them to engage in violent behavior to become a watched person. Being black was enough.
The Media files revealed directives that required FBI field offices to watch African-Americans wherever they went—in churches, in classrooms, on college campuses, in bars, in restaurants, in bookstores, in their places of employment, in stores, in any social setting, in their neighborhoods and even at the front doors of their homes. Probably few of them realized that the bill collector at their door might be an FBI informer.
In an analysis of the Media files in summer 1971, then–Washington Post reporter William Greider wrote that the files offered “the public and Congress an unprecedented glimpse of how the U.S. government watches its citizens—particularly black citizens.” It conducted such spying, he wrote, in ways that were as unreasonable as it would have been for the bureau to have spied on all lawyers who engaged in politics because, “as everyone knows, some lawyers in politics turn out to be crooks.”