william davidon

How to Burglarize the FBI: The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI Did It Back in 1971

For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules—even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing, and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: They would raid an FBI office.

On March 8, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents, and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burglarized the FBI.

Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker, and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in Federal Prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.