Wednesday, March 12

When Spying is Suspected, Call in the FBI

By Grant Davies

On this day (-4) in 1971, eight amateur burglars broke into an office in a small town in Pennsylvania and stole a bunch of papers out of the file cabinets. Was this a case of industrial spying or sabotage? Was it a lawyer's office with evidence being stolen in some mafia related court case? Were the papers sensitive dossiers on people who didn't want their private lives surveilled?

Surely, if it was one of those things, the law enforcement professionals would be on the case immediately and quickly nab these first time perpetrators. I mean, if someone was being spied upon, or if dossiers were being kept on private citizens, wouldn't you call in the best detectives you could find? Even perhaps the FBI?

Well, as it turns out the FBI was notified as soon as the crime was discovered. In fact, they were the first on the scene. And in fact, they discovered the crime before anyone else knew about it. Those FBI agents are really sharp, you might be thinking. But for crack investigators like them, this one was easy. You see, it was their own offices that had been burgled and their own papers that were carried away. That kind of crime tends to top the "I'm really, really pissed off about this" list that the FBI keeps in those offices. So you could reasonably assume the perps were caught in a flash and the country was saved from some spy ring of foreign bad guys. Um, you would be wrong about that. In fact, they were never caught.

As it turned out, the FBI were the spies and the people they were spying on were American citizens who were also on an FBI list. It was a list of people and organizations who didn't agree with J. Edgar Hoover's political views.

The papers were turned over anonymously to newspapers and members of Congress and the whole criminal enterprise called the FBI came under the first real scrutiny in its history. Hoover died in 1972, before his involvement in the "FBI inside the FBI" could be fully understood. So the burglars weren't the only ones to escape discovery.

But don't worry, ever since these burglars exposed the government's unconstitutional spying the chance of a government agency collecting information on US citizens unlawfully is a thing of the past. They wouldn't dare do that again.

Information for this story was gathered from the book "The Burglary" by Betty Medsger. Her office was not broken into and no files were stolen.

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