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Q&A: John & Bonnie Raines, Burglars For The Citizen’s Commission To Investigate The FBI

 

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Back in 1971, John Raines, a religion professor at Temple, and his wife, Bonnie, [pictured, below right, with their children circa 1968] were part of an eight-member group of anti-Vietnam War protesters who dubbed themselves The Citizens’ Commission To Investigate The FBI and broke into the FBI office in Media, PA, and left with 1,000 documents that revealed, for the first time, the details of a massive domestic FBI spying operation known as COINTELPRO. Thus setting in motion a chain of events, not the least of them the death of J. Edgar Hoover, that lead to Congressional hearings that lead to, for a time at least, tough new oversight that took the Bureau, as well as the CIA, out of the domestic dissent-crushing business and back in the business of defending truth, justice and the American way. The burglars were never caught and for 40 years their identities remained one of the enduring mysteries of the Vietnam/Watergate era. That mystery was solved with the 2014 publication of The Burglary, Betty Medsger’s exhaustive 597-page account of the break-in. Medsger, then a reporter at The Washington Post, was one of the first reporters to be sent copies of the stolen FBI files by The Citizen’s Commission To Investigate The FBI. She will be joined by John and Bonnie Raines at the Free Library of Philadelphia tomorrow night for a reading and Q&A session.

PHAWKER: I would like each of you to tell me a little bit about the beginnings of your activism prior to the events of the book, prior to the events of the break-in of the FBI office.

JOHN RAINES: Yes, I was involved in civil rights in the 1960’s. I was a Freedom Rider in 1961, and was arrested and put in jail in Little Rock, Arkansas. I returned south again for the Mississippi Freedom tour in 1964, and returned again in 1965 for the Selma [to Montgomery] march. I was familiar with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI from those experiences. It was clear that J. Edgar Hoover was not in favor of racial justice. He was much in favor of the status quo, which in the South was the status quo of legal segregation. He did all that he could to intimidate the demonstrators and tried to return the streets to silence.  I brought that knowledge; many of us brought that knowledge north when we came to the anti-war demonstrations.

PHAWKER: Bonnie, what about you?

BONNIE RAINES: I was somewhat involved in activism in the civil rights movement, although not as much as John. I had two very young children, and was trying to complete my education. I did participate at the time there was a filibuster against Congress against the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I was part of an action there, a twenty-four hour vigil at the Lincoln Memorial until the filibuster ended.

PHAWKER: When did you two get together?

BONNIE RAINES: 1961, I met John right after the summer that he was a Freedom Rider.

JOHN RAINES: Right after getting out of jail.

PHAWKER: What was the actual circumstance of that meeting—mutual friends, or by chance?

BONNIE RAINES: No, completely accidental. I was in college in Michigan and I had a summer job at a resort up north in Michigan. I was a waitress at the resort, and John’s family has a summer cottage on a lake nearby. When he came back north after the Freedom Ride, they wanted to treat him to a dinner out at this nice resort, and I waited on his table.  [laughs]

JOHN RAINES: And she was absolutely gorgeous. I was fascinated by this young woman.

BONNIE RAINES: It’s like something out of a magazine, isn’t it?

PHAWKER: Very romantic.  Fast forwarding— you guys have been married for 50 plus years, correct?

BONNIE RAINES: Yeah, we were married in 1962.

PHAWKER: Great. Well, my congratulations on that. That’s a feat in and of itself. Do you guys have children together?

BONNIE RAINES: We have four adult children and seven grandchildren.

JOHN RAINES: We had three children under ten at the time of the Media break-in.

PHAWKER: Right.  I read that you guys made arrangements for friends and family to take care of them in the event that you were arrested and incarcerated.

BONNIE RAINES: Specifically, John talked to his older brother Bob. I talked to my mother and father asking them the same thing, although not telling them what exactly we were going to be attempting to do. So they understood the seriousness of it.

PHAWKER: So how did you guys get involved in the anti-war movement? Or were you involved from the very beginning? We’ll start with John.

JOHN RAINES: Well, we had learned our burglary skills from the Catholic left, the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives. The Berrigan Brothers began that group. It was a group that was dedicated to disrupting the draft that was supplying the young bodies to go to Vietnam to fight that war. The burglary skills we learned largely from nuns and priests, which I think is kind of a cute part of the story. We brought those skills to what would eventually be the robbery of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

BONNIE RAINES: When we moved to Philadelphia in 1966 after graduate school, we found a whole community of activism here in the city that was actively protesting the war in lots of different ways. So, we did get pretty deeply involved at that time.

PHAWKER: What gave you guys the inkling that the FBI was using these COINTELPRO-type tactics against the war protestors? Was it the specific experiences that you folks had?

JOHN RAINES: All you had to do was have your eyes open.  They were everywhere taking pictures. They were everywhere, trying to send infiltrators into the peace groups.

BONNIE RAINES: Tapping into your phones, and being generally intimidating and disruptive to our activities, which were perfectly legal.

JOHN RAINES: We knew that, but we had no way of proving it.

PHAWKER: Right. So when there were demonstrations, there would be FBI agents on the perimeter photographing everyone who was there?

BONNIE RAINES: Yeah.

JOHN RAINES: You could always recognize them back then because they had buzzcut haircuts, they all wore dark suits and had a hat on. [laughs]

BONNIE RAINES: They didn’t exactly blend in with the counterculture. [laughs]

PHAWKER: Moving forward to the actual night of the burglary, things kind of go wrong: There’s a deadbolt on the door to the office that you folks hadn’t anticipated, and [Keith] Forsyth used a crow bar? Is that what he used? It sounds very loud.

JOHN RAINES: That’s Bonnie’s part of the story. She needs to tell you how we found out that there were no security devices inside.

PHAWKER: Ok, do tell me about your visit to the FBI.

BONNIE RAINES: We had been casing the building in the neighborhood for several weeks to learn about the patterns of the police, and others who went in and out of that building. It was also an apartment building, so there were people going in and out of it all the time. We had all that information, but what we didn’t have was about the interior of the FBI office.  We needed to somehow get inside to see whether there were alarm systems or what doors were there that we could enter. I posed as a Swarthmore College student, and made an appointment to interview the head of the office about opportunities for women in the FBI. I had an appointment to go in and talk with him, and I was able to try to disguise my appearance as much as I could. I never took my gloves off the whole time I was interviewing him and taking notes in my notebook. Apparently, no suspicion was aroused. I was able to see that there were no alarm systems, no security systems, and even the file cabinets were not locked.

PHAWKER: So what were the opportunities for women in the FBI in the 1971?

BONNIE RAINES: [laughs] Not too many, but they were very cordial to me. They were very gracious, so I had enough time to get into both rooms of the office to make a mental map of them.

PHAWKER: Was there concern that there was some kind of alarm system that you couldn’t see?

BONNIE RAINES: Oh, sure. Exactly. We had to know about the placement of the doors from the hallway, and I was able to identify a second door that was blocked by a huge steel cabinet. Those pieces of information were helpful in our agreeing to go ahead with it. It seemed feasible.

PHAWKER: How would you characterize your appearance at the time of the burglary? Did you guys look like members of the “counterculture,” or did you have a much more square appearance?

BONNIE RAINES: Well, I was twenty-nine years old with three little kids, and I had long hair— hippie hair— at that time. So I tucked my hair up inside of a wool winter hat, and I wore glasses, which I didn’t have at that time, but I wore glasses when I was in the office.  I tried to look like a scruffy college student.

JOHN RAINES: We were too old for the counterculture.

BONNIE RAINES: Yeah, we were not part of the counterculture.

PHAWKER: Did you guys dress in plain clothes for the burglary itself, or did you wear the proverbial black turtleneck and…

JOHN RAINES: [laughs] Well, uh… no. Only four of us went inside, actually. Neither Bonnie nor I were one of those. My job was to wait at our family station wagon in the parking lot of Swarthmore College, which is right by Media. The getaway car would bring the suitcases with the files to me, and then I would transport those files back to the safe house, the farm house about an hour outside of Philadelphia.

PHAWKER: How long were the burglars actually inside the offices?

BONNIE RAINES: I wish I could remember that. I was outside, my job was to be in the car to block a street where the police might come in their patrol car to see the door where the four were gonna be leaving the building. I was to pretend that my car had broken down and try to block them long enough to let them exit the building. I think they must have been in there for about an hour.

PHAWKER: Wow, that’s a long time.

BONNIE RAINES: There were a lot of documents. There were about a thousand documents.

JOHN RAINES: It was March 8th, and the fight between Ali and Frazier continued late into the night. Lots of distraction.

BONNIE RAINES:  The police wouldn’t be quite as vigilant if they were listening to the fight also.

JOHN RAINES: And we were right.

PHAWKER: How were the files brought out, in boxes?

BONNIE RAINES: In suitcases. Before they went in, they were wearing suits. They came out with suitcases so it would look like they were just running into one of the apartments in the building.

PHAWKER: How many suitcases were there in total?

JOHN RAINES: About five. We took the suitcases with the files immediately to the safe house, and then emptied the files out on the table and started working our way through the files. We had decided to divide the files into those that seemed to be legitimate criminal investigations, and those that were clearly political. We spent our time with those that were clearly political. It was not more than an hour after we began to sort those files that we had discovered some very, very interesting files that proved— in the FBI’s own handwriting— what we’d suspected was in fact going on.

PHAWKER: Can you give me some examples?

BONNIE RAINES: One of them, which was discovered that first night, was a directive to ‘enhance the paranoia in the new left, and to give the impression that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.’

JOHN RAINES: That’s a direct quote.

PHAWKER: That was actually written by Hoover, wasn’t it?

JOHN RAINES: It was written by an agent to Hoover. To solicit his approval.

BONNIE RAINES: It was also intended to be instructive to university administrators about how to squelch any demonstrations that were going on around campuses.

PHAWKER: Out of the huge pile of files that you had in your possession, you divided them up into criminal and political. How did it break down the divide, was it 50/50, 25/75?

JOHN RAINES: It was about 60% political, 40% criminal. But the criminal involved no white collar crime, no organized crime. It was all bank robberies and…

BONNIE RAINES: …stolen cars. Pretty minor stuff.

PHAWKER: Interesting. When you sent the materials out to a number of lawmakers and journalists, a number of them turned them back over to the FBI, correct?

JOHN RAINES: Oh, except one. We sent them to five different outsources. Three newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post and the L.A. Times. And to two progressive politicians: George McGovern and Ron Dellums. All of them either turned back the files, or ignored the potential story—except The Washington Post. And Betty Medsger was there at the post, the religion editor at the time of the post. There was a big kind of fight at the Post between the company lawyers who advised against publishing these files, to turn them back to the FBI and so on, because no newspaper organization had ever been faced with what to do with stolen government documents that potentially reveal a very important story.  Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Post at that time, fought, and finally [publisher] Katherine Graham said “Yes, publish it.” The next day, it was on the front page of The Post, and then of course all of the other newspapers started to chime in.

PHAWKER: Give me the trajectory of the narrative from there. Eventually, the Church hearings are scheduled, but that wasn’t until about five or six years after the break-in, is that correct?

BONNIE RAINES: I think two or three years, maybe. Do you remember, John?

JOHN RAINES: Carl Stern noticed one of the files that seemed to be innocuous had a heading at the top called COINTELPRO. He became curious about that, so he used the Freedom of Information Act to try to extract from the FBI more information about COINTELPRO. He was not successful in the first year or two, so he continued to press.  Finally in 1974, the Freedom of Information Act was significantly strengthened, and that allowed him to press his case in such a fashion that he did finally get the documents, that he could finally tell the country what the FBI was doing under J. Edgar Hoover was immensely unconstitutional and [about the] disruptive activities including the attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide.

PHAWKER: Right, the letter.

JOHN RAINES: Yeah, and that was a letter OK’d by J. Edgar Hoover.

PHAWKER: But you folks didn’t find that letter in the files you took? That was revealed later.

JOHN RAINES: No. That’s an important part of the story, actually. We set something in motion that would have gone nowhere, except other people kept it going. I mean first of all was The Washington Post and Betty Medsger, then Carl Stern the NBC reporter, and finally the judge that said that the files on COINTELPRO had nothing to do with the national security and therefore should be released. Finally after that, it went to the Senate, to Senator Church and his investigation of that. Eventually, righting every wrong.

PHAWKER: The irony is that Hoover was always railing against communism, but really, he was behaving in almost a Stalinist fashion for the entirety of that time. He died a year after the break-in.  What were your thoughts when you got that news?

BONNIE RAINES: [laughs] Well, my first reaction from him after the burglary was quite satisfying, because he was just apoplectic. He was apoplectic and I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that.

JOHN RAINES: We did find out that he sent out two hundred agents to try and find us. When he died, we were quite delighted, because that was the foot off the gas pedal.

PHAWKER: The agents came to speak with you, John. Is that right?

JOHN RAINES: Yes, they did. Two guys came to our house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, that’s where we lived at the time. It was a hot May day in 1971. They were standing on the porch when I came back from playing tennis, and they showed me their badges and went, “Can we talk to you?” And I said, “Sure. Come in.” I let them in our living room, and I went upstairs to shower because I was just coming back from the tennis court. I was sweaty. It also gave me time to collect myself. I came down and took quite an aggressive posture towards them: “You’re professional agents here working for the FBI, I’m reading all of this stuff in the newspaper about what you guys are doing, and not doing. How can you defend what’s going on in the FBI under this director of J. Edgar Hoover?” They danced around that, of course.  Finally, at the end, just before they were about to leave, I didn’t know at that time, but to lie to an FBI agent once you agree to talk to them is a serious felony. So they said just as they were about to leave, “Raines, were you involved that night at all?” and I said to them, “Well, I’m so angry about what I’ve learned from reading the newspapers about what this FBI is doing and not doing. I’m just not gonna make your search any easier. I’m not gonna answer that question. Goodbye.” And they left. And years later, literally, through Betty Medsger’s research, we discovered my name on that list…a thousand names on that list, with a line drawn through it.

PHAWKER: They crossed you off after that meeting with you?

BONNIE RAINES: Yeah.

PHAWKER: That’s so weird, you gave a very ambiguous answer at the end. I’m surprised. I guess they just had a feeling you weren’t the one. It was just luck that Bonnie didn’t come home, correct?

BONNIE RAINES: That’s right. I came home ten minutes later.

PHAWKER: They were on the lookout for you. They had a sketch of you from your visit to the office [pictured, right].

BONNIE RAINES: None of us knew at the time that there was a sketch that was done of me and that they were circulating it all over the place.

PHAWKER: How accurate was that sketch? How closely did it resemble you?

BONNIE RAINES: [laughs]

JOHN RAINES: It was generic.  It wasn’t exact. It was a young woman with dark black hair. A pretty young woman with black hair. That was it.

BONNIE RAINES: It could have been any 29-year-old woman in any anti-war movement, basically.

PHAWKER: After you disseminated the files, the eight people involved in the break-in no longer associated, aside from you and Bonnie. Is that right?

JOHN RAINES: We went our separate ways. Bonnie and I were already very busy, and many others were. We had our careers, our jobs, our children. We simply went back into the common life. We hid in the open, which was the best place to hide. The FBI did not have the imagination to think that this nice young couple with these bright, sweet children, could possibly be the burglars. [laughs] That was luck for us.

PHAWKER: The next five years was the statute of limitations. So for five years, were you guys just living in low-intensity background fear all the time that there was going to be a knock at the door, and that was it?

BONNIE RAINES: Yeah, ‘low-intensity’ would be a good way to put it. There was no physical evidence at the time of the burglary, and they were thrown off the track. They thought that another guy, John Peter Grady, who was a Catholic left leader. They were sure that he was part of Media, so they just went off in wrong directions, and never got very close to any of the rest of us.

JOHN RAINES: That’s where the story of Media mixes with the story of The Camden 28. The FBI was convinced that by entrapping them, which they did, that they had gotten the Media burglars. In fact, out of the 28, only 2 were involved in the Media. And the rest of us were not part of that. The other part is, this is a Philadelphia story simply because we just happened to be here, and Media happens to be close by. Back in the late sixties and early seventies Philadelphia was the center of very active and vocal resistance to the war in Vietnam. There were literally thousands of protestors in and around the city. That allowed us who did the burglary to disappear into this vast array of possible suspects. The FBI could never sort through that and figure that out. That’s what allowed us to get away with it. In a certain sense, it was Philadelphia in 1959 and 1969, ’70, ’71 that made this possible. It’s a Philadelphia story.

PHAWKER: Were you folks familiar with the phantom plot to blow up the Liberty Bell?

BONNIE RAINES: No?

PHAWKER: You’re not familiar with the story of the war protestors that were arrested for essentially, they were SDS students, I wrote a story on it.

BONNIE RAINES: I didn’t remember that, but now that you mention it, yeah.

PHAWKER: They went to their apartment and planted bomb-making materials and then arrested seven or eight of them.

JOHN RAINES: Oh, entrapment. Yeah. That’s a very important story, I’m glad you got that out there because that was going on. By the way, it’s still going on. But now it’s going on in mosques with young Muslim men. It continues to go on right now.

PHAWKER: You don’t think that the FBI has really changed their tactics all that much in the long run?

JOHN RAINES: Oh, we know that. They did change it for a brief period of time, from 1975 to ’76 when those new regulations went in from the Church committee, until 9/11. After 9/11, everything changed. All those rules that restricted the FBI and the CIA on civil liberties issues, those were gone.

PHAWKER: It’s my understanding that a lot of those restrictions were relaxed when Reagan came in as well.

JOHN RAINES: That’s also true. Reagan relaxed them, but it was really 9/11 that just changed the whole game. We’re back to square one again. Everything we seemed to accomplish in 1971 is gonna have to be done again.

PHAWKER: I’m gonna ask you both this next question. We’ll start with Bonnie. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about Edward Snowden and his activities.

BONNIE RAINES: Edward Snowden is in the tradition of whistle blowers of a different kind because he was inside understanding the abuses that were taking place. I think he provided a very fine service to the American public, to let people know the global extent of surveillance now that was all in secret, and the kind of lies that were told to Congress about it. I think he did a necessary and important thing, and I don’t believe he should be punished.

PHAWKER: Do you folks see Snowden actions as essentially the modern analogue for what you did? Because let’s face it, these days it would be impossible to manage to pull off what you pulled off then as far as an outsider, you almost have to be an insider. Do you think there’s a kingship with what you folks accomplished, John? And what Snowden did.

JOHN RAINES:  Sure. Snowden has been very clear, as we were very clear back in 1971. The purpose of releasing Snowden’s information on massive, was to give information to the public, to the citizens, who in the democracy are nearly the sovereigns. The citizens with this information, which otherwise they would not have gotten, are able to enter into a discussion about what should and should not happen, what should and should not be done in the government in Washington. The government in Washington is like Wall Street: they are not the sovereigns of this country, “We the people” are. Snowden, like we did back in 1971, knows that, and is giving us information that allows us, “We the people,” to decide what the government should do and not do.

PHAWKER: John, do you have any thoughts about the passing of Pete Seeger?

JOHN RAINES: [laughs] I think not.

BONNIE RAINES: Aw, he was certainly very important in terms of the social change movements. Everybody looked up to him, except the House Un-American Activities Committee.

JOHN RAINES: J. Edgar Hoover hated his guts. There would have been no civil rights movement without music, and there would have been no anti-war movement against Vietnam without music. Seeger was right in the middle of that.

PHAWKER: Tell me the story of how you revealed yourself to Betty.

BONNIE RAINES: A better way to say it is “blurted out.” That’s how it happened.

JOHN RAINES: I’ve got a big mouth.

BONNIE RAINES: We had known Betty going way back to her days in Philadelphia, a religion reporter with The Bulletin at that time. We had stayed in touch with her, and then she went to San Francisco to the journalism department there. She was back on the East Coast in 1988 or ’89 for a conference and visiting friends, so she was having dinner with us in our home. Our youngest daughter, Mary, walked into the dining room and John just kind of blurted out, “Mary, we want you to meet Betty Medsger, she’s the reporter that we sent the FBI files to.” [laughs] Betty’s jaw dropped to the floor, because even though we had known her enough as a friend, she had absolutely no idea that we were involved in that. Then of course she was very excited about telling the story.  She very much then wanted to write a book about it.

PHAWKER: Right. That was around 1988, a long time ago. Why the long gap between when she found out and when the book actually was written?

BONNIE RAINES: Well, a couple reasons. First, she wanted us to help her find the others in the group so that she could tell their stories as well. One of them, we never found. Just finding those people and urging them to be willing to have their story told was quite an effort. Then Betty moved to New York City, and there were some health issues for her and her husband.

JOHN RAINES: The book is almost 600 pages long. She had to do a lot of research.

BONNIE RAINES: She did a tremendous amount of research. The FBI investigation was something like thirty-three thousand pages that she had to read. It was a long drawn-out project.

PHAWKER: Would you have been willing to go public in 1988 if she was ready to publish the book then?

BONNIE RAINES: Sure, we were. Then a couple of other people in the group that we contacted right away said they were willing to. A couple other members of the group did not want their identities revealed. They didn’t mind having their story told, but not with their identities.

PHAWKER: Last question, then: what has been the public’s response to this revelation? The people you don’t know, the general public, as well as your circle of friends and family that may not have known before.

JOHN RAINES: We have not received any criticism at all. A great deal of “Thank you” and “I’m glad you did that” from colleagues, from friends.  It’s been quite a summer of enjoyment in this cold weather.

JOHN AND BONNIE RAINES WILL JOIN BETTY MEDSGER FOR A DISCUSSION OF HER BOOK “THE BURGLARY” THURSDAY NIGHT AT THE FREE LIBRARY

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