The activists who stole FBI documents exposing widespread, illegal domestic surveillance in 1971 say Edward Snowden did the right thing in fleeing the country instead of awaiting punishment for leaking sensitive NSA files.
"How would that have helped in the purpose for which Edward Snowden acted?" asked John Raines, who revealed his role in the burglary for the first time on Tuesday. "How would that have helped if we had stood around?"
The actions of Raines, an 80-year-old retired Temple University professor, and seven other anti-war activists revealed a vast effort under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to surveil and intimidate law-abiding dissidents during the Vietnam era. The files they pilfered from a field office in Media, Pa., and then sent to journalists helped spur sweeping intelligence reforms under the 1970s-era Church Committee.
"Snowden had the same purpose in mind that we the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI had in mind," Raines said during a conference call with reporters. The goal was to give citizens a glimpse of what the government was doing in their name, to "allow them to consent or not consent, which is at the very heart of democracy. In the end it's we the people who are sovereign, and who must decide."
Until Tuesday, when their names were revealed in a book by Betty Medsger, nobody knew who had made up the group of politically-inspired burglars. The peace activists involved in the file theft took elaborate precautions to conceal their identities, knowing that Hoover would be enraged by their actions. All faced years in prison for what they did.
Raines' wife, Bonnie, wore her long hair under a hat and put on glasses and gloves before posing as a Swarthmore College student to case the two-man field office. Despite a massive investigation, the FBI never found out who had broken in -- and the burglars say that is for the best.
"Particularly in the first decade after our actions, one obvious reason for our silence was that we did not want to go to prison," said Keith Forsyth, a taxi driver who also joined in the heist. Even after the statute of limitations on the burglary expired and the FBI investigation was closed, they held their silence.
"That they did not find us is made evident by our presence here today," said John Raines. "Once again: Hoover lost, freedom won."
Medsger's book was years in the making, but it is being published in the middle of another momentous debate over leaks revealing domestic surveillance. Even some who have praised the debate Snowden's actions spurred have suggested he should have stuck around to face the consequences of his leaks.
Bonnie Raines, who has been in Snowden's shoes, disagrees. She applauded the way Snowden has been able to occasionally express himself in statements made from abroad.
"He wouldn't be able to do that from a jail cell in the United States," she said.