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Spying On Swarthmore

While Swarthmore students were away on spring break late in March 1971, The Washington Post published a shocking front-page story: “Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities.” Before Edward Snowden exposed government spying on private citizens, there was the situation at Swarthmore.

Files stolen from the FBI’s Office in Media, Pa., by burglars calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI revealed that the agency had been spying on Swarthmore students and faculty members with the help of College employees as well as the Swarthmore’s borough’s chief of police, postmaster, and letter carriers.  

Every African-American student was under surveillance, as were many activist students and professors. The FBI’s goal at Swarthmore and on other college campuses, a memo in the files asserted, was to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles” and “further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

As the 19-year-old editor of the student newspaper, The Phoenix, I found myself directing the coverage of what remains one of the most important stories of my 40-year journalism career. “Stolen FBI Papers Incriminate College Personnel” screamed the banner headline over our first story. “FBI Records Reveal Widespread Surveillance of Students, Citizens” read the headline over a sidebar. “Stolen FBI Documents Contain Misinformation, Trivialities” read another.

During the next two months, one revelation followed another as the burglars released four more batches of files. Though the files made it clear that the FBI was spying on campuses around the country, it often seemed as though the main reason the Media office existed was to spy on Swarthmore, since so many files focused on Swarthmore students and faculty.

Memories of this tension-charged time came flooding back last winter among those of us who were at Swarthmore that semester, particularly the faculty members and students who were named targets.

The trigger for these recollections was the publication in January 2013 of The Burglary, a book by Betty Medsger, The Washington Post reporter who broke the story. The book chronicles the preparations for the break-in March 8, 1971, the revelations in the 1,000 files about the FBI’s spying on political activists, and the reaction in Congress to the discovery that Hoover was using the agency to harass people he didn’t like, including “weak administrators” who permitted “unlimited freedom of students to disrupt or destroy,” as he wrote in a memo.

The files also provided the first glimpse of a secret FBI program called COINTELPRO—shorthand for Counterintelligence Program—that two years later was revealed to have employed illegal dirty tricks and smear campaigns to discredit political activists.


It would be difficult for anyone who wasn’t on a college campus in the ’60s and early ’70s to understand how politically charged the atmosphere was. The deployment of U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1965 spurred years of protest on campuses around the country. And “the threat of the draft cast a shadow over every man,” recalls Dan Wasserman ’71.

Race relations were also in flux. In fall 1968, Swarthmore had only a few dozen black students. Concerned about both violations of their privacy and what seemed like lackluster recruitment efforts, about a dozen and a half black students, all members of the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Association (SASS), occupied the Admissions Office in January 1969 to press their demands for more black students and a black administrator, among other things. After eight days of frenzied negotiations, the occupation came to a precipitous end when President Courtney Smith died of a heart attack attributed to an undiagnosed blockage of his arteries.

The following fall brought the admission of many more black students. But it also brought an escalation of both the Vietnam War and protests against it. In spring 1970, American troops invaded Cambodia, and campuses erupted in protest. During one of them, National Guardsmen fatally shot four protestors at Kent State University. At Swarthmore, about half the students and some faculty went on strike, in effect canceling the rest of the semester for many of us.

“It was a time when we felt quite invulnerable,” recalls Jon Van Til ’61, who taught sociology at Swarthmore from 1966 to 1972. “Wars were something for us to protest, certainly not for us to fight. The College would keep on paying us to teach whatever we thought important. We had the time to experiment with drugs, lifestyles, and ideas.”

Against this highly politicized backdrop, present to some extent on all campuses, Haverford College Physics Professor William Davidon hatched a plan to break into an FBI office, according to The Burglary.


Davidon was a well-known pacifist who worked initially with a Quaker-led group—the Resistance—that offered support to draft resisters. In the late ’60s, Medsger writes, he began working more closely with the Catholic peace movement, whose anti-war tactics were more aggressive and included raiding draft boards and burning their files.

In winter 1970, Davidon decided to assemble a team of activists to burglarize an FBI office to prove his suspicion that the FBI was suppressing dissent. By January 1971, Medsger writes, Davidon had his team: John Raines, then 37, a religion professor at Temple University; his wife, Bonnie Raines, 29, a preschool teacher; Bob Williamson, a 22-year-old state social worker; Keith Forsyth, a 20-year-old part-time cab driver; and a female college professor and a male graduate student, both of whom have chosen to remain unidentified. (The eighth burglar, whom Medsger could not locate, was a dropout from the University of Pennsylvania.)

Professor Emeritus of Russian Thompson Bradley, a longtime political activist, worked closely with Davidon and John Raines on anti-war activities, though not the burglary, and said he shared their frustration with the war’s seeming relentlessness. By 1969–70, he recalled, opponents of the war were feeling “real despair.”

“We could bring tens of millions to Washington, fill the prisons with protestors, and the war would simply go on,” Bradley said. “It seemed as though there was nothing we could do to make a difference. Then Nixon came to power, and the war got even worse.”

None of the burglars had a direct connection to Swarthmore, Medsger and the Raineses say, but Swarthmore played a role in the burglary in surprising ways.

Late in February 1971, Bonnie Raines, posing as a Swarthmore student, called the FBI’s Media office and asked to meet with an agent for a class project. Her real motive: to case the joint. She reported back to her co-conspirators that it would be easy to break in.

On the night of the burglary—chosen because the burglars expected that most neighbors would be transfixed by the heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier—the team assembled in a nearby motel room. Each had a predetermined role. Davidon, the mastermind, waited in the motel room. Forsyth, who had taken a locksmithing course, broke into the office. Four others swept the files into suitcases. And Bonnie Raines drove a getaway car filled with files to a Swarthmore College parking lot, where John Raines loaded them into the family station wagon.

With a thousand files in hand, the burglars set about analyzing and disseminating them so that Americans would understand what the FBI was up to. “We were counting on the fact that because it was a huge bureaucracy there would be a piece of paper on everything,” recalled John Raines. “The files exceeded our expectations.”


When students returned from spring break a few days after The Washington Post broke the story, we student journalists for the twice-weekly Phoenix began trying to figure out how to cover a major national story from what seemed like its epicenter. We didn’t have Google to help us research. Cell phones were decades away; any calls had to be placed from a pay phone or through the College’s central switchboard.

Providentially, a plain brown envelope containing copies of 14 stolen FBI files landed in The Phoenix’s mailbox. A Cambridge-based anti-war group called Resist, which Medsger says Davidon enlisted to disseminate files, sent them. “We believe that surveillance has no place on college campuses and that academic freedom should be protected in order to create the just, peaceful society we all hope to live in,” the burglars said in the cover letter with the files.

Andrew Low ’73, the managing editor for that issue, and I decided to devote much of the next edition to the story and to reprint a copy of one of the files to establish its legitimacy, which some College officials were questioning. We didn’t know whether we might get in trouble for doing that; we didn’t even know a lawyer to ask.

“They aren’t going to care about a couple of teenagers at Swarthmore,” Low recalls us telling ourselves. (Meanwhile, Medsger’s book reports that at the time, Hoover was pressing Attorney General John Mitchell to seek a court order making it a crime to publish stories about the stolen files.)

On April 2, The Phoenix became the first media outlet to publish a photo of a stolen file and to reprint its text verbatim. The file we highlighted detailed the FBI’s spying on Daniel Bennett, chair of Swarthmore’s Department of Philosophy and one of the most politically active professors.

Dated Nov. 13, 1970, the file recounted information attributed to the College’s security chief, Henry Peirsol; the College’s switchboard operator, Judy Feiy; and the borough’s police chief, William Weidner (all now deceased).

According to the file, Peirsol, who lived near Bennett, told an agent that Bennett had a printing press in his garage and promised to keep “a close eye” on it. Feiy promised to “confidentially furnish pertinent information regarding any long-distance telephone calls made or received by Bennett.” She characterized Bennett as a “radical” and volunteered that the administration was unhappy with him for inviting controversial speakers to campus, such as Reggie Schell, a Black Panther.

Weidner, who lived two doors from Bennett, mentioned that students visited Bennett’s house regularly and that “hippie types” frequented his garage. He also provided a handwritten list of the license plate numbers of all cars parked on campus and their registered owners.

Bennett was on sabbatical in California when he learned about the files. The news sent him into “a kind of a funk,” he recalled recently. “I knew they were there, the informants. In a way, I accepted it as the consequence of the madness of the times. The whole era was a wild time, with the bombing of Cambodia and the attack on the Black Panthers in New Haven. But I didn’t realize how total the surveillance was.”

Bennett said it was ridiculous for the FBI to regard him as a threat. “These were ideas we were talking about,” he said. “We weren’t a danger to anybody.”

A second set of files contained a directive from Hoover ordering investigations into every black student group at every college in the United States. “Increased campus disorders involving black students pose a definite threat to the nation’s stability and security and indicate need for an increase in both quality and quantity of intelligence information on Black Student Union (BSU) and similar groups which are targets for influence and control by violence-prone Black Panther Party (BPP) and other extremists,” Hoover’s directive said.

He called for the development of “racial informants” who could report back on “all indications of efforts by foreign powers to take over the Negro militant movement.”

One file described the agency’s spying on a black Swarthmore student whom an agent described as “an inveterate Marxist revolutionist.” She “should be watched as she will probably be very active in revolutionary activities,” the agent wrote.

Don Mizell ’71 had been the spokesman for SASS during the 1969 sit-in. Not surprisingly, his name showed up in the files. Initially, he wasn’t surprised, he said a few months ago. “I’m a black man who grew up in the segregated South,” he said. “I was used to the idea that I was being watched.”

However, he was rattled a few weeks later when the burglars sent him a packet of 20 files, one of them a copy of a handwritten note from Hoover. “Watch this guy,” Mizell recalls it saying. “He is the most dangerous type of militant of all because he is rational, and he is convincing.”

For the rest of the spring semester, the revelations kept coming. The next batch of files described an informant’s visit to the Philadelphia home of a Swarthmore psychology instructor, Joseph Bernheim, for a political meeting. He found three Swarthmore professors and a student “sitting around discussing the coming Black Panthers Party Conference,” a women’s liberation meeting going on in an adjacent room, and “a number of other rather hippie-type individuals coming and going.” He concluded that the Swarthmore professors “consider themselves intellectual revolutionaries but are not organizational types and not personally activists.”

Dan Wasserman, who rented a room in Bernheim’s home, was the student named in the informant’s report. “I was shocked that the FBI would send somebody into the house where I lived,” he said recently about his initial reaction. “But at the same time, I think the files confirmed people’s worst suspicions of the FBI’s abuse of state power. It became clear that the FBI were the subversives, not us.”

The third batch of files contained a detailed report about the FBI’s surveillance of Jacqueline Reuss ’71, daughter of then-U.S. Rep. Henry Reuss, D-Wis. The files called Marjorie Webb, the senior secretary to the registrar, an “established source” and indicated that she had provided information about Reuss’ academic performance. The FBI’s spying on Reuss went further than it did for other targeted students, including inquiries about her to a credit bureau, the Philadelphia and Milwaukee police departments, and to the CIA regarding her activities in France, where she had volunteered at a camp.

In an interview in April 1971, Reuss told me she was mystified by the FBI’s interest in her. She said she had attended a few Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) meetings during her freshman year, but was “never really involved. Unless they were investigating everyone who ever went to a meeting, I was no more significant than anyone else there.”

The fact that the registrar’s secretary had provided information about her to the FBI “made me more paranoid at Swarthmore,” she said at the time. “I don’t trust people at Swarthmore any more.”


The paranoia wasn’t limited to the FBI’s named targets. A proclamation from the Student Council noted that “a climate has already been created which is inimical to the functioning of an academic institution. Rumors, distrust, and, indeed, paranoia border on the epidemic.” The Phoenix editorialized: “Distrust has made Swarthmore a discomforting place.” For weeks, a drawing hung over the outgoing mail slot in Parrish Hall that featured two oversized eyes and the caption “F.B. Eyes.”

Some of the paranoia lingers today. A former faculty member who had been involved in crafting a response to the FBI’s activities on campus declined to be interviewed after what he believed to be an interception of our email exchange. “My experience has convinced me we are not as far away from the 1970s as we have assumed,” he wrote me, backing out of an interview.

However, four decades ago, there were still more revelations to come from the stolen files. A fourth set of files provided further information about Marjorie Webb’s interactions with the FBI, indicating that she had supplied a list of all black students and their expected graduation dates, as well as other documents.

In an interview with The Phoenix, Webb asserted that she hadn’t violated the College’s confidentiality rules. As for being labeled by the FBI as an “established source,” she said, “In the best sense of that term, we are all ‘established sources.’ ”

This set of files also contained dossiers on three Swarthmore students—Wasserman, Cindy Bertrand Holub ’71, and Bernard Greene ’71—who the agency suspected of being members of the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC.). NCLC was an SDS offshoot with Trotskyite leanings and for a while was the dominant leftist group on campus. It later morphed into a right-wing group under the leadership of Lyndon Larouche, a perennial presidential candidate who served five years in federal prison for conspiracy and mail and tax fraud, beginning in 1989.

Holub wrote in an email in June that she had been “disgusted, but not surprised” to learn that the FBI was spying on her. “I had been involved in a revolutionary socialist group for a few years and just assumed we were under observation,” she wrote. “We used to hear our phones clicking all the time and just took it for granted. That the observation extended to the African-American students and others at Swarthmore wasn’t much of a stretch.” Greene initially told The Phoenix that the FBI’s spying was ‘’no big thing.” But with 43 years of hindsight, he has changed his mind.

“I am more outraged than I was at the time,” Greene said this spring. “As more files were disclosed and more information uncovered, it turned out that it was a bigger thing than our wildest paranoid fantasies could have imagined. We were living in an official police state.”

In 1978, Greene requested his complete FBI file and learned that his name had been placed in the Administrative Index—referred to as ADEX—a list of individuals that the FBI deemed dangerous to internal security and candidates for internment during a national emergency. “It was pretty unsettling to learn from my files that my government was targeting me in this way,” he said.

In retrospect, Greene is especially troubled by the complicity of some College employees. “I view it as reflecting the ease with which ‘good’ people will succumb to evil at the behest of someone presenting themselves with an aura of authority,” he said.

Initially, the official reaction of the College to news of the FBI’s activities on campus was skepticism. Then-Vice President Edward Cratsley said he found “it impossible to put any confidence in any of the allegations” because the files had been stolen and could not be validated.

But within days of the release of the first files, the Board of Managers expressed its concern “with the preservation of the atmosphere of academic freedom.” And then-President Robert Cross launched an investigation into the roles that Swarthmore staff members had played. At the urging of the Student Council, he appointed a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to suggest new privacy guidelines.

In the fall, Cross’ committee issued recommendations, which were quickly adopted. The College began requiring written authorization from investigative targets before releasing confidential information and prohibited the use of College telephone or mail facilities for surveillance. No information was ever released about whether employees who had provided information to the FBI were disciplined.

Dorothy Robinson ’72 served as one of two student representatives to the committee. “Basically, we got it right,” she wrote in an email in June. “The alleged surveillance and systematic leaking of information on students and some faculty was outrageous.”


Ultimately, the disclosures from the Media files led to congressional hearings that resulted in changes in the FBI’s policies and practices, including more privacy protections. And in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed a law, known as the Buckley Amendment, which strengthened the privacy of student records everywhere.

For Andy Low and me, covering a big national story as student journalists helped shape our career choices. Two years after graduating from Swarthmore, I went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I spent 22 years as a reporter. Low became a lawyer and has taken on media clients whenever he’s had the chance. “It was because of the inability to get legal advice on that fateful night” when we decided to publish the FBI files, whatever the consequences, he said last January.

Although riveting, The Burglary might have been published with little notice, had Americans’ concerns about government spying not been heightened, beginning in June 2013, by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of spying by the National Security Agency. In retrospect, the revelations from the FBI files seem a low-tech harbinger of the NSA’s sophisticated surveillance of telephone calls and Internet traffic today.

“[Snowden] is a whistleblower of today, and we were whistleblowers of yesterday,” John Raines said. “Back then, every politician was scared stiff of being labeled soft on communism. The parallel today is that we’re a nation run by fear again, and this time it’s fear of terrorists.”

—Martha Shirk ’73 is an independent journalist and author based in Palo Alto, Calif.