It's March, 1971. Fifteen months have passed since the murder of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago PD. But Hampton's killing is part of a concerted effort by the J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to put down protest movements in the US. Soon, the world will know the truth - all thanks to an intrepid gang of activist burglars and a trove of explosive secret files. Join Sophia Di Martino and journalist Betty Medsger for the final episode exploring a shameful chapter in FBI history - COINTELPRO.
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True Spies, Episode 157: COINTELPRO: Part 2

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

BETTY MEDSGER: Every FBI agent in the country was required to hire an informer who did nothing but developed files on black people. Except in Washington, D.C., where every FBI agent was required to hire six informers who worked full-time on developing files on black people.

NARRATOR: COINTELPRO, Part Two: The Burglary. In the last episode of True Spies you heard how police targeted a ‘black messiah’. Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old Black Panther leader, was a galvanizing force in the civil rights movement. Chicago police murdered him in his bed early in the morning of December 4, 1969 as part of an effort to “disrupt, destroy, and neutralize” powerful voices of dissent. The police denied any responsibility for his death. But Fred's lawyer, Jeffrey Haas, went to work to make the truth known. If you haven’t heard the previous episode - go back and listen now. There are details ahead that are too extraordinary to be spoiled. Still here? Alright, let’s set the scene. It’s the early 1970s, and America is going through some seismic shifts. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. And that spring and summer, demonstrators marched the streets around the globe. The following year, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And US military involvement in Vietnam had come to a peak, with well over half a million troops stationed in the country while many Americans beseeched their government to pull out. For many people, this was an era laden with a sense of personal responsibility - a time to get out and take action. And hardly anyone carried that burden so resolutely as a university physics professor called Bill Davidon.

BETTY MEDSGER: Bill was a physics professor at Haverford College right outside Philadelphia. When he came to Haverford, which is a Quaker college, he immediately became involved in what was then an embryonic part of the peace movement. 

NARRATOR: This is Betty Medsger. In the 1970s, Betty was a reporter for The Washington Post

BETTY MEDSGER: As a physicist, he really had a keen understanding of nuclear weapons and was deeply afraid that the war in Vietnam would involve the use by the United States of nuclear weapons.

NARRATOR: Bill Davidon was Jewish but throughout the 1960s he was involved with Catholic and other Christian groups, making connections with people who shared his commitment to working for peace.

BETTY MEDSGER: And as Bill went from organization to organization in the peace movement, leaders were telling him, “We think that there's a growing number of spies in our groups, and this is having a terrible impact. People are afraid of who they're standing against in demonstrations. They're afraid at meetings where we're planning demonstrations that there's a spy beside them, and they're afraid that their phones are tapped.” 

NARRATOR: At first Bill thought, “They must be paranoid. All those years in the peace movement, with no results - it has to be wearing people down.” But by 1970, he’d come around to believing that those people were right. And not only that.

BETTY MEDSGER: This was probably official. It would've been done by the FBI.

NARRATOR: You might not think much of this now, in a post-Edward Snowden era. But for Bill, the thought of an arm of the US government spying on law-abiding, nonviolent groups of private citizens was shocking. Not that Bill had any concrete proof the government was spying on its people. But given his suspicions, he couldn’t just sit on his hands.

BETTY MEDSGER: The conclusion that he reached was that if the government was officially spying on people with the intent to suppress dissent, it was important to stop that as it was to stop the war.

NARRATOR: Put that way, Bill had no choice.

BETTY MEDSGER: He said, “No, this is not a problem that's too big to solve. It's a problem too big not to solve, and we have to find a way.”

NARRATOR: So the physics professor did what physics professors do, and began to devise a formula.

BETTY MEDSGER: He started thinking about how in the world do you get documentary evidence that it's happening? By December of that year, he decided that breaking in was probably the only way that it could be done.

NARRATOR: No big deal - just break into the FBI. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t a totally original idea. Another group of citizens had broken into an FBI office in New York State to destroy military draft files just a few months earlier. Except they’d been arrested and convicted. Those people were behind bars.

BETTY MEDSGER: But as he thought about that, he realized, what if you could do something that was carefully planned and you could succeed at it? Maybe you could get that documentary evidence.

NARRATOR: So Bill Davidon did some boots-on-the-ground research and went to downtown Philadelphia to get a look at the FBI building.

BETTY MEDSGER: And it was this tall building with 24-hour security. And he knew that was impossible.

NARRATOR: Okay. Plan B. Bill cracked open a phone book.

BETTY MEDSGER: Sure enough, there was an FBI listed in Media, Pennsylvania.

NARRATOR: A smaller town - maybe a safer bet. Bill got in his car and drove to Media.

BETTY MEDSGER: And he walked by and he noticed that it seemed to be open at all times and he walked by and it looked like there was no security. They'd have to look into that more deeply later on, but he thought, “Well, this looks like it might be doable.” And at that point, he then decided he would recruit other people.

NARRATOR: It might be worth acknowledging now how crazy this probably sounds. And to be sure: it was crazy. Breaking into an FBI office has never been a hobby for the faint of heart. But this was the early ‘70s. There was no internet, no GPS, and way fewer security cameras. Surveillance looked different in those days. Still, it was a massive risk for everyone involved. Another surprising detail? The fact that, with just one exception, every single person Bill asked to take part in his break-in said yes. 

BETTY MEDSGER: By late December, he had assembled a group of nine people that included himself, one of whom would leave the group right before it happened. Four of them had very young children. Two of them were a couple, John and Bonnie Raines, and at that time they had three children under the age of eight. And it was, as you can imagine, a very difficult decision for them. 

NARRATOR: Difficult because if the burglars were caught, the children of John and Bonnie Raines would likely lose both their mother and father to long-term prison sentences. The Raineses weighed their decision carefully. But ultimately they said yes - not in spite of being parents, but because of it.

BETTY MEDSGER: They thought that they shouldn't give up their responsibility as citizens, and they also thought that this was such an important issue, that it was important to deal with it for the sake of their children, all children, and all people.

NARRATOR: They would, of course, take every precaution to avoid getting caught. No one was interested in ending up like the last FBI burglars. 

BETTY MEDSGER: During January, February, and early March the group would come to the Raines family many evenings and have big spaghetti dinners around their dining room table. And then they would go out and do casing.

NARRATOR: Casing. Meaning, they’d study the building and get to know it as well as they could.

BETTY MEDSGER: Everybody would have assignments as to what they were to do during casing but then they would come back to the Raines home and they would go to the attic where they had paper on the wall, diagrams of the streets. And as they would learn new information during casing, they would add that information.

NARRATOR: One member of their crew was a 19-year-old cab driver named Keith Forsyth. Keith had taken a correspondence course in locksmithing, and he’d be responsible for actually getting into the office. To prepare for the break-in, he went to the site and covertly determined what type of lock was on the door. But he didn’t want to just go out and buy what he needed and risk leaving a paper trail.

BETTY MEDSGER: So he figured out how to make his own locksmithing tools, lock picking tools, and had them conveniently located in the pocket of a Brooks Brothers top coat that he had picked up for $5 at a local thrift store.

NARRATOR: Keith had dropped out of college and hitchhiked to Philadelphia in order to get involved in the peace movement. He was not the Brooks Brothers type. But as he later told his kids, “If you’re a white man in a suit, you can get away with anything.” Disguises like Keith’s played an important role not just in the break-in, but also in the casing process.

BETTY MEDSGER: Bonnie Raines was 29 at the time, but looked much younger. They came up with a plan together that she would call the FBI office, and she would say that she was a Swarthmore College student. She was writing a paper on women getting jobs in non-traditional places for women and that she would like to talk with the agent in charge of the office about the possibility of women being hired by the FBI. And despite the fact that they weren't yet hiring women as agents - they would do so in the next couple of years - he agreed that he would talk with her.

NARRATOR: Bonnie’s husband, John, drove her to the interview and waited outside until she was finished. She showed up to meet the FBI officers in disguise, her hair tucked into a tight cap, her face obscured by a pair of oversized glasses.

BETTY MEDSGER: She wore gloves, which she kept on throughout a 45-minute-long interview, taking notes in front of the agent with gloved hands. What she was really doing was looking around the office for signs of whether there were alarms. As far as she could see in the rooms that she had passed through, there were none. She also asked him a question that required him to go to a file cabinet, and the point of that was to see if the file cabinets were locked, and they were not locked, so that was good news.

NARRATOR: Bill, Bonnie, John, Keith, and the others made a calculated decision about when the burglary should happen: March 8. That was the night that world heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali would be facing off against Joe Frazier at New York’s Madison Square Garden, an event billed as the Fight of the Century. The televised bout received unprecedented publicity and the burglars hoped that tenants of the building where the FBI office was located would be thoroughly distracted. When the night of March 8 finally arrived, the burglars set up a base at a motel a few miles away from the FBI. Five of them would actually enter the office to pilfer the files. Keith Forsyth, the amateur locksmith, set out first. The plan was for him to get the door open, then summon the four others to join him, nab the files, and run. Bill and his co-conspirators had spent months carefully plotting out how it would all unfold. But you know how it goes with the best-laid plans. Keith was met with an unwanted surprise.

BETTY MEDSGER: When he arrived on the night of March 8, the lock had been changed and there was a much more complicated lock on the door. And of course, he was extremely upset and went back to his car and drove to the motel a few miles. He arrived and said he had this bad news and what should we do? And of course, the obvious question was: Do they know and are they waiting inside for us?

NARRATOR: Would the burglars abandon their mission then and there, knowing they might have already been found out? Surely they hadn’t come this far to give up now.

BETTY MEDSGER: Bonnie Raines said, “Well, there's another door beside that one.” That other door has a very tall cabinet in front of it. And she said, “Maybe we can go, you can go in that door.” And they decided, let's take the chance.

NARRATOR: The cabinet behind the second door was full of files. If Keith knocked it over by opening the door too hard and too fast, the cabinet would come crashing down, making a noise that would, without a doubt, alert the building manager downstairs to something amiss. Keith went back to the office, ready to try his luck a second time around.

BETTY MEDSGER: This time, instead of the very delicate fine tools that he had made, he takes a crowbar and a carjack because he's gonna stretch out on the floor and with those two implements attached to each other, push the door open very slowly. And as you can imagine, he also had to think about whether some people who lived on the two floors above might come down at any time. As he's very slowly pushing the door open. He hears the sound of the fight crackling on the radio on the floor below where the building manager lived.

NARRATOR: Bingo. Just what the crew had hoped for.

BETTY MEDSGER: And he smiles. But then he also hears what sounds like metal on metal and he thinks, “Is that a gun? And is it an agent inside the office waiting for me to open?” And that did not produce a smile. 

NARRATOR: But Keith doesn’t stop. Not now. Not after all this. Slowly, gingerly, using the crowbar and the car jack, he pushes the door open, nudging the filing cabinet forward until there’s just enough space for him to slip inside the office.

BETTY MEDSGER: The office was dark. There were no waiting agents. And he picked up a phone and called the motel and said, “Okay, the door's ajar.” 

NARRATOR: Immediately, the other burglars left the motel, carrying large empty suitcases that they planned to fill with files because they weren’t just going to stand around sifting through paperwork, picking and choosing what to take. 

BETTY MEDSGER: The five people who were assigned to go in opened all the drawers and, and standing cabinets, took out all the files in the office and they were driven away.

NARRATOR: The plan had worked.

BETTY MEDSGER: When they left in those getaway cars, they were headed about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia to a farmhouse. They immediately started opening the suitcases and looking at the files, and they stayed there until 6 am that first night. But within an hour of starting to go through the files, one of them said, “Look at this.”

NARRATOR: The FBI directive the burglars had stumbled upon an hour into their search was hard to misinterpret. It encouraged agents to, “Get the point across. There is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” They were to do so by interviewing people who dissented against the government in order to ‘enhance’ their paranoia. The FBI hoped that some of these dissenters would be so spooked that they would inform on their friends and allies.

BETTY MEDSGER: They could scarcely believe it. And at that moment they felt “Okay, if we found that, we'll certainly find more.”

NARRATOR: The group stayed up until 6 am that morning reading documents. And they kept on reading for 10 days.

BETTY MEDSGER: Two of them, making many, many copies and then assembling them in clusters that they would send out to various people, with the first cluster going to two members of Congress and three journalists. 

NARRATOR: At the end of those 10 days, before they dispatched their first set of documents, the group agreed to abide by two commitments.

BETTY MEDSGER: One was that they wouldn't associate with each other. They felt wisely that the arrest of one could lead to the arrest of another. But the other thing that they decided was that they agreed that they would take this secret to their graves and not tell anyone what they had done.

NARRATOR: Then the burglars placed the photocopied documents in brown envelopes, sealed them, put them in the mail, and hoped it would all be worth it in the end.

NARRATOR: Tuesday, March 23. Fifteen days after the FBI break-in. This is where Betty Medsger comes into the story. In downtown Washington, D.C. the 29-year-old reporter was returning to work at The Washington Post after a long weekend.

BETTY MEDSGER: I picked up my mail first when I arrived and there was a brown envelope. And the return address was Liberty Publications, Media, Pennsylvania. That meant nothing to me. And then I went to my desk and I opened it and there was a cover letter from the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, which I had not heard of, saying that we had been chosen because they had confidence that we would make this information public. And if we did so, we would receive more information from them in the future.

NARRATOR: You don’t have to be a cub reporter to be intrigued by a statement like that. Betty started reading.

BETTY MEDSGER: And the first document was the paranoid one, the one about an FBI agent behind every mailbox. And that was fairly shocking.

NARRATOR: From there, it only got worse. The documents indicated that switchboard operators had been hired to snoop on university professors’ phone calls. FBI informants had been placed on campuses and told to report back to the Bureau. Worst of all were the documents indicating that the FBI was targeting black Americans. The Bureau was creating files on them in much the same way as their hated East German counterparts, the Stasi, targeted anyone who might be deemed a threat to the status quo.

BETTY MEDSGER: Much of it was shocking and to the point that I thought maybe this is a hoax. And the only thing that made me think that was not the case was the fact that because I'd been a Philadelphia reporter. I recognized some of the names in the files, people I knew as sources and as activists back in Philadelphia.

NARRATOR: Once she’d finished reading, Betty went to the National Desk of the Post to tell them what she’d received. Turns out, they’d just received a call from another journalist - someone who covered the Justice Department.

BETTY MEDSGER: Because he had been at the FBI office a little bit earlier, and they had told him about the files that had been sent to the two members of Congress, they had turned them over, criticized the burglars, and given the files to the FBI. So the FBI knew from that cover letter that journalists were supposed to receive them too.

NARRATOR: So the FBI was well aware that the files were out there. And the Post reporters were able to confirm with the Bureau that, yes, they were authentic.

BETTY MEDSGER: Actually by that time, although we didn't know it, they had been returned to the FBI by all four other people who had received them, including people from the  Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

NARRATOR: Betty was the only journalist to receive the FBI documents who didn’t immediately send them back to where they came from.

BETTY MEDSGER: It's so difficult today to imagine that would happen. The FBI assumed that by confirming that the documents were authentic that would prevent us from writing about them because there was a culture at the time, a very deep culture, that protected the secrets of the FBI and intelligence agencies. Not only was there no government oversight of intelligence agencies up until this time, but there also was very little journalism oversight, very little journalism reporting on anything except what those agencies wanted reporting.

NARRATOR: This was March of 1971, before the Pentagon Papers, before Watergate. Those scandals would rock the media world in very short order. And together, they would permanently alter the relationship between American intelligence and American media. 

BETTY MEDSGER: I was young. I was new to Washington, relatively new to Washington, and I definitely wasn't tied into the highest levels of journalism and government that were part of this very strong culture that I later learned about. So I didn't have the instinctive reactions that other people had that we’ve got to protect it.

NARRATOR: But Betty’s superiors had a tough call to make. Executive editor Ben Bradlee was feeling outside pressure.

BETTY MEDSGER: He had received a call from Attorney-General John Mitchell, of course, that you must not publish stories about these files. And so he kept calling from 11 am until 4 pm, both Bradlee and Katharine Graham…

NARRATOR: …that’s the publisher of The Washington Post...

BETTY MEDSGER: … urging them not to publish and becoming more and more agitated as time went by. And finally, at 4 pm, the Attorney-General put out a bulletin through the wire services saying that anybody who had these files must not make them known to the public, that it would endanger lives and national security.

NARRATOR: If they went ahead with the story and something went wrong, the staff of The Washington Post would have to live with the consequences. All the same, there were the incriminating documents right there in front of them, already verified by the FBI. How could they keep the shocking truth away from the public?

BETTY MEDSGER: When I handed in my story at 6 pm, I was told about this. I had no idea that the struggle was going on at the top levels of the paper as I wrote. I was told that it might never be published and that was a shock.

NARRATOR: Ultimately, the decision rested on the shoulders of publisher Katharine Graham.

BETTY MEDSGER: By 10 pm - the latest time that you could make a decision on whether or not to publish the next day - she did decide to publish. 

NARRATOR: The public’s reaction was swift. And irate.

BETTY MEDSGER: It was shocking for the public to realize, as these files came out, that this was such a different FBI than what the public had known forever. And in the end, it really revealed that there were two FBIs - there was the public FBI and the secret FBI.

NARRATOR: Prior to 1971, the public FBI had worked with the press to get the flattering coverage it wanted. And Betty’s reporting in the Post was anything but.

BETTY MEDSGER: One of the files that first came out described a national operation in that every FBI in the country was required to hire an informer who did nothing but developed files on black people - except in Washington, D.C. where every FBI agent was required to hire six informers who worked full-time on developing files on black people. And there was a detailed description of where they should go - churches, schools, libraries, bars, grocery stores. And in fact, one of the devastating overall pieces of information was how so many of the worst operations were all geared toward damaging black people.

NARRATOR: Betty had only seen 14 of the files. The revelations in her first stories, published in April 1971, were just the tip of the iceberg. The documents indicated there was much more to be learned.

BETTY MEDSGER: A cover sheet was the most important file of everything that the burglars found. And it was a cover sheet on a file saying that college administrators should crack down very hard on professors and students who were against the war. And the FBI had copied this story, put a cover sheet on it, and a label at the top in the upper right-hand corner in block letters said COINTELPRO. In early April of 1971, I wrote a story about the file underneath the cover sheet - not thinking about what the label said on the cover sheet. That was not a good decision as it turned out. 

NARRATOR: Betty might not have called the program by name, but she’d said enough. The FBI knew what she’d gotten wind of. 

BETTY MEDSGER: I have the internal documents that describe the fact on this day that they realized that for the first time, the term COINTELPRO was outside the Bureau.

NARRATOR: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover scrambled to warn the Bureau that its Counterintelligence Program, also known as COINTELPRO, had been uncovered. But Hoover also urged employees to keep up the dirty tricks. Carl Stern, a journalist for NBC, approached the FBI about COINTELPRO wanting to know what the mysterious program referenced in the cover sheet was all about. Stern filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act - and won. Once the FBI’s secret documents were made available to Stern, COINTELPRO began to unravel.

BETTY MEDSGER: Beginning then, journalists and scholars in 1974 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for the actual COINTELPRO files. And it was then that we started seeing what kinds of operations they actually were.

NARRATOR: The operations went far beyond stifling dissent. Some of the tactics the Bureau used were high-stakes hazing techniques, endangering not only the freedom of their targets but also their health and wellbeing. Documents revealed that agents had injected oranges to be eaten by antiwar activists with strong laxatives. The FBI had also hired sex workers with venereal diseases in hopes that they would spread them to university campus activists. One particularly despicable plan was devised at the very top of the Bureau.

BETTY MEDSGER: After it was announced that he was going to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover was so angered by that, that the FBI developed a plot that was designed to force Martin Luther King to commit suicide.

NARRATOR: Only one plan carried out under COINTELPRO is known to have directly resulted in death. Once again, the victim was a black man, the 21-year-old leader of the Illinois Black Panthers, a man called Fred Hampton. The man the FBI feared could be a ‘black messiah’.

JEFF HAAS: When Fred stood up and said, “I'm not going to die slipping on a piece of ice, I'm not going to die of a heart attack, I'm going to be fighting in the revolution, and all of you should be fighting in it,” it just had a remarkable power to it, enthusiasm to it, and also almost a fatalism to it, too.

NARRATOR: When we last heard from Jeffrey Haas, he was sitting in his kitchen having a cup of morning joe, reading The Chicago Tribune when he came across an article that piqued his interest.

JEFF HAAS: A story that William O'Neal, a person we'd known in the Panthers, with another man, a Chicago policeman, was charged with kidnapping and murdering some drug dealers in northwest Indiana near Chicago. And so the newspaper story said William O'Neal had been an informant in the FBI ever since 1968.

NARRATOR: William O’Neal - a man who worked security for the Panthers - a man who’d given Fred Hampton countless rides in his car. At the time, no one had suspected that O’Neal might have been involved in Fred’s murder. And why would they? O’Neal took Fred’s death harder than anyone.

JEFF HAAS: After Fred was murdered, he was crying the most. He went to Fred's mother, Iberia Hampton, and said, “Can I be a pallbearer in Fred's funeral?” She said yes.

NARRATOR: Now, several years later, Jeff’s mind was racing. In the years after Fred’s death, new details had come to light. And Jeff was beginning to put the puzzle pieces together. Jeff had learned about the COINTELPRO program in the news along with the rest of the country. Perhaps he even read Betty Medsger’s reports on it. And now he was starting to wonder: might there have been a link between the FBI’s shameful Counterintelligence Program and the murder of Fred Hampton - and might O’Neal have been that link? 

JEFF HAAS: We thought, “Well, how do we put this FBI program together with O'Neal being an informant?” O'Neal was at the apartment the night before the raid and left at midnight, and the raid was at 4 am. Is there a connection here?

NARRATOR: Three months after Jeff learned that O’Neal had been an informant, a report commissioned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP, summarized all of the existing evidence and expert testimony. The result was a damning book-length account - one that led to the reopening of a federal criminal investigation into the raid. Jeff and his colleagues would be going to trial. The first thing they did was subpoena the FBI for documents that would show that they were part of the raid.

JEFF HAAS: Of course, the government said the FBI had nothing to do with this, This was not COINTELPRO. But we kept asking for documents. And one day, we got 34 documents, and one was a floorplan of the apartment where Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson would be staying. And it had all the furniture in the apartment, including the bed where Hampton and Johnson slept. And that was the bed where the shots had converged.

NARRATOR: Not an architect’s floor plan, on graph paper with measurements. No, a hand-drawn sketch constructed with information from CGT-1 - Confidential Government Informant 1. Jeff just so happened to know a man who’d been a Confidential Government Informant when the plan was drawn, William O’Neal. He hadn’t been able to confirm definitively that O’Neal or the FBI had been involved in Fred’s death but the floor plan made the whole grim picture that much clearer.

JEFF HAAS: So all of a sudden the plot thickens. It's not just the Chicago police and the prosecutor, but it's the FBI. 

NARRATOR: What’s more, Jeff and his colleagues learned from the documents that the FBI had tried - and failed - to set up a gang to assassinate Fred.

JEFF HAAS: Well, of course, in a case where we're trying to show that the FBI was out to kill Fred Hampton, the fact that they had attempted to murder him on a different occasion was evidence of motive.

NARRATOR: It wasn’t until 1976, seven years after Fred’s death, that Jeff and his colleagues were able to hear what had happened straight from the horse’s mouth.

JEFF HAAS: We finally got to depose O'Neal. At first, we didn't have the floor plan, so he said, “I didn't know anything about the raid, you know? Yeah, I was an informant.” When we got the floor plan, he said he and his FBI control prepared that floor plan. 

NARRATOR: O’Neal, a pallbearer at Fred Hampton’s funeral, had given the FBI a map of his apartment to carry out murder. It took the better part of a decade to reveal the extent of O’Neal’s role in the raid. Some details never became totally clear, like why Fred was in a catatonic state at the time of his death. The NAACP’s report suggested he was likely drugged but conclusive evidence was never found. O’Neal did finally admit that he knew how the floor plan would be used. It turned out that after Fred’s murder, O’Neal had been released from the FBI, given a job, and placed under a witness protection program. He’d lived his life as a free man, even after COINTELPRO was out in the open - until Jeff Haas and colleagues caught up with him. And even then, because of his immunity deal with the FBI, he was never made to pay for his treachery. Many years later, O’Neal appeared in a documentary series from the American broadcaster PBS. He was asked to talk about his infiltration of the Black Panthers. 

JEFF HAAS: This was 1989, 20 years after the raid. And he expressed some remorse. He said, "I felt bad." He came a little cleaner then and said, "I did feel bad and I couldn't show how I felt after Fred was murdered." And in 1990, he's on the outskirts, on the western side of Chicago, and it's reported that he's acting strangely. He jumped out of a window of an apartment and ran out onto the Dan Ryan Expressway and jumped in front of a car and killed himself.

NARRATOR: As the sordid facts surrounding COINTELPRO began to come out in 1971, the program was put to an end. But the damage had been done. For all its stomach-churning details, though, there are still heroes in this story. Civil rights leaders like Fred kept fighting, even when, instinctually, they knew they’d have to die for their cause. Allies and advocates like Jeff lent their support. Truth-seeking journalists like Betty set a new standard for reporting. And of course, the burglars who broke into the FBI, lighting the match that would blow up COINTELPRO. Eight brave nonviolent dissenters who never got caught.

NARRATOR: Which of course begs the question: how do we know their names? One weekend in the late 1980s, Betty found herself back on the East Coast passing through her old stomping grounds in Philadelphia. She rang up some old friends, a married couple, who invited her for dinner at their home. As they ate their meal, the couple’s youngest child came in to ask her father a question.

BETTY MEDSGER: And when he was done answering, he said, “Mary, we want you to know Betty because many years ago when your dad and mother had information about the FBI that we wanted to give to the American public, we gave it to Betty.”

NARRATOR: Did I forget to mention that Betty was friends with Bonnie and John Raines?

BETTY MEDSGER: I was absolutely stunned. And I said, “Are you saying that you were part of the group that burglarized the Media office?” And they said, “Yes.” And I would never would've guessed that they had done that. I mean, I knew that they were dedicated anti-war people but the idea that they would engage in burglary would never come to mind.

NARRATOR: The couple told Betty they’d made an agreement with the others to take their secret to the grave. John had disclosed their involvement to Betty on the fly - he’d just blurted it out. But as the weeks passed, the revelation nagged at Betty.

BETTY MEDSGER: And I said, “I'd like for you to think about it and tell me whether you would reconsider that promise that you made. And if you agree with me that it's a story that should be told, would you then get in touch with Bill and together find the other burglars and see what they say?” And a short time later they agreed and they got in touch with Bill. And that was the beginning of work on telling their story.

NARRATOR: The burglars went public. And in 2014, the names of all but one appeared in Betty’s book The Burglary. As for Jeff Haas? He’s still active in the field of civil rights today, just as he has been for the past half century. Fighting for Fred Hampton and the Panthers set the tone for his long career.

JEFF HAAS: Where people put their lives on the line is, a lot, where actually things change. Fred Hampton had a really big impact on me so whether he started the breakfast program, whether he led the marches at his school - whatever he did, even giving out ice cream bars, if he did that - is an example for people. And Fred says, “Peace to you if you're willing to fight for it. And if you're not, dare to struggle. And if you don't struggle, you don't deserve to win. If you're not willing to put your life on the line, I don't want to be on your mind.”

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us in getting to know the CIA analyst who was a secret Cuban double agent for almost two decades. That’s next week on True Spies.

Guest Bio

Jeff Haas (pictured) is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. He was, together with Flint Taylor, a lead lawyer in the landmark Fred Hampton and Mark Clark civil rights case, and was one of the main lawyers for the 17 Pontiac Brothers, wrongfully charged but acquitted in the capital murder trial for the Pontiac Prison Rebellion in 1978.

Betty Medsger is an author and investigative reporter. She was instrumental in uncovering the work of COINTELPRO and secret activities by the FBI.

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