Some 43 years ago, before the Internet, whistleblowers stole government secrets the old-fashioned way....with a crowbar. With the statute of limitations expired and their ringleader recently deceased (a Haverford College professor...nobody could have predicted :-) ) , some of the eight activists who broke into the FBI's Media office in 1971 and stole the files proving massive, illegal government spying on political activists are telling their story, and it is quite a story:

Neither the Media burglars nor the reporters who received the documents understood the meaning of the term, and it was not until several years later, when the NBC News reporter Carl Stern obtained more files from the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information Act, that the contours of Cointelpro — shorthand for Counterintelligence Program — were revealed.

Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.

"It wasn't just spying on Americans," said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia who was an aide to Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. "The intent of Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations."

Look, even as someone who could not be more sympatico with their cause, it's hard to look back and condone an act of burglary. At the same time, there is also no doubt in my mind that the crimes they helped expose -- crimes like trying to convince a now nationally revered civil rights leader to kill himself, or the assassination of a young activist while he was asleep in his bed -- are far, far worse than breaking and entering.

Were the Media 8 criminals, or heroes? Or both? Discuss while I work on a more more prosaic story.

UPDATEBonnie Raines tells her story in the Guardian. I was struck by this:

I still worry a great deal about the state of our democracy. Back in 1971, the country was so divided, there was so much foment, but there was also much determination to change things, and people felt empowered to do so.

Nowadays, the country is divided once again, but I don't see much concern about the abuses that are happening today, like the surveillance of mosques in America, using agent provocateurs. I hear people say, "I don't care," the government can do what it needs to do as long as it protects me from terrorism …" To me, that's giving the authorities blanket permission to cross the line again.