Were we criminals?

Certainly FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought so. He assigned 200 agents to find us. They never did and, five years later, the case was closed.

Why 200 agents? Because on March 8, 1971, a group calling itself the "Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into the agency's Media office, removed all the files, and sorted them into criminal (40 percent) and those that were clearly political in intent (60 percent). A few weeks later, we mailed copies of the political files to selected newspapers and progressive politicians. Only the Washington Post decided to make public what we discovered.

What we documented was that Hoover's FBI was engaging in a massive program of surveillance and infiltration. It used informers to infiltrate organizations as diverse as racial-justice activists, Vietnam War resisters, a Boy Scout troop in Idaho, and women's liberation groups. The purpose was, as boldly stated in one file, "to increase paranoia" and persuade dissidents that "there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

Such indiscriminate surveillance and its intended intimidation constituted a massive violation of civil liberties that are protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. In addition, there was the top-secret counterintelligence programs, known as "COINTELPRO." This operation went far beyond intimidation and the ruining of reputations of those of whom Hoover disapproved. It actively attacked, and in fact destroyed, groups like the Black Panthers. No wonder Hoover was reported to be "apoplectic" when he heard about the Media break-in. He had much to hide that had suddenly been revealed.

It is hard today to understand how powerful Hoover had become.

For nearly five decades, Hoover had molded the most powerful investigative institution in the nation into a mirror image of his own biases as to what constituted "un-American activity." No one in Washington was prepared to hold the FBI director accountable. He had become a national icon. Even presidents were intimidated. Part of that power came from "special files" that Hoover was known to have on the personal lives (especially regarding sexual activities) of anyone with public prestige and power - politicians, news correspondents, authors, and Hollywood stars.

Given the immunity Hoover enjoyed from elected officials who were supposed to monitor his activities, the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI stepped in. We were, without wanting to be, the last line of defense.

Were we criminals?

Some of us had been active in the civil rights movement and learned to distinguish between crime and breaking laws when dealing with oppressive government practices - laws enforcing the separation of the races in the South in public facilities like schools, libraries, public parks, buses, and restaurants. When laws become the instrument of oppression or violate constitutional rights, then breaking them is the only way to stop the crimes those laws imposed. This is why juries are empowered to decide that a defendant charged with a crime is "not guilty" even if he or she has violated the law.

As a result, the civil rights movement was successful, and the everyday life shared by the races in our country was significantly transformed, making life better for all of us.

Some of us brought those lessons learned in the South with us to Media on March 8, 1971.

The surveillance, intimidation, and other actions Hoover demanded of his agents were the crime, but not one official in Washington would blow the whistle. Eventually, the publication of the Media files, and the release of other information about government violations of civil rights, would result in congressional hearings in 1975 chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D., Idaho). The committee's findings led to legislation that regulated the activities of the FBI and CIA and protected the civil liberties of American citizens.

However, after 9/11, those regulations were severely undermined. As we know, thanks to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency began using sophisticated and powerful surveillance technology to vacuum up millions of phone calls, e-mails, and Internet communications, store them, and subject our everyday actions and conversations to government monitoring.

All of this is being done in the name of "national security." But how can you protect a nation by violating the very freedoms you are trying to protect? Just as the FBI needed to be regulated after it was used to systematically subvert our freedoms, so today high-tech surveillance deployed "to protect us" needs to be regulated. We can't leave it to insiders to determine, off stage and out of sight, how to use their powerful new toys.

Were we, the members of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, criminals or were we whistle-blowers protecting the right of citizens to know what they need to know to formulate and express their approval or disapproval?

In a democracy, it is the people, not public officials, who are sovereign. Who is the criminal is a matter determined by what is thought to be the crime.