Article published in The California Tech on January 20 2015.
Daring FBI burglars to attend film screening of 1971 at Caltech
There will be a film screening and discussion on Tuesday, Jan. 27, in Beckman Institute Auditorium starting at 6 p.m.
"The best and the brightest of this generation are angry as all get out and they have every right to be. They're up to their noses in loans that send them out into the world as indentured servants. They know that the economic recovery is of Wall Street and has left Main Street behind. They know the political consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor. They know their vote is drowned in a sea of money. They're angry that old white men who run things have turned their back on the sustainable future that does not belong to them. They're going to be dead; the future belongs to the young folks. Leaders have turned their back on the future and on a world that's running out of possibilities."
I'm speaking with John Raines. His interactions with students over a teaching career spanning four decades has given him terrific insight into the challenges of the future. Despite his 81 years, he is more optimistic about the future than ever before.
"The anger of the best and brightest gives me great confidence and hope for the future. Courage comes out of anger when focused and disciplined."
John knows something about courage. In 1971, he was part of a team that burgled an FBI office, leaked incriminating files to the press, and precipitated a decade of reforms and accountability for systemic illegal government activity. As one does.
John described his transition into the Vietnam War protest movement: "I was very active in the civil rights movement, [which took the form of] non violent protest. We were very successful. We got the Civil Rights [Act] passed in '64 and the Voting Rights Act passed in '65. It took very considerable political pressure. We had to defeat the southern states' filibuster. We knew from back then something about [FBI founding director] J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and their dirty tricks, infiltrators, and informers. Hoover hated [Martin Luther] King. Thought he was a communist. Tried to persuade the people that King was a communist and thus an enemy of the people of the United States. [My wife] Bonnie and I came into the anti [Vietnam] War movement after '65, and by the time we got to '68 and '69, we knew that Hoover was using the same tactics as against the civil rights movement, but we had no way of documenting that. The general atmosphere by '69 was that civil disobedience and nonviolent protest was not working—getting no traction—so some of us began to consider moving from nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption. That was the key move to beginning to think about breaking into significant government or selective services (draft board) offices."
Members of the movement "cased draft boards and broke in in middle of the night," Bonnie added. "There were more than 350 draft board break-ins. They were orchestrated as part of the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, which was part of the Catholic Left. Originally, protesters would break in, burn files with homemade napalm, stand around and get arrested. It was found this was costly in terms of time spent in jail and money spent on lawyers. There was a transition within the Catholic Left to do it clandestinely. Pioneering procedures for successful breaking in and removal of files was a learning curve."
In 1970, John and Bonnie became involved in a plot to burgle an FBI office and remove files they had a hunch would reveal wrongdoing. A team of eight otherwise normal people planned meticulously for months, consistently surprised at how poor security was. "They didn't anticipate a break in," Bonnie told me.
John added, "Arrogance of power. Couldn't conceive that they would become a target of their own practices. Even during the [subsequent] investigation, 200 agents kept pursuing the wrong people. We were one of thousands of suspects in the Philadelphia area. When you become politically active, it's important that you have a movement, so you can hide in plain sight."
Initially, they had no idea just how significant their haul was, although they immediately found the expected evidence of FBI burglary, harassment, and blackmail. Betty Medsger was the first journalist to receive some of the liberated documents and publish them. One document stated that agents were to increase rates of interviews with dissenters "for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."
But the motherlode was still to come. Bonnie explained: "The crucial document was the 'COINTELPRO' document. A program completely unknown to the press, to Congress, and probably even the White House." Investigative journalist Carl Stern eventually obtained a court order to force the FBI to hand over relevant documents under the Freedom of Information Act. They revealed a covert program that systematically spied on and repressed constitutionally protected political activity, focused on students, "hippie looking people," blacks, and Congress members. At its peak, COINTELPRO had dossiers on hundreds of thousands of people and went as far as political assassinations. Revelations eventually led to the creation of the Church Committee and substantial surveillance agency reform, including permanent congressional oversight.
Last week there was extensive press coverage on a proposal by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to legislatively require encryption backdoors in all electronic communications software, despite the fact that existing blanket surveillance did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombing, the underwear bomber, the French Charlie Hebdo attack, nor any other planned terrorist attack. Why are we having the same discussion post 9/11 about the terrorists, that we did in the 1970s about the communists?
John explained. "Nothing has changed. In the 1950s and 1960s we were a nation governed by fear of the International Communist Conspiracy. People's fear of communists was used [for political ends]. Anyone who opposes is a subversive. Today, the nation is still ruled by fear, this time of terrorism. Most of us do not act in our day to day lives like we are afraid. But both terrorists and anti-terrorists run on the same gasoline, sing the same song, dance the same dance, for both of their success and budgets and ambitions depend on making American people fear. They need us to be afraid. It's really fascinating. Why is it so easy to scare people? Why is the politics of fear so successful? We depend every day upon feeling safe with each other, and almost always this is the case. It's what makes every day life possible. Where does the fear and paranoia come from? The degree to which our culture is saturated with violence in movies and news and television, it is a complete contradiction to everyday life. The real contradiction for us—we the people—why do we put our lives in the hands of people who profit from increasing fear?"
I wondered about their thoughts on the intersection of rapidly developing technology, privacy, government accountability, and the moribund legislative process.
Bonnie started. "I think the [technological] genie is out of the bottle. I think it can be used for good or for harm. I don't think the discussion is taking place. Very few young people today worry about privacy. [Encryption] is a technology that very few people know much about. Who's asking the questions about what could happen in the next few years? Once it's learned, is it too late? Is that conversation taking place?"
Betty added, "The technology is going there whether we like it or not. The agencies … have adopted the idea/attitude that 'whatever power or capacity [surveillance] technology can give us, we want it and as soon as its available.' That's the overriding attitude and principle, rather than 'this is what we want to accomplish and how do we bend the new technologies to accomplish that?' My concern is that the capacities are so great that it makes it impossible for it to be valuable in preventing anything. It's only of value after the fact. It works against them accomplishing what they seek to accomplish. It was claimed that NSA surveillance helped to prevent 55 terrorist attacks and when that was examined very carefully it came down to one, maybe."
What does Betty have to say to today's students?
"The same as to young journalists: Know what your values are so that you know what's in control of your creativity, of your decision making. Think about what your values are and always try to be aware if your values are being shaped by technology and the goals of your masters. When you find your values that you think are critically important to your own integrity and to your role as a citizen in a democratic society, try to think continuously about what you would do if you felt that what [other elements of society] did was out of sync with your values."
John added, "We're going to need people who, when they see bad things happening, blow the whistle. But they depend on a courageous press and investigative reporters. All of those things finally head to Washington and the folks who are supposed to protect our freedoms. There is no democracy without dissent. Power will always try to protect its own privileges. Dissent is the engine of democracy. Democracy is always a horizon to be strived towards. We got information to the American public. The public responded and said 'stop this.' Between '76 and 9/11, we had significant restrictions on the FBI and CIA."
Bonnie said, "Young people today need to think about who they are going to affiliate with as they become adults. What will they commit to? I hope they commit to making necessary changes, rather than just floating about as individuals and trying to find a way to make money."
Quotes edited for brevity and clarity.