John and Bonnie Raines: The Whistleblowers Whose 1971 FBI Raid Anticipated Edward Snowden

In March 1971, John and Bonnie Raines broke into an FBI office in Media. The documents they leaked revealed that the government was spying on its own citizens. Today, they’re hailed as heroes. Is this what the future will look like for Edward Snowden?

John and Bonnie Raines, photographed by Wesley Mann

John and Bonnie Raines, photographed by Wesley Mann

John Raines sat in the family station wagon, parked in a dark lot on the Swarthmore campus, waiting to see if his wife would return to him, or if police lights would appear, flashing doom. In years past, he and Bonnie had sat together on this same front seat, three kids lining the back bench, and driven to his parents’ vacation house near Lake Michigan. Even now, back in Germantown, those three children slept soundly. Would they wake to find empty spaces where their parents used to be? Raines passed a couple of hours like this, his mind a crazy haze of worry, till finally a car drew near and he realized that it was Bonnie.

The night of March 8, 1971, had passed so slowly. Now he needed to speed up. Raines flung open his door, popped the trunk, and helped transfer four heavy suitcases from this arriving car to his own — all part of their meticulous getaway plan. Once Bonnie was beside him in the passenger seat, he drove, glancing anxiously in the rearview mirror.

The Raineses brought all this on themselves, after plotting to rob an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, motivated by their intention to stop the Vietnam War. The burglars, a total of eight Philadelphia peace activists, had planned this action for months on the third floor of the Raineses’ home. Now, the deed done, they came together in four separate cars at a small Quaker farmhouse just a few miles from the scene of the crime. They opened a bag of sandwiches and bottles of beer. Then they donned gloves and divided up what they’d stolen — a trove of 1,000 files from the FBI’s own offices.

No one remembers who shouted first. But someone started reading aloud from a memo urging FBI agents to increase interviews of anti-war activists and student protest groups. “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,” the document stated, “and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

J. Edgar Hoover, they’d find, had ordered surveillance of anyone who’d expressed views critical of the Vietnam War or espoused civil rights, of hippies, intellectuals and black people. Much of the country still regarded Hoover as a heroic figure. But the truth, which the burglars now held in their hands, was that he’d run the bureau as a political suppression unit.

As dawn neared, Bonnie drove her husband to a pay phone outside a gas station near Chestnut Hill. John called a reporter at Reuters and anonymously announced the burglary, reading from a statement he’d led in crafting. A break-in had been mounted, he intoned, by a group calling itself “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.”

Raines got back in the car, settling into the passenger seat as Bonnie drove home. He breathed deeply. And somewhere along Lincoln Drive, all the anxiety he’d felt disappeared, quickly replaced by a sense of relief, of joy. John Raines filled the station wagon with his great, resonant laugh. He cackled. He hooted. He tore the announcement he’d read to the reporter into pieces, rolled down his window, and sent the bits of paper spiraling out into the air — a secret, celebratory confetti whirling in the wind of Fairmount Park.

The Temple University professor and his wife planned, like the other burglars, to get the documents they’d stolen to the press and disappear — to take their role in this story to their graves. But sometimes even the gravest of secrets lasts long enough to take on new life — to be revealed, and wielded, in the waging of an old war.

THE ISSUES WE’RE talking about as a country now,” says Ray Batvinis, a former FBI agent and now a historian at the Institute of World Politics, “are directly tied to debates we’ve had in the past.”

The Media burglars never expected to be quite this current. But in June 2013, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor in the American intelligence industry, gathered as many documents detailing U.S. surveillance programs as he could and, like the Media burglars, gave them to journalists he trusted. The Snowden files revealed that virtually every American is under surveillance — phone calls, emails and Web histories all sucked into a vast data pool at the National Security Agency. The result is that we’re talking — just as we did in 1971 — about the American government spying on U.S. citizens.

After 40 years of being hidden in history, John and Bonnie Raines emerged last January and admitted their roles in the break-in. Since then, the couple has maintained a steady schedule of public appearances to talk about a book, published last winter, and an accompanying documentary, released to theaters next month, about the Media heist. And they are lending their support, at every opportunity, to Snowden. Speaking up for a man dubbed a traitor and charged by the American government with espionage isn’t exactly how most senior citizens spend their retirements. So I met with the Raineses at their home, a cheery beige townhouse not far from Rittenhouse Square, to understand how telling their story created a fresh tale.

They appeared at their front door smiling, dressed in layers against a fall chill. They ushered me into a living room flooded with sunlight, served a platter of dried apricots, and sat down for a long conversation. They retain a youthful air. Bonnie, 73, has a pixie haircut and deep dimples, giving her a girlish smile. She speaks more slowly, more carefully, than her husband.

John, 81, is long, over six feet tall, with a full head of white hair. The son of a preacher, he is all vigor, his voice a resonant, authoritative baritone. Together, he and Bonnie still throw sparks. At one point, reminiscing about the importance of music in the civil rights movement, they sing a verse of “Oh Freedom” (“And before I’d be a slave/I’ll be buried in my grave”), and the harmony they strike is so immediate, so close and playful, it seems to capture the intimacy won through 50-plus years of marriage.

They each underwent an awakening, a conversion experience, before they ever met. Bonnie was raised in what she describes as a “conservative” America, yet her parents encouraged her to think for herself, to read and learn. As she grew to understand the different rules that applied to women, minorities and white men, she reached for protest signs.

John’s metamorphosis was more sudden. His father served as the minister of Minneapolis’s elite Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, which housed his family in a seven-bedroom mansion. He attended private schools. Future vice president Hubert Humphrey, mayor of Minneapolis from 1945 to ’48, was among those who sat at the Raineses’ dinner table. “I thought the country was a good place,” John says, “and my brothers and I would grow up to run it.”

By the late ’50s, John had followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an associate pastor in a Methodist church on Long Island. In 1961, he was contacted by a civil rights group seeking volunteers to join the Freedom Riders. John knew only what might fit on a brochure: In violation of Supreme Court rulings, segregated public buses, waiting areas and restaurants continued to operate. As a Freedom Rider, he’d travel alongside black citizens, in racially mixed groups, to force Southern officials to honor the law.

He spent weeks traveling through states including Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, where he looked into the eyes of people who wanted to kill him. Cops, government officials, encouraged and perpetrated crimes — assaults, bogus arrests — against black people who wanted only to board a bus. His naïveté popped like a child’s balloon.

“When I saw how power could be manipulated and abused in this way,” he says, “I was forever changed.”

After he was arrested for his work with the Freedom Riders and emerged from a brief stint in a Southern jail, John Raines ventured to a restaurant near his parents’ Lake Michigan vacation house. His waitress, a young college student named Bonnie, had recently given up cheerleading at Michigan State University to join a student group dedicated to improving race relations. They married a year later.

As John finished a doctorate in Christian social ethics from Union Theological Seminary, in New York, he took a post in Temple’s religion department in 1966. Bonnie worked in a day-care center. They started a family, participating in various protests against the Vietnam War with their young children. And in late 1970, when Haverford physics professor and outspoken activist Bill Davidon got a wild idea in his mind, he approached them first: “What do you think about breaking into an FBI office?”

AT THE TIME DAVIDON raised his question, Philadelphia’s community of war protesters was perhaps the largest and most active in the nation. “The abundance of universities meant lots of draft-age kids,” recalls John Raines, “and the city’s Catholic and Quaker populations provided a base of peace activism. These were like two mighty streams that came together.”

In this milieu, Hoover’s buttoned-up G-men — short-haired and beardless — were as conspicuous as plums on pear trees. Yet their presence cast a chill over the peace movement, and Davidon suspected the FBI’s files might contain evidence that the chill was the point — that Hoover had run afoul of the Constitution by actively stifling dissent.

John and Bonnie Raines had three children under age 10 to consider, but they’d also long felt that being parents didn’t relieve them of their larger societal responsibilities. So Raines approached one of his brothers. Without sharing any specifics, he elicited a promise that the brother would take care of the kids if he and Bonnie wound up in jail. “There seemed so much to gain if we were able to succeed,” says John, “that we felt it was worth the risk.”

John and Bonnie with their children, circa 1969.

John and Bonnie with their children, circa 1969.

The group Davidon recruited held nighttime meetings at the Raineses’ Germantown home. Bonnie cooked spaghetti and meatballs. The children played with the aspiring burglars till bedtime. John was pivotal in developing a strategy to sift through, organize and disseminate the information they’d gather if successful. He also took the lead in crafting the group’s anonymously delivered public statements. Bonnie Raines posed as a Swarthmore student on a class assignment to case the inside of the FBI’s field office in Media, which they chose for its low security. She disguised herself, donning big glasses and piling her hair up under a hat. She also kept her gloves on during her winter visit, to avoid leaving fingerprints.

The whole story — how they studied the office, broke in, made off with the files, and all that happened afterward — is detailed now in 1971, the documentary receiving a nationwide release next month, and The Burglary, a book by journalist Betty Medsger, who was the first reporter to write about the contents of the files, when she was with the Washington Post.

For the Raineses, the burglary came with a cost. Hoover assigned 200 agents to solve the case, directing most of those resources to Philadelphia. The couple spent several years after Media living with a constant hum of fear — forever anxious the front door would suddenly splinter at the foot of a federal agent.

A sense of ease came slowly, as events unfolded. In 1972, Hoover died of a heart attack. In 1973, a routing slip found among the Media files, bearing the abbreviation COINTELPRO, proved to be one of the most important discoveries in American history.

Subsequent investigative reporting, lawsuits and Senate hearings revealed the extent of Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program, an initiative that subverted the law and common decency. Hoover’s FBI kept files on the sexual indiscretions and porn habits of virtually anyone it encountered. The bureau sent an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr. warning him that his extramarital affairs would be publicized if he didn’t kill himself. Agents infiltrated political protest groups, particularly black nationalists, inciting them to violence. And they even participated in the murder of Fred Hampton, a chairman of the Black Panther Party, who was shot to death by officers from the Illinois state prosecutor’s office as he slept, sedated with barbiturates by an FBI informant.

By 1976, the shocking revelations had forced a series of reforms, chiefly strengthening the requirement that law enforcement present evidence of wrongdoing in order to obtain warrants for searches and wiretaps. As the evidence mounted in their favor, the Raineses got on with their lives. Bonnie obtained a master’s degree in early childhood education. John thrived at Temple. The burglary became something they noted with silent satisfaction, wordless glances they understood to be about Media. Then, in 1989, a reporter called.

Betty Medsger had been a young journalist on the religion beat for the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin around the time Raines joined Temple’s religion department. John, Bonnie and Medsger had known each other, and John admired Medsger enough to send her the Media files anonymously. When she phoned, 18 years later, to say she was going to be visiting old friends in town, he invited her over for dinner. He had no intention of revealing his role in the burglary, but time had so relaxed him that his secret slipped.

Introducing his youngest daughter Mary, born after the burglary, to Medsger, he said: “When your mother and I had very important information about the FBI we wanted to give the American people, we gave it to Betty.”

Medsger’s mouth opened wide enough to swallow a whole pie. Within weeks, she was on the phone with John and Bonnie, asking them to go public. They didn’t want recognition. But at the end of the Reagan ’80s, they both felt political activism was bleeding out of American society. They thought of their story as belonging to history — a lesson in what ordinary people can accomplish even in the face of a powerful government. They said yes, securing the participation of as many of the other burglars as they could. Medsger worked on The Burglary for more than 20 years, as family and career obligations allowed, till finally she locked in a January 2014 publication date. The Raineses could mark a spot on the calendar for their big reveal.

Then Snowden happened. His appearance, alone and exiled in Russia, immediately colored their perceptions. “There was a sense that this changed things,” says Bonnie. “You couldn’t help but see the parallels.”

“He gave shape to our story,” says John Raines, “as something current. The same fight we had before was being fought again. I felt an immediate affinity with what he had done.”

COMING OUT OF HIDING was not entirely unlike the burglary itself — an escapade that involved patience, fortitude and daring. Medsger was publishing every detail, including their willingness to be separated from their children.

“It still amazes me that they did it,” says 45-year-old Nathan Raines, one of their sons. “I respect it. I’m proud of them. But I am still pretty blown away that they put our lives, our happiness, as children, at such risk.”

“Finding out was kind of mind-blowing,” says their eldest granddaughter, 20-year-old Elizabeth. “To me, they were Granddad and Nonnie. Her role in my life was that we went to her house all the time for dinner.”

In addition to telling their kids and grandkids the whole story, John and Bonnie needed to accept the possibility, however slim, that they might face legal consequences. It was Medsger who discovered, deep into her research, that the FBI had classified their crime as a “burglary,” not espionage. She also found that the bureau had closed the case five years after the date of the theft, when the statute of limitations expired.

Noted Philadelphia civil rights attorney David Kairys advised the burglars that the government’s reaction to their emergence would probably be menacingly vague. “I thought the first reporter covering Betty’s book would call the government for comment,” he says, “and I figured they’d say something like, ‘We’ll have to review the matter’ and leave everyone hanging.”

The Raineses went to New York for a series of events timed to the book’s January 7th release. They awoke that day, after 40 years in hiding, to find how drastically their circumstances had changed. The New York Times was first to publish the FBI’s response: “[A] number of events during that era, including the Media burglary, contributed to changes to how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats,” a spokesman for the bureau said, “leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices and the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice.”

Time, it seems, has the power to transmute crime into a public service. Criticism of the Raineses has been almost nonexistent, but I did reach out to one person, former FBI agent Patrick Kelly, who worked in the Media office at the time of the burglary. He still fumes over what the thieves did. “They shouldn’t be celebrated,” he says. “Who were they to decide what needed to be revealed?”

Kelly’s own status, as a retiree, suggests what’s transpired: With all the people they embarrassed or damaged safely out of power, John and Bonnie Raines face just one real judge — history. This same dynamic has played out before. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, was initially indicted under the Espionage Act. More than 40 years after those charges were dismissed, he’s seen as a hero.

The same day the Times story appeared, John and Bonnie Raines participated in a teleconference with reporters from around the nation and globe. The questions demonstrated respect, even admiration. The day took on a soaring, triumphant tone that culminated that night in New York, where 1971 received a private showing. Just after the credits rolled, some of the burglars — including John, Bonnie, and compatriots Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson — took the stage. The audience rose as one and erupted, delivering a long, loud standing ovation, as if the illicit one-car parade John Raines mounted all those years ago, when he threw his secret confetti on Lincoln Drive, had finally attracted a crowd.

Afterward, as the Raineses shook hands with members of the audience, they were introduced to a very special guest: Ben Wizner, one of Edward Snowden’s attorneys.

By this time, Snowden’s saga was already evolving much as the Media heist had. Revelations of NSA spying had triggered further investigative stories stemming from the documents themselves and other sources. In one memo from the Snowden stash, NSA director Keith Alexander resurrected Hoover’s ghost, suggesting that porn habits should be investigated as a means of embarrassing potential targets. The public learned that NSA employees used their work tools to spy on wives and girlfriends. The CIA hacked Senate computers involved in an investigation of the agency’s own Bush-era interrogation techniques. According to another leak from the Snowden files, a program to infiltrate computer encryption systems, unlocking virtually every citizen’s data, was code-named Bullrun, after a great battle of the American Civil War. The suggestion was chilling — a government that framed its work in terms of war against its own people.

What had also emerged, over time, was a truer sense of Snowden himself. He grew up in the Maryland suburbs, in a family of government employees, and set about following their path. He was motivated to action, like John Raines, after achieving a new view of power — not from the bottom, but nearer to the top. At a CIA post in Switzerland, Snowden saw agents use dirty tricks to cultivate informants. In later posts, including a crucial stint as a contractor with defense consultant firm Booz Allen Hamilton, he collected proof of the range of warrantless surveillance the government carries out on its own people. He finally decided to come forward when he saw director of national security James Clapper tell Congress, falsely, that the government wasn’t spying on Americans.

If John Raines had felt an immediate affinity with what Snowden had done before, he’d since become an avowed fan. And so this meeting with Wizner, a thoughtful man with close-cropped black hair and a long face, had a convivial air, an exchange among compatriots fighting the same battle.

Wizner was about to travel to Russia to see Snowden. The Raineses signed a copy of The Burglary, to be passed on to Snowden as a gift, in hopes he might use their story to envision his own happy ending.

“From one whistle-blower,” John Raines wrote, “to another.”

BY OCTOBER 2014, when the Raineses appeared at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., the old activists and Snowden seemed to have struck up a long-distance relationship, to be holding hands across the water.

“He comes up every time we speak,” says Bonnie Raines, “and we feel an obligation to speak up for him when he does.”

“We think he should be pardoned,” adds John, “and allowed to come home.”

In turn, Snowden had told an interviewer for The Nation that he had been unaware of what happened at Media till The Burglary was published, and lauded the burglars’ courage.

His father, Lon, who lives in an Allentown suburb, had reached out to John and Bonnie by phone. He expressed admiration for what they’d done. They expressed their support. Lon followed up by attending Burglary-related events in Philadelphia and New York. “Ed’s family, including myself, has been inspired by the Raineses,” says Lon Snowden, by telephone. “I don’t think my son has a chance of finding justice on American soil for several years, but the story of the Media activists gives me hope that he will find happiness in exile, and I am confident the truth will ultimately prevail. It’s simply a matter of time.” (See “Edward Snowden’s Father Speaks” for more of Lon’s perspective on his son, the Raineses, and the price activists pay for exposing national secrets.)

His son’s attorney, Ben Wizner, calls the Raineses a boon to his client’s case. “I think the positive reception they’re getting is an indication of how people are coming to view Edward Snowden with the passage of time,” he says. “As grandparents, as relatable people who did an extraordinary thing, they make Edward Snowden more relatable.”

At the Spy Museum, the Raineses are eminently approachable, even entertaining. Standing at the lectern, his petite wife just in front of him, John Raines assures the crowd he’ll keep his remarks brief. “Bonnie will be my timekeeper,” he says.

In response, Bonnie throws mock elbows into her husband’s ribs. “Ohhh,” Raines groans. “You should see my side after one of these things.”

Raines retains a preacher’s flair for theatrics, his deep voice suggesting what a mountain might sound like if it could move its rocks, wood and earth to talk. He also retains a great joy. He is first to laugh at his own jokes. And as the night wears on, he even channels Hoover. When the FBI discovered the office had been cased, he says, it fixated on the woman who had come in saying she was a Swarthmore student. “J. Edgar Hoover, it was reported, would shout to his agents, ‘Find me that woman!’”

Raines’s volume rises, mimicking Hoover’s anger. “Two hundred agents! ‘Find. Me. That. Woman!’”

Raines pauses just long enough to let the cannon of his voice fade. Then he points at his wife and says, gently: “There she is!”

He laughs right along with the crowd. But as at all events involving the Raineses, the tone soon turns serious. The night’s moderator, the museum’s executive director, former CIA case officer Peter Earnest, tells the assembled: “Be careful of the 800-pound gorilla in the room … Edward Snowden. The parallels between the Snowden case and the case we’re discussing this evening are quite extraordinary.”

John Raines offers up the most passionate defense, delivering a riff he honed specifically to place Media and Snowden in the same frame. “A nation that allows itself to be governed by fear will be a poorly governed nation,” he says. “We were a nation governed by fear in the ’50s and ’60s. The fear back then was Communism. Communism was everywhere. It was the red tide. It was going to swamp freedom. And if you were a politician labeled as soft on Communism, it was the end of your career. That’s why we had to do what we did. Today, I think the same thing is going on. … If you’re a politician, you can’t come out strongly against the NSA. You can’t come out against what we now know the FBI and CIA are doing — thank God for Mr. Snowden — because if there should be another attack, that’s the end of your career. … We are a poorly governed nation today, I believe.”

An octogenarian’s speech, at a Monday-evening panel in D.C., may seem of minor importance, but when Raines utters the words “Thank God for Mr. Snowden,” the crowd startles, and a few can even be heard gasping. There is a sense that we aren’t sitting and listening to an old man tell a tale out of history, but are watching that man pull the future into shape — watching as a notorious American is recast in the context through which history will one day see him.

The whole story of John and Bonnie Raines seems to speak to this: the angry, the embarrassed, play their parts, hollering “Traitor!” or “Find me that woman!” But if the powerless, the hunted, the whistle-blowers, live long enough, they emerge to find something else waiting for them: an audience. When the panel at the International Spy Museum ends, the members of the crowd don’t just clap. They clap as hard as they can.

“I’ve seen John and Bonnie speak a few times,” says David Kairys, the longtime Philadelphia-based civil rights attorney. “And there is a quality to the applause they receive that tells you people are genuinely affected. They are the sort of people we usually never get to see outside of a book or a movie screen, who did something genuinely heroic and important, and the crowd responds to that.”

Medsger agrees, and perceives something still deeper at work. “The Raineses are,” says Medsger, “and I mean this in the nicest way, ordinary. They are grandparents. And they look like grandparents. And I think people stand there saying to themselves, ‘Well, if they’re this ordinary, maybe I could do something so extraordinary, too.’”

What Medsger describes, what the Raineses have lived, is total transformation. They are a couple who spent 40 years in hiding from the U.S. government, only to emerge as the sort of people we might aspire to be. In this context, the ovations the Raineses receive seem not just appreciative, or admiring, but prescient. John and Bonnie Raines appear as heralds — of an inevitable American future, when another whistle-blower, perhaps gray by then, and ordinary, will find that his enemies are gone, and that stages and crowds await him in every city and town.

Originally published as “These Are the Faces of American Revolutionaries” in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.