March 8, 1971.

The anniversary passed quietly, but after 43 years, we now know the date was no coincidence. “The Fight of The Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier aided and abetted what might as well be “The Burglary of the Century” in Media, Pennsylvania. Before whistle-blower Eric Snowden exposed the mass surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), a group of eight Vietnam war activists stole FBI files and exposed the FBI’s criminal activities under J. Edgar Hoover.  The previously anonymous “Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI” have broken their silence and tell us that the date was quite deliberate to coincide with the sports distraction of the century. Ironically, Muhammad Ali, who spent three years in exile for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, provided the necessary cover.

Pic via Humboldt Sentinel

Five of the eight burglars came forward and are the subjects of a newly published bookThe Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, written by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. The late William Davidon, John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, and Bob Williamson chose to publicly reveal their identities for the first time. The activists mailed the stolen files to the press [1], and exposed the now infamous COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, a global, clandestine, unconstitutional practice of surveillance, infiltration and disruption of groups engaged in protest, dissent and social change. 

Chapter 6 of the “The Burglary” is titled: “With Thanks to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier”. Medsger explains in the book:

“one of the burglars— none of them remembers who it was— made the case for scheduling the burglary on the night of the Muhammad Ali– Joe Frazier fight, March 8. For the first time, two undefeated heavyweight champions were going to compete against each other for the title… The possibility that noise generated by the fight could serve as a distraction struck the burglars as a great stroke of luck. Even the local police, they thought, might be so glued to their televisions and radios that evening that they would make few, if any, street patrols. That did it. They chose the night of the Ali-Frazier fight— Monday, March 8, 1971.”

She also explains the role of the Vietnam War:

“Now another war hovered over the Ali-Frazier fight and also over the Media burglary. The strong cultural and political forces spawned by stances for and against the Vietnam War fueled both the burglary and the fight. Without the war, and the burglars’ fear that the government was suppressing dissent against it, they would not have been planning to break into an FBI office. Without the Vietnam War, Ali and Frazier would not have faced each other in 1971 under such extraordinary conditions. Ali, the most famous conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, was embraced internationally by people who opposed the war. Frazier, who supported the war, was embraced by people who supported it, including the president.”

Even beyond Ali’s Vietnam War connection, the irony gets thicker. In helping to expose COINTELPRO, it was discovered that the FBI was keeping tabs on Ali himself (more later) since his early 1960’s involvement with the Nation of Islam. By 1967, Hoover issued the following directive:

“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavour is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise the activities of black-nationalist, hate-type organisations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.”

Besides Ali, COINTELPRO’s most famous target was Martin Luther King, Jr.. Last year the nation celebrated King and the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, but it was this very event that triggered Hoover’s attention. On King specifically, COINTELPRO head William Sullivan wrote:

“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. . . . We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

And soon after, the FBI was systematically bugging King’s home, hotel rooms, and even threatening his life. It wasn’t just King, Ali, or anti-war protesters. Medsger elaborates the daunting scope in The Washington Post:

“The files revealed that African American citizens were watched by FBI informers everywhere they went — the corner store, classrooms, churches, bookstores, libraries, bars, restaurants. Every FBI agent was required to hire at least one informer to report to him regularly on the activities of black people. In the District, every agent was required to hire six informers for that purpose. On one campus in the Philadelphia area, Swarthmore College, every black student was under surveillance.”

All together, COINTELPRO made little distinction between, “black nationalists” like Ali, “integrationists” like King, or everyday African-American citizens. The FBI’s illegal practices mirrored the very legal FBI surveillance of Arab-Americans today, and like today, the blurred lines ultimately endangered all US citizens including sitting politicians.

The extensive surveillance of King was one of the many COINTELPRO reports published from the US Senate Church Committee Investigation which led to new regulations that have since eroded. Today, the NSA has been called “COINTELPRO on Steroids“, and now that Eric Snowden has verified the NSA’s extraordinary surveillance powers, calls have been made for Snowden’s clemency, and a new Senate Church Committee investigation.  Before Snowden, the exposure of Hoover’s FBI changed american history.

In “The Burglary”, Medsger offers down to the minute details of the coinciding Burglary/Fight, and the FBI’s monitoring of Ali: 

“The burglars didn’t know it, but thanks to Forsyth’s delay in breaking in, the timing of the burglary now aligned almost precisely with that of the Ali-Frazier fight. The burglars had assumed the fight would start about 8 p.m. and therefore so should the burglary. Actually, the Ali-Frazier fight did not start until 10: 40. Consequently, in New York the noisiest part of the pre-event ceremony was just getting under way about the time Forsyth returned to the FBI office to start his second round, as it were. Whatever helpful sound the fight could provide this evening, the loudest noise would happen at just the right time.

“At 10: 30 in New York, the ring announcer calmed the crowd enough to introduce great boxers from the past, all of whom came into the ring: James J. Braddock, Rocky Graziano, Willie Pep, Jack Dempsey, Archie Moore, Jack Sharkey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Conn, and Joe Louis. There was a huge ovation as Louis climbed into the ring. 

10:40 PM – “The Minute of the Century”:

“At 10: 40 the bell rang. The fight started. Forsyth has one very pleasant memory from the minutes when he was stretched out on the floor. While he was on his back pushing and shoving the door ever so carefully and repeatedly, he heard the crackling noise of the Ali-Frazier fight broadcast in apartments. At a time when a smile didn’t seem possible, he smiled. Ali and Frazier were helping, as the burglars had hoped they would. Then, finally, success.”

“During questioning by FBI agents the next day and at least two more times over the next two months, the courthouse guard on duty that night told agents he saw nothing unusual take place late the evening of March 8 in front of the building that housed the FBI office. Perhaps he was watching mindlessly, as the burglars had hoped. Or perhaps he had a radio tuned to the Ali-Frazier fight and was distracted. Whatever the case, he claimed he saw nothing.”

The Surveillance of Muhammad Ali:

“[Ali] might have thought the cover was a sort of poetic justice. The bureau built a file on Ali, beginning with its investigation of his Selective Service case. Some of his phone conversations were tapped, and FBI informers gained access to, of all things, his elementary school records in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. They discovered that little Cassius Clay liked art. They recorded every grade he made from elementary through high school. A minor driving citation, as well as family disagreements over his becoming a Muslim, were noted in the file. His appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were monitored and summarized by agents, at taxpayers’ expense.”

The surveillance of Ali remains quite relevant today, and new chapters of the story have been discovered in 2013. Beyond the FBI, we now know that Ali was also being spied on by the NSA according to newly declassified NSA files.  The NSA’s “Operation Minaret” specifically targeted those who spoke out against the Vietnam War including athletes, activists, journalists, and United States Congressmen of both parties. We now know that “Operation Minaret” even monitored and phone-tapped Senator Frank Church himself.

Yes, Church — who was the head and namesake of the 1975 Church Committee to investigate the FBI — was being spied on by the NSA.  That was 40 years ago when the US had only a sliver of the technological and legal powers it has today. When U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders recently asked the NSA if it were spying on Members of Congress today, he could not get a denial.

Senator Church died in 1984, and went to his grave without this knowledge. However, without mentioning the NSA, Church prophetically cautioned to NBC’s “Meet the Press” on August 17, 1975:

“In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”


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 [1] The Washington Post leadership were also courageous participants in the story. While The New York Times and Los Angeles Times returned the files back to the FBI, editors Ben Bagdikian and Ben Bradlee convinced Post leader Katherine Graham to publish after much debate about potential legal ramifications.


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