The late 1960s and early '70s in the United States were tumultuous times, indeed. It was an era that had run amok with social change in which the propriety of the Vietnam War was, by far, the nation's No. 1 moral debate.

That debate had made some Americans begin to shed the World War II-era notion of a benevolent government that wouldn't ever mislead or lie to us. In fact, many began to strongly question the actions and motives of their own government.

Those of a certain age likely well remember the day in March 1971 when the security at a satellite FBI office in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pa., was breached and nearly every document in the place was stolen.

Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in this 1972 black-and-white file photo. Hoover and the FBI failed to catch who was responsible for breaking into
Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in this 1972 black-and-white file photo. Hoover and the FBI failed to catch who was responsible for breaking into a FBI satellite office in 1971. (AP Photo, File)

An odd and brazen theft, to say the least, that left the more naive among the citizenry scratching their heads as to motive.

That motive became crystal clear when some of the documents were received anonymously through the mail by various news reporters. The documents revealed an extremely unflattering -- and, to some, quiet shocking -- portrait of a government that was not only illicitly spying, prying and conducting questionable surveillance on its own people, but actively engaged in a so-called counterintelligence program that used the gathered information to threaten and discredit anyone who dared criticize the government.

There was even a blackmail letter FBI agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.


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The government was embarrassed. There were congressional investigations and, eventually, significant constraints placed on government snooping.

However, recent documents leaked by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden would indicate that the supposed reforms from that bygone era may need more than a little refurbishment.

Despite the best efforts of a furious then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the 1971 burglars were never caught or even identified.

Why any of this is news 43 years later is that some of the burglars have finally decided to go public and, yes, a book about the case by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger -- the first reporter to use the documents in a news story -- is due out this week.

The statute of limitations has lapsed and the group cannot now be prosecuted for the burglary.

One group member said it saw using the FBI's own documents as the only way to convince most trusting Americans what their government was doing.

While there are differences in this case and Snowden's, the theme that connects them is that unchecked government power leads to dangerous excess. In our system it is ultimately up to the people and their elected representatives to place reasonable checks on the power of government.