Dr. Ralph Daniel has confessed to a crime he committed 50 years ago. Ralph Daniel was 26 and part of a group that broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa. They stole files and eventually leaked them to the media, which revealed that the FBI had spied on activist groups. No one was ever caught or tried for that burglary. And now Dr. Daniel, a psychologist who lives in northern California, has gone public in a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dr. Daniel joins us now from San Rafael, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us, Dr. Daniel.
RALPH DANIEL: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for hosting me.
SIMON: Take us back to that night, March 8, 1971, commemorated in history for the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden.
DANIEL: That’s right, yes. We selected that night because there was a very, very important fight for the title championship, and we figured that virtually everybody that evening was going to be glued to their either radios or TVs.
SIMON: Five men and three women in your group. What were you looking for? What did you find?
DANIEL: We found – I don’t know – a thousand files or so on various individuals, many of them who were involved with peaceful anti-war activities, civil rights kinds of organizations, women’s groups. We just found a few files on Mafia type. We found a number of files on bank robbers. We left those. We left the files on bank robbers. We figured the FBI should keep working on those. But we took all the files that covered various people who were being investigated – a lot of Black Panthers, other Black groups that – civil rights groups and such. And we did – we ran across a document that later on became very, very important that documented a program called COINTELPRO.
SIMON: We – Counterintelligence Program that the FBI had that spied on, well, all kinds of prominent activists.
DANIEL: Yes, it did. And that program was a very activist kind of approach on the part of J. Edgar Hoover.
SIMON: You tried to leak the files to public officials and, I gather, got no response. And then you did get a response from someone at The Washington Post.
DANIEL: We did get a response from Betty Medsger who was a – at that time, a 29-year-old reporter. When Betty Medsger received it, she had the support of the editor of The Washington Post. And he and the owner of The Washington Post decided that they were going to go ahead and post it even though the attorney general, Mitchell, was berating them for not turning the papers in. It was very brave on their part.
SIMON: And this led to the reporting of very solid stories and even changes in law, didn’t it?
DANIEL: Absolutely. The program was unmasked. And by 1975, Senator Church had the – held the Church Committee to finally start taking a look at what the FBI was doing and to set some limits on what they could and couldn’t do.
SIMON: I gather just reading the Chronicle article that your group made it a point never to be seen together again.
DANIEL: At the time (laughter), we said we would never talk about it ever in our lives. And then the statute of limitations expired. And then, as I understand it, Betty was at a dinner party, and she – John Raines, who was a professor of religion and part of the group, told her that he had been part of the group that had raided the FBI (laughter). And so that kind of opened the door sometime before 2014.
She had started writing a book, you know, in the 1970s, but she got stuck ’cause she couldn’t find us. And so a number of years later, when she finally had this opening with John Raines, she then was able to start interviewing people, and she was able to continue and finish the book.
SIMON: What about the pictures we’ve seen of insurrectionists – broke into the U.S. Capitol, sorted through papers that they photographed on the desks of senators and Speaker Pelosi? Are they doing anything different than what you did?
DANIEL: Yes. And I’m glad you asked that question. I think there’s an enormous difference. We were very committed to nonviolence. We were committed to doing a burglary. We didn’t have any weapons. It was a civil disobedience act on our part, and I think that the people that conducted the insurrection on January 6 had a very different mindset. They were violent. People died. They had all kinds of weapons. That’s very different than going into an office and taking paper and publishing it. You know, I’m really proud of what we did.
SIMON: Dr. Ralph Daniel, psychologist in San Rafael, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.
DANIEL: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.