More than 40 years before Edward Snowden leaked details about the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, a man named Keith Forsyth helped bring to light the FBI’s shady spying tactics. On Wednesday evening, Forsyth sat down for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), and ask people did.
In 1971, Forsyth and a group of seven other people snuck into an FBI office outside Philadelphia, stole nearly every document in sight, and leaked to the world information about the bureau’s surveillance of civil rights leaders and so-called political dissidents.
The revelations sent the government scrambling and left the nation reeling.
The men and women behind the break-in were never caught and remained in the shadows for years. Now, with the statute of limitations in effect and the risk of prosecution moot, half have come forward to tell their side of the story.
Here are five of his most interesting responses from the AMA.
On why he came forward:
Although he’s uncomfortable with publicity, others involved in the break-in convinced him “that this episode should be documented for its historical value, and also that stepping forward and the attendant publicity would help advance the political dialog about privacy, due process, and government power.”
On similarities to Snowden and the ethics of stealing confidential information:
“For me it's no different than any other form of civil disobedience, whether it's Thoreau refusing to pay taxes for the Mexican war or John Raines riding a bus with black people in Alabama in 1964. Some laws are just, or at least not unduly unjust, and some aren't. Snowden is a long subject, but there are more similarities than differences. He saw something that he believed to be both illegal and wrong that the sworn guardians of the constitution were pretending not to see. The man is a hero and deserves an immediate pardon; Clapper (National Intelligence Director James Clapper) is the one who should be in jail for lying to Congress.”
On differences between 1971 and today, and the impact of terrorism:
“[T]here was a mass movement in those days, and the press like all other institutions had to respond. Today the abuses are perhaps less obvious and directly harm fewer people, and so the mass movement isn't there. Finally, I think the spectre of terrorism makes a better shield for government misconduct than did the spectre of "radical" american citizens.”
On public opinion of his actions:
“It's interesting and somewhat surprising to me that opinion seems to be overwhelmingly positive. I think the ratio of pros to cons would have been a lot smaller if this had come out in 1971 rather than 2014. I know several people of my age and older who would have condemned us in 1971 but have changed their minds in the interim. Some of the change is also because young people seem to be less trusting of government on average than people of my generation. Also, it's safer to be in favor of civil disobedience that happened 40 years ago than it is to favor the actions happening today.”
On whether he’d do it again:
“I've asked myself that question a hundred times since the January release of the book & film. My basic values haven't changed, only the details, so I hope I would and I think I would, but I'm not 100% sure. I have to confess that my tolerance for risk at 64 isn't what it was at 21. We'll have to see what I do with the rest of the time I have left.”
To see the full thread, go here.
A documentary feature chronicling the break-in and subsequent investigations will debut at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival later this week. Betty Medsger, the first reporter to write about the FBI files Forsyth helped steal, authored a recently released book about the story.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.