Long before Edward Snowden, there were the eight burglars who, in the spring of 1971, stole an entire office's worth of secret documents in an attempt to take down J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Now, nearly 43 years later, five of them have come forward.

The New York Times has released comments from the burglars about their actions and motives ahead of the release of a book on the incident. Although they had sworn silence, the five members who are now speaking out do so without fear of legal retribution. The statute of limitations has run out for the case, in which the eight activists targeted a Pennsylvania FBI office and packed nearly all of its official documents into suitcases—documents they later leaked to the press.

"When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,"one of the burglars told the Times. "There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting."

The idea was the brainchild of physics professor William C. Davidon, who is among those who wanted to come forward but died last year of complications from Parkinson's disease. The others who revealed themselves are Keith Forsyth, John and Bonnie Raines, and Bob Williamson.

The group spent months casing the office, which was chosen due to its location in a suburb of Philadelphia, where there would be less security than at the office in downtown Philadelphia. The burglary went smoothly, and soon several news organizations were receiving envelopes of proof that the FBI was spying on a number of political groups (including anti-Vietnam War protestors and black student groups). The theft also led to the exposure of a program called Cointelpro, which aimed to destroy dissidents and breed conflict within political groups.

The burglary, which began with eight people afraid their activist peers were being spied on, ended with congressional investigations and better oversight of intelligence agencies. Some of the burglars now say they feel a kinship with Edward Snowden, whose actions they see as a "bookend" to their own. "It became pretty obvious to us," said Mr. Raines, "that if we don't do it, nobody will."

[image of J. Edgar Hoover via AP]