TODAY   |  January 07, 2014

Burglars from 1971 FBI break-in confess crime

In the bombshell book, “The Burglary,” journalist Betty Medzger exposes the robbers behind the momentous theft from an FBI office outside Philadelphia over 40 years ago. The perpetrators have come forward in an interview with NBC News.

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>>> break-in. the theft of government documents from an fbi office just outside of philadelphia. more than 40 years later, the burglars are coming forward for the first time in a new book and documentary. and they're speaking out to nbc news. here's our national investigative correspondent michael isikoff .

>> a mystery for 43 years. the night the nation was gripped by the fight of the century , ali frazier at madison square garden . burglars broke into this fbi office outside philadelphia in march 1971 and stole 1,000 secret documents . the culprits never found.

>> we did it. somebody had to do it.

>> and now a surprise confession.

>> we just took all the files. we didn't sort anything.

>> reporter: in an exclusive nbc news interview, the burglars, antivietnam war activists admitted they committed the crime to expose what they believed were illegal activities by the fbi .

>> massive illegal surveillance and intimidation.

>> bonny cased the office posing as a college student leaving no fingerprints.

>> i never took my gloves off.

>> her husband, john rames, a retired religion professor drove the get away car.

>> i was sitting by myself in the station wagon and getting very, very scared.

>> the documents exposed fbi efforts to spread paranoia among left wing groups and cointelpro, a program started earlier by j. edgar hoover . betty was the first reporter to get the documents in her mailbox. she's now written "the burglary" and how it led to new rules forbidding political snooping.

>> it's safe to say that the fbi was never the same again.

>> the statute of limitations has long expired, but patrick kelly , the ex-agent who investigated the case back then says the theft remains inexcusable.

>> they're rationalizing a criminal act . i don't believe such people have a right to take upon themselves and make decisions.

>> but they're proud of what they did and have a message they see as the modern day counterpart edward snowden.

>> from one whistleblower to another whistleblower, hey.

>> nbc news, washington.