Now that the burglars have come forward, critics of the National Security Agency surveillance programs have pounced on the 1971 Pennsylvania break-in that unearthed FBI abuses to bolster their argument that contractor Edward Snowden did a public service by publicly revealing NSA surveillance methods.
The truth is quite the opposite.
The FBI documents stolen from the bureau's resident agency in Media, Pa., opened a window on real abuses at a time when members of Congress not only did not conduct oversight of intelligence agencies, but affirmatively did not want to know what those agencies were doing.
Together with documents later obtained by NBC correspondent Carl Stern, the material painted a picture of an FBI that was conducting surveillance of Americans to stifle political dissent. Instead of using the existing laws to prosecute violators, the FBI engaged in a range of improper or illegal acts to harass targets.
Many of the tactics were foolish. The bureau informed the parents of one woman that she was living with a communist out of wedlock.
When the FBI found out that a partner in a law firm was having an affair with another partner's wife, the bureau informed all the members of the firm.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover harassed journalistic critics and used the bureau to crack down on rumors that he was a homosexual.
A female FBI employee, while having her hair done in a Washington beauty shop, heard the owner tell a customer that Hoover was "a queer." Two agents were dispatched to interview her.
The agents told the beauty-shop owner "in no uncertain terms that such statements ... would not be countenanced," according to a 1951 memo from FBI official Lou Nichols.
The tactics were no different from those used by the KGB in Russia and the Stasi in East Germany. Hoover kept his job as director for 48 years, though, in part because he maintained blackmail files on presidents and members of Congress and made sure they knew what he had on them.
Because Hoover confused free expression of speech with espionage, the FBI did a poor job of uncovering real spies. Hoover's support of Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch hunt against communists further undermined the FBI's effort to uncover traitors.
Robert J. Lamphere, who participated in all the FBI's major spy cases during the McCarthy period, told me, "McCarthyism did all kinds of harm, because [Hoover] was pushing something that wasn't so," While the Venona counterintelligence intercepts later showed that the government was full of spies, "The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information and figures.
He made charges against people that weren't true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused. All along, Hoover was helping him."
The FBI abuses led to reforms that included congressional oversight. Today, not only the House and Senate intelligence committees, but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court scrutinize NSA and FBI surveillance programs.
The top four members of the intelligence committees have issued a bipartisan statement affirming that the NSA's program to collect telephone metadata of Americans is a "valuable analytical tool" that allows the intelligence community to "connect the dots on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the U.S."
As FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III testified that the NSA telephone-records program would have connected calls that one of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar, made shortly before the attacks from a phone in San Diego to a Yemeni safe house.
With that intelligence, the FBI could have detained him and his cohorts and "derailed the plan," Mr. Mueller said. Given that nearly 3,000 lives could have been saved, what more does one need to know?
In contrast to the FBI's activities under Hoover, no abuse — meaning actions taken for political or illegal reasons — has been found in the NSA programs. Critics say they could be abused.
So could any law enforcement action. To follow the critics' logic, police officers and FBI agents should not carry weapons because they could potentially use them improperly.
In revealing the identities of those who broke into the FBI's resident agency to steal documents, Betty Medsger wrote in The Washington Post, "There are similarities in their stated motivations: They all sought to give important information to the public about overreaching intelligence agencies."
She added that it is clear that "twice in the past half-century, Americans have had to rely on burglars — not official oversight by Congress, the Justice Department or the White House — for crucial information about their intelligence agencies' operations."
Those who fall for such spin to justify curtailing NSA surveillance programs will have only themselves to blame if the government is unable to connect the dots to stop the next attack, which could wipe out millions of Americans with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
Even worse, those impediments to uncovering new plots would be put in place — not because of abuses or lack of effectiveness — but rather to placate a traitor.
Ronald Kessler, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, is the author of "The Secrets of the FBI" and "In the President's Secret Service" (Three Rivers Press).