When I was a student at Berkeley in the 60’s, it was a standard joke to introduce the FBI agent present at any student activist meeting. We were being watched and instead of feeling indignant we felt proud. How innocent, and how naïve!
In 1970, eight Americans, all anti -Vietnam war activists, did not think being spied on was cool and set out to expose the FBI for illegal surveillance. They named themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. On March 8, 1971, the night of the Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier championship fight, they broke into a satellite FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole files they hoped would provide hard evidence that the FBI was spying on its own citizens.
In her film 1971, Johanna Hamilton details this break-in and for the first time several of these Citizens have come forwards on camera to tell their story. The group, ranging in age from 20 to 44 at the time of the break-in, included three women and five men, four of them parents of small children. Amazingly, the identity of the individuals in the group was never discovered despite the efforts of local law enforcement and the FBI. What is also remarkable is that they were able to live their lives without changing their identities and went about hiding in plain sight.
Told through a combination of on-camera interviews, documents from the break-in and investigation, national news coverage of the burglary and dramatic re-enactments, the story of 1971 resonates with current questions of privacy in today’s era of US government spying and data collection on citizens.
The film opens in Philadelphia with interviews with some of the whistleblowers. The details of their story remind us how much the world has been changed by technology. In 1971, this suburban FBI agency kept all of their data in file folders placed in unlocked cabinets housed in a minimally secured office. The Citizen’s Commission was able to enter the office, transfer the files into suitcases and walk out the front door pretty confident that all relevant personnel protecting the premises would be watching or listening to the Ali-Frazier fight.
Copies of selected documents were sent to three newspapers including to Betty Medsger of the Washington Post. Medsger appears in the film and has recently published a book (The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI) that chronicles the same events. Attorney General John Mitchell, who would later serve time in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in, urged the publishers of the newspapers not to publish the stolen documents. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post decided to go ahead with the story. The biggest discovery was finding that Hoover ran a covert operation with the code name COINTELPRO under which the FBI would survey, infiltrate, and discredit political groups and US citizens thought to be subversive.
Reaction to the story was swift and angry and led to the Church Committee, the first congressional investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies. Legislation was eventually passed to curtail the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, history does repeat itself and in 2014 another government document theft again reveals that the NSA is spying on its own citizens.
Johanna Hamilton co-produced Pray the Devil Back to Hell which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary. Hamilton started working on her documentary back in 2008 in tandem with Medsger. This is her directorial debut. 1971 tells a riveting story and should create quite a stir.
Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation. She reviews films at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival for The WIP.