reality check

The secret whistleblowers, revisited

The new documentary 1971, which premiered on Friday, reveals how a group of activists exposed the secrets of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI
April 21, 2014

In March 1971, eight burglars broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Media, PA, and stole hundreds of documents. They sorted through the files–which revealed a massive, illegal campaign by the FBI to crush political dissent–and sent some of them to the press. The documents were sent anonymously and, despite a lengthy FBI investigation, the burglars were never found.

This story was retold recently in Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary. Medsger introduced director Johanna Hamilton to the story, and 1971 is in many ways the book’s companion piece. While Medsger builds as detailed a profile of the FBI under Hoover as she does of the individual burglars, Hamilton spends more time on the burglars’ personal stories and how their decision to steal the documents changed their lives.

The burglars, who called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, were all anti-war activists and ordinary people: Bob Williamson was a social worker; John and Bonnie Raines were a couple with young children; Keith Forsyth drove a cab. Alarmed by rumors that the FBI was spying on anti-war protesters and civil rights activists, they decided to get proof, no matter the considerable risk to themselves or their families. “When you realize that something is very wrong,” Forsyth says in the film, “there’s no choice. You have to do something.”

The burglars were remarkably candid with Hamilton, and she lets them tell their story, supplemented with archive footage, government documents, gripping, staged recreations of the burglary, and conversations with historians, journalists, and former FBI agents.

1971 premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18, and the filmmakers have hopes of a wider release. CJR spoke to director Johanna Hamilton and producer Marilyn Ness about their work on the documentary.

How did you first hear about the break-in?
Johanna Hamilton:
Betty Medsger, who is the journalist to whom they sent the documents at The Washington Post. She and I have been friends for over a decade, and she had told me the sort of broad outline of the story. She’d shared that with me several years ago. And I obviously thought that it was an absolutely extraordinary story, and I’m sure at the time I said to her, “You know, when you’re ready to make the film, let me know if there’s a film there.” She was deeply buried in her research and wasn’t ready to hear that for some time. And then in 2008, I think she was in a different place with her book, and the burglars were also, I think, ready.

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I went down to meet them, and a couple of days later, they phoned me up and said that they were willing to go on camera. Ever since then, Betty and I have been collaborating. We’ve sort of been working on our projects in tandem. She’s been writing, we’ve been filming, and we’ve been sharing all our materials and working as closely as we can.

What was it like interviewing the burglars?
It was extraordinary…The tricky thing at that point was that there was absolutely nothing that existed from the time of the break-in. Part of the reason they’d remained undetected for 40-plus years was because they left no trace of the planning, execution, and aftermath of the break-in. They were no notes, no photographs, not any memories of those events.

What’s remarkable about the burglars is that they have lived this life for the past 40 years, underground, above ground. They’ve never changed their identities; they really kind of went about their lives in the most ordinary way. They really receded back into the background once the break-in was over.

Why did everyone involved in the film have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements?
We wanted to keep the fact that [the burglars] were coming out [secret]. It’s one of the last remaining mysteries from that time. I have an interview with an FBI agent who says, “We’ll find the Media burglars when we find out where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.” It really was genuinely a mystery, and people didn’t know and people were baffled, and it was one of the largest FBI investigations ever that was unsolved. Hoover went to his grave, I think, probably very sad that he hadn’t managed to find them. The statute of limitations had passed, but we were still very careful. We were careful about whom we told about it.

Marilyn Ness: It felt a little simpatico with the story we were telling and what they went through initially… just the fact that we had this other layer that we had to make sure that we were being as under the wire as possible. It was really an interesting experience just from a production point of view.

You took great pains to put the story into context. Was that something that you felt was important–to try to locate the audience in that time?
Definitely. I think it’s something that’s very difficult today, to realize the degree to which the FBI was absolutely revered, and I think that that is probably the most important impact…What became evident after the break-in and the documents were revealed was that there were these two different FBIs. There was the public face of the FBI…The G-men got their guys, got the bad guys all the time. And then what the burglary revealed was that there was this wholly different FBI that operated covertly. So, yes, it was really important. And I think with any film of this nature, it’s really important to try and take people back in time and situate them in that time.

How long did you spend working on this story?
About four years. It did take a long time…But as we were finishing the edit, the Edward Snowden revelations were breaking. So in the big picture it’s really, absolutely kind of amazing and we’ve been marveling at how the documentary gods have come through for us as this point in time. Because if the film had come out two years ago, I think it would have struck a chord and people would have been interested and thought, “Yeah, good story.” Whereas I think today it has…a whole different resonance for people because we’re so immersed, deeply immersed in this conversation about privacy and online surveillance that Snowden’s revelations have started.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
What we’ve seen in the very, very tiny limited screens that we have is that people are walking away really quite inspired. It’s a story of moral courage and it kind of hopefully poses the question, “Could I do what they did?”

If we can shift a few opinions and get a few people out there talking, and strengthen the conversation, I’ll feel good.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu