1971 FBI break-in inspires book and film that celebrate the integrity of dissent

(Facebook / 1971 films)

(Facebook / 1971 films)

March 8, 1971 is best remembered as the night Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship at Madison Square Garden. It was a historic match that embodied the tensions of the era — with the conscientious objector Ali as a stand-in for the increasingly vocal anti-establishment and Smokin’ Joe, by default, representing Nixon’s so-called silent majority. Yet, while millions watched the historic “fight of the century” that night in 1971, another significant event was underway — one that was just as much a sign of the times.

Hoping the Frazier-Ali match would serve as a distraction, seven ordinary, but passionate citizens, broke into a suburban FBI office outside of Philadelphia and stole all of its documents. While holed up in an old farmhouse later that evening, they donned gloves and sorted through the thousands of pilfered documents. It was here that the self-proclaimed Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI found what they were hoping to find: explicit, internal confirmation detailing FBI surveillance and intimidation of protected First Amendment activity related to dissent and protest of the government. Even more improbably, though, they got away with it. Their activism – for which none of them were ever caught – exposed and dislodged the FBI’s secret programs.

In the past year, two separate creative works appeared, telling the compelling, true story of the Citizens’ Commission. First, in January 2014, was journalist Betty Medsger’s book, “The Burglary. Then, more recently, came the release of the documentary film “1971,” directed by Johanna Hamilton, which has enjoyed widespread screenings around the world. PBS will be broadcasting it on May 18, followed by the digital release on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and other online services on June 2, as well as a DVD release in July. Both book and film are the product of a collaborative relationship rooted in trust, making accessible — to the popular media and the academic community alike — the contextual importance of the FBI break-in. What’s more, it was a story that almost went untold.

“It was a fortuitous coming together,” Medsger said, describing her relationship with Hamilton. She had always planned to write a book and had spent years collecting material for what would become “The Burglary,” but she also thought the story would make a great documentary. Hamilton met Medsger at a journalism conference in South Africa nearly two decades ago, but it wasn’t until Medsger and her husband moved to New York City in 2001, where Hamilton was also living, that their relationship began to flourish and deepen.

The two would often discuss journalism issues and share updates on each others’ work. Hamilton recalls seeing Medsger’s outlines for her book and would often say, “When you’re ready to make the film, let me know.” Other filmmakers had been considered but it wasn’t until 2009 that some of the burglars approved of Hamilton as the right person to document their story. Medsger and Hamilton then began their professional collaboration, working in tandem for over four years to complete the book and the film. The two had the same confidentiality agreements with their interview subjects and planned to finish their respective projects on a similar timeline for maximum exposure.

Hamilton’s award-winning film, still currently screening, captures this fascinating story in exciting and thought-provoking detail. Along with emotionally-charged dramatic reenactments of the burglary break-in, and through in-depth interviews with the original participants of the burglary — as well individuals involved in the subsequent investigation and aftermath — “1971” is as intense as it is informative. It has received extraordinary reviews in The New York Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Forbes film critic Dade Haye’s observed a rare and “effusive” standing ovation at the film’s 2014 premier at the Tribeca Film Festival — indicating that the issues of government surveillance and citizen activism central to “1971” still resonate today. In fact, Laura Poitras, one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden NSA story, is a longtime friend of Hamilton and was a co-executive producer on the film.

While “1971” is a must-see as a point of entry to an important historical event, the exhaustive scope of the break-in is detailed at much greater length in Medsger’s book. With the careful nuances of a meticulous researcher and the well-honed craft of a storied journalist, she tells the in-depth, personal stories of the FBI burglars against the larger historical backdrop of an anti-war movement under surveillance and squarely at odds with Hoover, the FBI and President Nixon.

Inspired by the then recent protest actions of the Catonsville Nine draft card burning and subsequent nonviolent draft board office raids, physics professor Bill Davidon wanted to do something that would positively confirm the widespread suspicion of agent provocateurs and government infiltrators in the anti-war and civil rights movements.

“No one criticized the intelligence agencies,” Medsger said, referring to the lack of media and congressional inquiry into intelligence activities at the time. “They had a free pass.”

Hoover was untouchable and those who crossed him risked their reputations and careers; more than one politician, as documented in “The Burglary,” lost an election as a result of criticizing Hoover’s beloved FBI. Having served as director since the Coolidge Administration, Hoover had positioned himself as perhaps the most powerful bureaucrat in the nation’s capital.

“Nonviolent protest was gaining no traction with policymakers in Washington,” said Citizens’ Commission member John Raines, whose wife Bonnie also took part in the break-in. “We had to up the ante to make the profile of the protest more visible and demanding.” In the film, he characterized this shift in tactics as moving from “nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption.”

John and Bonnie Raines understood their clandestine protest in the same tradition of other resisters who eluded capture, including those involved in the Underground Railroad and the Boston Tea Party. “We knew the risks and weren’t boastful about it,” Bonnie Raines said. “And we were relieved that we accomplished what we were able to without being caught.”

What they discovered exposed an FBI that, hitherto, had acted with impunity and secrecy. As Medsger wrote in her book, the FBI “usurped citizens’ liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage and — most important — silence people whose political opinions the director opposed.” The release of the stolen files, however, changed all of that.

The ripples caused by the break-in had the larger effect of reeling in, at least temporarily, Hoover’s overzealous spy operations. Within days of newspaper accounts detailing the content of the files, the FBI’s untouchability was unraveling with editorials and congressional leaders calling for investigations. “Such calls,” Medsger observed in her book, “were unprecedented, for until now both reverential high regard and fear of Hoover’s power to retaliate had kept most of his critics silent.”

As one of the first journalists to receive photocopies of the FBI documents after they were mailed to her at the Washington Post, Medsger — and her reported piece on the stolen files — unwittingly stood at a crucial crossroads regarding journalistic integrity. The other recipients of the photocopied files — congressional personnel, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times — chose not to immediately make the files public. The full details of the hand-wringing at the Washington Post by its executive editor Ben Bradlee, publisher Katherine Graham, and in-house legal counsel are described at-length in “The Burglary.” Ultimately, the decision to publish — in-spite of Attorney General John Mitchell’s urgings against it — set journalistic precedence for how news outlets would later ethically handle stolen material and confidential sources, including the Watergate scandal.

Decades passed without Medsger — or anyone else — knowing the identities of the culprits involved in one of the FBI’s largest investigations ever. It likely could have stayed that way had it not been for a serendipitous stop to have dinner with some old acquaintances from the Philadelphia peace movement, Bonnie and John Raines. Seemingly by accident, John introduced Betty to his 14-year old daughter, saying, “When your mother and I had information about the FBI that we wanted to give to the public, we sent it to Betty.”

Seven of the eight resisters are known to Medsger and Hamilton. Five of them are featured in the film, including the Raineses and Davidon, who died in 2013 from Parkinson’s disease just two months before the story was initially made public in January 2014.

Despite occurring after Hoover’s 1972 death, the 1975 Church Commission was made possible by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. It was thanks to the documents they recovered that confidential and controversial programs like COINTELPRO and the Security Index were publicly exposed. The latter, first inaugurated in 1939 at the start of World War II, was a list of designated individuals whom Hoover and the FBI planned to arrest and detain during a state of national emergency. By 1971, over 26,000 Americans were unknowingly listed as potential threats to the security and stability of the nation.

Meanwhile, COINTELPRO’s roots can be traced back to 1956, with the FBI’s goal — as stated in the Church Committee’s final report — of “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.” Although the files obtained by the Citizens’ Commission included a COINTELPRO document, it was the dogged persistence of NBC News correspondent Carl Stern and his Freedom of Information Act requests that revealed the full extent of Hoover’s secret FBI. As Stern relates in “1971,” he had been unaware of the break-in until a congressional aide handed him one of the documents in 1972 that had “instructed FBI agents to anonymously send letters to college educators to take a stronger stand against the New Left.” It astonished Stern and within days he had filed his first of many FOIA requests to learn more about COINTELPRO.

The covert and illegal activities of COINTELPRO are still being unearthed — if not practiced — today, such as with the recent publishing of an uncensored letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., by anonymous FBI agents, encouraging him to commit suicide. All the better, then, that people can now learn, from both book and film, about that other event on March 8, 1971 — not the Ali-Frazier “fight of the century,” which is already seared into the consciousness of the greater public, but what Medsger has called “perhaps the most powerful single act of nonviolent resistance in American history.”

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