“A Different Approach to Dissent”: 1971 Director Johanna Hamilton and Whistle Blowers on Government Abuses
On March 8th, 1971, an anonymous group of individuals calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole thousands of secret government documents. Within those documents was considerable proof of what many in the activist community had long suspected but been unable to prove: that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, was spying on law-abiding citizens and participating in a broad range of illegal activities designed to neutralize any and all critics of American policy.
The group made photocopies of the most damning documents and sent them to various news outlets around the country. Betty Medsger from The Washington Post was the first to report on the contents of the documents. The discovery of the FBI’s covert operations triggered a firestorm of public criticism and ultimately a series of congressional hearings scrutinizing the FBI’s widespread abuses that led to strengthened oversight of government intelligence agencies.
I first learned of the Media, Pennsylvania break-in while doing research for a documentary I am currently directing with Lyric R. Cabral. That film, tentatively titled (T)ERROR, follows a former Black Panther turned FBI counterterrorism informant, capturing the unraveling of his 20-year career with the Bureau after the target of his investigation realizes that he’s been set up. The film also explores how this avowed revolutionary ended up tracking down alleged terrorist threats for the FBI, the very same agency that once designated him and the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
During the course of my research, I learned that COINTELPRO — the FBI program uncovered by the Media break-in — was directly responsible for the demise of the Black Panther Party. By flooding the Party with informants, agent provocateurs, and misinformation, they were ultimately able to destroy the Panthers. It struck me that had it not been for the break-in in 1971, the American public never would have discovered the existence of COINTELPRO.
I was fascinated by the fact that an anonymous group of individuals was responsible for one of the most significant discoveries of American corruption in history. Consider how different the conversation regarding government surveillance would have been this past year had we never seen Edward Snowden’s face. His name, his identity, and most importantly, his intentions — largely regarded as noble, heroic even — have been a critical component in shaping the national conversation regarding the NSA’s chilling overreach and invasion of privacy.
Now, 40-plus years later, the burglars have finally come forward to reveal themselves. Their story has been documented in a recent book titled The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger, the Washington Post reporter who first covered the break-in. The burglary is also the subject of a new documentary, 1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton, that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I was truly honored to have the opportunity to interview Bonnie and John Raines, two of 1971‘s subjects, as well as to speak separately with Johanna Hamilton.
David: How did this all begin? Bill Davidon [the leader of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI] was the one who first approached you, correct? What was his pitch?
Bonnie: We had known Bill throughout all of the protest against the war, and, in particular, through the draft resistance efforts: breaking into draft boards in the middle of the night and removing files and destroying them, to try and disrupt the drafts. So he convened a group of maybe ten of us, in Haverford, where he was a professor, and said “What would you think about the idea of a different approach to dissent?” And he said that would be targeting an FBI office and breaking into it, removing documents to see if we can get evidence of what we all knew the FBI was doing.
John: Suddenly, ten people were rushing out the front door [laughs].
Bonnie: But we had so much respect for Bill. He was so smart and so strategic. So, if it had it come from somebody else, we might not have taken it seriously.
John: J. Edgar Hoover had everybody in Washington terrified. He had files on everybody. There had never been a congressional hearing that asked tough questions of people in the FBI or the CIA or anything like that. We knew that Hoover’s FBI was involved with massive surveillance of the peace groups, and also using informers. But we had to prove it. We couldn’t just say, “This is going on.” And what better evidence than to have their own files, in their own handwriting.
David: But there was no certainty before breaking into this office that you would actually discover proof.
Bonnie: No, no.
David: And yet you were taking this enormous chance.
Bonnie: Yes. Although Philadelphia was really such a center of the anti-war movement, and there were so many universities and colleges in the area that we had a pretty good hunch that there would be something in that office. But we didn’t know. We completely didn’t know.
John: Well, J. Edgar Hoover was a real bug on keeping records and —
David: And you were hoping that the materials you uncovered would trigger scrutiny.
John: Yes. And we had already made the movement from non-violent protest to non-violent disruption. As a matter of fact, we learned our pertinent skills largely from Catholic nuns and priests. But we had three kids at the time, all under ten. And we were not into the martyr thing. And we did consider that very seriously before we did it. And I talked to my older brother Bob, who had four kids of his own at that point. And without telling him what we were up to, but saying, you know, “We could face some time in prison, maybe. Would you take care of our kids?” And he said “Yes, we’d do that.”
Bonnie: We talked to my mother and father and asked the same question. But it was a horrid question to have to contemplate.
David: Can you talk about the night of the robbery?
Bonnie: Yeah, we chose the night of March 8th specifically because that was the night of a huge boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It was a major event. We knew that probably the people living in the apartments were going have their radios on listening to it. And perhaps —
John: The superintendent —
Bonnie: And the superintendent was right below the FBI office. So we thought he wouldn’t hear sounds, and then, we also thought perhaps the police wouldn’t be quite as vigilant because they’d be listening to the —
Bonnie: Boxing match. And that’s the reason we chose that night to go in.
David: What expectations did you have in terms of the public’s response and the press’s response to whatever materials you were hoping to recover?
Bonnie: We thought that if the information was revealed to the public and to the press that there would be significant reaction, and that Congress would have to respond. That was our hope. So once we sorted the documents and found evidence of what was going on, and sent them out to members of Congress and the press, we just had to hope that something would develop after they received them. And it was not at all clear that anything would develop.
John: On the morning of March 9th, in the Philadelphia paper, maybe there was a three-inch story hidden somewhere in the inside that there’d been a break-in at the Media FBI office.
John: But that didn’t become national news, it was strictly local. But very early on the morning of the 9th, as we’d started sorting it, one of the most important files that was in there, we found it. There was a file from Hoover to his agents, saying, “Step up the surveillance because it will increase the paranoia,” and this is a direct quote, “the paranoia that’s endemic in these groups and they’ll begin to think that there’s an FBI agent behind every mail box.” When we saw that in the official document signed by Hoover we knew we had good stuff.
Bonnie: The mailrooms at colleges, and some middle-level administrators also were being asked to report on what was going on in their campuses, and to damp it down.
John: We also discovered that there was massive surveillance of the whole black community. It wasn’t just black students or black students’ unions, but there was massive surveillance of every place black folks gathered. Their churches, their local stores —
John: Every FBI agent, this was in the documents, it was mandated that every FBI agent was to have at least one informer working in the black community. And if you were an FBI agent working inside of Washington, you were to have six informers. So there was blanket surveillance of the black community. So here we are, March 8th, mailing those things out to The New York Times, to The Washington Post, and to The Los Angeles Times. And we found out later that all of them, except Betty [Medsger] at The Washington Post, had turned the materials back without exposing them to the public. When she had the first mailing, she thought, “Oh my God. This is a hoax.” And that was where one of the editors called the Attorney General’s office and said, “You know, we’ve got these documents that say they’re your FBI files.” And the guy went to the room and said, “You must not publish those! You must not publish those!” [laughs]
Bonnie: So that verified the authenticity.
John: No news organization up to that point had been confronted with, “What do you do when you receive stolen government documents?” They had gotten inside documents from whistle blowers but those weren’t stolen. The legal advisers of Katharine Graham, the publisher at The Washington Post, told her, “No. Don’t publish.” And the two editors, Ben Bradlee and Ben Bagdikian, very much wanted to publish. And finally, ten o’clock in the evening, Katharine Graham said, “OK. We’re gonna publish.” The next morning it was on the front page of the Post. Morning after that, it was all over the newspapers. All over the country [laughs]. It just exploded. And all of a sudden, people in Congress found a voice again. The great land of silence started speaking.
Bonnie: Like a kick in the pants from We The People [laughs].
John: There were editorials saying Hoover should resign and so on. He was reported as being apoplectic.
Bonnie: There were 200 agents looking for us.
John: Yeah, we didn’t know that either. We knew that there would be a lot of agents, but we didn’t know it was 200. We were terrified.
Bonnie: Yeah. Terrified, really. Although the eight of us were very tight, and we had decided we weren’t going to meet again, or talk to each other again, and just go back to our regular lives. Which we all did. So it allowed enough time to go by that we began to hear that the FBI was questioning other people in the movement and actually got thrown off the track completely. The other thing that we had going for us was, Philadelphia, back then, late ’60s, early ’70s, there were more protesters against that war here in Philadelphia than any place else in the country. And it allowed us to hide in the best possible place, which is in plain sight.
David: When did the pressure or paranoia begin to alleviate? And how did you balance that paranoia with whatever pride you must have been feeling at the time?
Bonnie: That was an interesting dynamic because we did succeed and see that it was going to make a difference. But we weren’t going to boast about it.
John: No, of course not [chuckles].
Bonnie: Or be interviewed by the paper. We didn’t want any attention, at all.
John: Everybody knew the grave danger we faced if we got caught and found guilty. And they knew that that was going to be a severe prison term. So we kept our mouths shut and returned to our daily life.
Bonnie: And then, of course, at the end of the five years on the statute of limitations — it expired in five years — we were quite relieved at that point.
John: But even then we didn’t talk about it.
Bonnie: We didn’t.
John: Something we did not know at the time, we had a document that had COINTELPRO at the top but nobody knew what COINTELPRO was.
Bonnie: “COINTELPRO new left.” That was all it said.
David: Did that name even catch your attention?
Bonnie: No idea what it meant. It was a routing slip, that’s all.
John: It did catch the attention, about a year later, of Carl Stern, NBC investigative reporter. He used the Freedom of Information Act and asked the Attorney General, “I’d like to see whatever files you have on COINTELPRO.” Of course he was immediately turned down. They said, “Oh, that’s national security.” He said, “Well I’m gonna use the Freedom of Information Act.” And in 1974 they strengthened the Freedom of Information Act. They could use that strengthened act to force the FBI to turn over whatever documents they had on COINTELPRO to a judge, and the judge then would decide, you know, “Is this national security stuff, or isn’t it?” And the judge looked at it and said, “There’s no national security stuff in here. You’ve got to turn over the files.”
Bonnie: That was a vicious program, to attempt to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide. It led to the death of Jean Seberg, the actress, and engineered the assassination of a Black Panther leader in Chicago.
David: Fred Hampton.
John: Once that stuff came out, then Senator Church, who was the head of the Senate oversight committee for FBI, CIA [and NSA operations], said, “OK, we’re gonna hold hearings.” And they held hearings and exposed the dirty tricks that the FBI had been up to all these years. Then they went further. The Senate drafted new legislation under which the FBI and the CIA would have to operate in such a fashion that protected civil liberties and so on.
David: That must have been an incredible moment for you.
Bonnie: It was rewarding, yes it was. There were some reforms that took place as a result of that. And that was our intention. That was the outcome we were hoping for. So then we could just kind of go on with everything else in our lives from that time forward. We stayed active, politically, but not in any way that involved any jeopardy after that point in time.
John: No. We’d done our thing. We set the ball in motion. And then our job was finished. Then it was up to the newspapers, and the editorialists, and then finally up to people in the House and the Senate, and the President. So we’d done what we could do. We did something that had we not done that, we wouldn’t know about COINTELPRO to this day. And they made some tremendous reforms once these secrets came into the light. But all of that went out the window with 9/11, and it is back to square one again.
Bonnie: So that led us up to the place where Mr. Snowden had to step in.
David: Do you see a clean parallel between yourself and Snowden? Or are there important discrepancies?
Bonnie: In terms of the quantity of stuff being gathered out there, and people’s lives being affected, it’s so much more. It’s global now too. So there are some parallels but then there are some new things also to worry about.
John: Without Snowden, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be in this story. This would be a picture on the wall somewhere, you know? But this story, it reminds people of what the FBI used to do. And I think there is a general concern out there. Snowden didn’t make Snowden. I mean, what created the Snowden event, so to speak, is that people were very shocked when they found out about what was taking place.
Bonnie: It reminds people of the threats to our rights and the democracy. That authority has to constantly be questioned and be held accountable. And very often it’s just the regular person out there who will blow the whistle, and he will pay a huge price personally. So I admire Snowden. I think he’s done a great service to the country.
John: Unfortunately, because Washington is run by fear of another terrorist attack, I don’t expect to see strong legislation come out of Washington on what NSA and the CIA and FBI can do and can’t do.
David: What about the public? What effect do you want this story to have on them?
Bonnie: The name we gave ourselves was significant in terms of what we wanted to convey. We were the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. I guess first of all, I would want people to be as aware as they can be about what is being gathered, and what is legal, what is not legal, and who’s authorizing all of that. Just to know that you have to constantly expect your elected officials to be regulated and circumscribed, and to be clear with the public. Unfortunately, Obama has been awful.
John: He won’t get any medals on transparency [chuckles].
John: So far we’ve been received very enthusiastically, not just by ACLU folks, but by average students and average citizens too. And one of the questions that almost always comes to us is, “While you were parents, with three kids under ten, how on earth could you put their future at risk like that?” But when you become a parent, you don’t stop being a citizen. In fact, your citizenship becomes even a greater obligation because no matter what you pass on to your kids, the biggest, the most powerful legacy you’re going to leave to your kids is this nation. And because government wouldn’t do it, we did what citizens sometimes need to do, which is to act on our own initiative. And we would have much preferred that the folks we send to Washington to supervise and protect our freedoms did their job. But that wasn’t happening. So it became clear to us, in terms of motivation, it was going to have to be done by outsiders.
David: To begin with, I’m curious what it was like asking subjects to recount and reflect upon something that took place 40 years ago – what were the challenges and or benefits of that process for you?
Johanna: I suppose the challenge is twofold: I’m asking people who were never caught to take me back into a time where they were in great jeopardy. The jeopardy could put them away for a very long time. For Bonnie and John, because of their children, that felt very present for them. For others, less so. One person — Keith [Forsyth] — he was on the inside at night and I asked him “Tell me what it was like.” He said, “My adrenaline was pumping,” but he totally recounted it in a way that wasn’t necessarily that dramatic — on film [laughs]. So that was a challenge. And you know, they’re not self-aggrandizing, they don’t want to be heroes. For me, what characterized them all is this absence of ego. In addition to the FBI’s bungling of the investigation, that was one of the primary reasons they were able to remain undetected. Because I feel like especially for people like Bob [Williamson] and Keith who were 20, 21 years old at the time, I feel like it would have been so easy for them to brag to a future girlfriend or somebody that they trusted that was in the movement about what they’d done. And it was always astonishing to me that they didn’t.
David: Did you know from the start that the re-creations would be necessary or was that a decision made afterwards?
Johanna: I felt from the get-go that it would be necessary. I always had it at the back of my mind. I felt that otherwise maybe if I just had them in interviews then it was a short film.
David: You worked with Maureen Ryan, one of the producers from Man on Wire?
Johanna: Yes I did. In fact, I mean those were the kinds of recreations that I aspired to make. I didn’t want to make the sort of TV re-creations that can be prevalent. I had heard about her for years, I knew of her work and sought her out. I had limited experience with re-creations. I’ve done a NOVA where we did very extensive re-creations that I also feel very good about. I didn’t direct them but I co-produced them and I’d done a few sort of odd bits in South Africa so I definitely had a sort of broad overarching appreciation for what was involved. But this was the first time that I was directing them and working very directly with the actors. It was unbelievably exhilarating and unspeakably nerve-racking. Totally thrilling. It was like having a mini-feature for four days.
David: What were the subjects’ responses to seeing those re-creations? I’m curious if they found them amusing or realistic?
Johanna: A couple of them quipped that they wished they were being played by Adrian Brody. But I think that by and large they appreciated them. I had told them that I was going to do that. I think not being film people they can certainly appreciate the necessity of it and once they saw the film, they said “Yeah, actually now I see what you were trying to do and I do see why it was necessary.”
David: At what point in the edit were you when the Snowden story came out?
Johanna: Almost at the end. We probably had another month to go. It was totally extraordinary. Laura [Poitras] has been a friend and colleague for many years and she was one of the first people that I went to for advice on this when I knew I had access to them. But because she’s been living in Berlin we’ve seen each other very sporadically over the last couple years. Last March she sent me an email and she said, “Listen, just thinking about you and thinking about your film and let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” and I assume chronologically that’s when Snowden had gotten in touch with her. And then I found out with the rest of the world about Snowden and said “Ah ha! That was what happened.” Just extraordinary. I mean, we might have suspected all this time that this sort of thing was going on and it was really amazing to have empirical proof again. Had my film come out two years ago, I think people would have appreciated it but I think it’s a whole other thing now, because of Snowden. I mean we are making the connections very obvious in clear ways.
David: Were you tempted to pause the film at that point to reconfigure your approach, or did you know that it would be too fragmented and too tangential to weave in any mention of Snowden?
Johanna: That was something that I wrestled with throughout, how contemporary to make it. I had a lot of people encouraging me to make it very contemporary and I had other people saying don’t. I was torn. I initially envisioned myself using a lot more contemporary footage. It was tempting. It was 2011, and in September there were a whole bunch of raids on environmental groups, animal rights groups across Pennsylvania and Michigan, Brian Williams on the evening news saying “This is reminiscent of the ’70s.” It was super tempting at times to go that route. We did try it in a few cuts and I had a moderately large screening last January where I screened it for people and the crowd was torn as well about what to do and how to deal with the present. Some people felt very strongly that I should include Bradley Manning, whose story had been percolating throughout this time as well. But I felt like the whistle blower theme was constant throughout in differing forms, and ultimately I wanted to stick with the story at hand. I decided that I was touching on the contemporary in a very light way. I didn’t want to knock people over the head, [so] that they would draw their own conclusions, and I think that they are.
David: Although Snowden is never mentioned in the film, his presence is certainly palpable.
Johanna: Absolutely. The discussion that Snowden has generated is very similar with what happened with the break-in. The burglars started a national conversation about and the lack of oversight. Snowden has done exactly the same thing. We have these intelligence agencies that are completely out of control. Post September 11th there is a growing acknowledgement that that system of oversight has been thoroughly dismantled and we have had some time to resurrect it and thoroughly discuss it. So I feel like the framework is there for people to understand that there are times at which people do courageous and potentially controversial acts in order to generate this sort of national discussion. It’s the lifeblood of democracy.
David: When I spoke to John and Bonnie, they told me, “We took this chance, it lead to great reforms and then 9/11 happens and those reforms were obliterated almost immediately.” Was that a temptation to make that point a bigger part of the story?
Johanna: Definitely. I mean there was a card at the end of the film that said from September 11th, everything has been vastly broadened. I felt that to delve into everything that has happened subsequent to September 11th, I kind of wanted to dwell in the moment, and be with them, so I left it with a text card at the end. The core of the story was this untold piece of American history, and this act of courage with these unbelievable consequences would, in some senses, be more powerful for a general audience then going into a dissection of how the national security state has been vastly increased and the oversight has been dismantled since September 11th.
David: It’s something that my co-director and I are struggling with in our film as well. How do you balance the personal story with the broader political context? I’m sure that every documentary filmmaker who is working on stories of this nature has this dilemma.
David: What was the response of the subjects when they saw the film? Did they have any critiques or compliments? Did they feel like anything had been left out?
Johanna: I showed a rough cut last June to John, Bonnie, Keith, and David Kairys, their lawyer. And honestly the film ended and they were all like “great job,” and it wasn’t a big deal. Because they’re not self-aggrandizing they weren’t like “Oh, we’re so fantastic.” And Betty [Medsger], I brought her in at one point to the edit room, to show her a rough cut and she started to cry. She cried. It was very emotional. We had been working on these projects in tandem and she is somebody who … as you know, the print and the visual worlds are so different, and sometimes with the information that you can convey in a book is so much greater. It’s the visual world versus her 600-page book and I was concerned that she would perhaps see everything that was missing. And she didn’t. It was a great relief to me.
David: It’s an incredible story and definitely nerve-racking in terms of the robbery, when you enter into that section of the story. Overall, I felt like the film does an excellent job of swelling from this single incident, the robbery, to capturing the far-reaching ripple effect, the response to the contents of those FBI files, and the huge changes it brings about. It’s really special and really inspiring.
Johanna: Thank you. I think that its very easy for people today to see… you know even when we are talking about Edward Snowden and the NSA, everything seems so all encompassing that I think it’s very easy for us to think is there anything that we can do? And throw up your hands and think, “There’s nothing I can do against this enormous system.” I feel like we are facing that same challenge right now to be honest. And I want the film to inspire people, and to present the relation to today. In fact that’s what we will be doing with our action/engagement campaign.
David: What’s next for the film and for you? Any other projects bubbling on the stove?
Johanna: We are definitely in the midst of starting to roll out the impact and engagement campaign, we’re working with a variety of organizations who are at the forefront of the civil liberties and privacy issues, and all [of them] are very excited to work with us. Like I said, I do feel like the story has a whole fresh face because of the conversation that Snowden has started.
David: Also, John mentioned that Lionsgate is going to be potentially making a feature film – is that correct?
Johanna: There certainly are major, major discussions going on and nothing is signed but it is looking very positive.
Visit the film’s official website at http://www.1971film.com/