In 1971, eight progressive activists calling themselves the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” became some of the nation’s most wanted individuals by breaking into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stealing and leaking over 1,000 classified documents focusing in part on domestic surveillance.
Heralded as the precursors to leakers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, three of the eight individuals responsible for the 1971 FBI break-in including Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raynes, who attended the film’s world premiere on Friday, April 18, received a standing ovation upon their introduction.
An audience member lavished praise on the burglars for their efforts during the Q&A session that followed the viewing.
The film focuses on the individual stories of those who carried out the burglary, which coincided with the “Fight of the Century” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971.
Framing the perpetrators as “eight ordinary citizens,” compelled to act because they had “begun to feel the specter of intimidation,” “1971″ provides exclusive interviews, primary documents, news coverage and re-creations that build to the following conclusion: “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI has won—real oversight over the FBI and a national conversation about privacy rights has begun.”
The film portrays the burglars in a uniformly positive light, with only a brief aside in which one FBI agent argues that the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence activities were meant to protect Americans from those wishing to undermine the country — groups that included the Black Panthers and Weather Underground.
The robbery and leaking of classified documents — the contents of which were published most notably by Betty Medsger of the Washington Post – revealed the extent of the FBI’s domestic surveillance efforts prior to and during the Vietnam War era, including the use of tactics meant to intimidate.
The most damning information to come from the burglary included evidence of a program overseen by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover entitled COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program. Under the program, which commenced in 1956, the FBI initially targeted overtly Communist and Socialist groups, but as time wore on expanded its surveillance into the Ku Klux Klan, Socialist Workers Party, Black Panther Party and numerous other groups that the FBI deemed subversive.
The movie itself largely focuses on the FBI’s efforts to embed informants and instill fear among the members of groups that the perpetrators classify as being anti-war and/or pro-civil rights. This is consistent with publicly released FBI directives from the program calling on agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” “black nationalist, hate-type organizations,” for example.
Such revelations, along with additional leaks of controversial intelligence actions, followed by Watergate, culminated in the formation of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, or the ”Church Committee.”
Headed by Democratic Idaho Senator Frank Church, the Committee’s investigation, which occurred from 1975-1976, “confirmed substantial wrongdoing [in context of domestic intelligence programs and certain other intelligence operations more broadly, and]…demonstrated that intelligence activities have not generally been governed and controlled in accord with the fundamental principles of our constitutional system of government.”
The findings led to significant reforms of U.S. intelligence practices intended to protect the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
Those who participated in a panel following the movie, including perpetrators Keith Forsyth and John and Bonnie Raynes (who remain politically active), appeared unrepentant both on camera and in-person for their actions, viewing their theft as a means of resistance against a government that they felt was thwarting dissent by engaging in illegal and un-Constitutional surveillance and intimidation of political groups.
When asked if the panelists feared being arrested today, well after the statute of limitations has lapsed, Director and Producer Johanna Hamilton argued that the FBI actually appeared sympathetic to the burglars, noting something to the effect that a public relations representative for the FBI had indicated that the bureau viewed the reforms brought upon by the revelations of the break-in positively.
One of the perpetrators, Keith Forsyth, expressed solidarity with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. When asked by a woman who announced herself as a legal representative for Mr. Snowden what the panel hoped would be done with him, Forsyth declared: “First of all he should get a pardon. Second of all he should get an award.”
Laura Poitras, a Co-Producer of “1971,” who was in attendance, recently received the George K. Polk Award and the left-leaning Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize for her contributions associated with the Edward Snowden revelations. Poitras has worked closely with Glenn Greenwald in connection with the Snowden files.
The release of the film follows the release of a book titled “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” the first public disclosure of the story behind the FBI break-in, appropriately written by the Washington Post columnist who originally broke it, Betty Medsger.
You can watch a trailer of the film below: