Surveillance, J. Edgar Hoover, and effective activism.
Forty years before WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, there was Media, Pennsylvania, the subject of a new documentary 1971 directed by Johanna Hamilton. The FBI was untouchable until that year, when a group of ordinary citizens dubbing themselves the Citizens’ Commission broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole their files, and shared them with the American public. These files revealed the FBI’s domestic spying programs, and specifically exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal surveillance program which involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans. COINTELPRO was overseen by lifelong Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. The unmasking of this program led to the country’s first Congressional investigation of US intelligence agencies. The brave Americans who stole these documents, a ragtag bunch of activists, parents, and professors, were never caught. Forty-three years later, they have revealed themselves for the first time and shared their story.
Hamilton collaborated with Betty Medsger, author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, which first disclosed these 1971 events. The text unveiled the identities of those involved who had been previously anonymous. Given the recent disclosures of NSA spying, this thrilling tale could not be more relevant. It goes to show how little things have changed since 1971—in fact, we’re probably watched now more than ever. I spoke with the film’s director, Johanna Hamilton, about whether there is any lingering legal danger for the activists, broader issues of security leaks and activism today, and how ordinary people can make an impact on their government.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why do you think this story is less well-known than Watergate, Wikileaks, or Edward Snowden?
Johanna Hamilton Principally, it’s because they were never found. I think if they had been caught, they would have been as notorious as Daniel Ellsberg. This is also a slow burn story, in the sense that they stole the documents and leaked them to the Washington Post. It’s remarkable that the Post published them. But the Pentagon Papers were leaked three or four months later, which was obviously an enormous story, because Ellsberg was found. Then almost a year later, the Watergate break-in happens, that creeps along and ends up being absolutely massive.
In our story, it’s only eighteen months after the break-in that Carl Stern is really handed the documents, and then his story unfolds relatively slowly. The explosive revelation of COINTELPRO happened three years after the actual break-in itself. I think for all of those reasons, this story is less famous, and that’s actually what made it really fun, connecting all those dots.
AJG The actions of the Citizens’ Commission exposed the FBI’s illegal surveillance programs. What was the most shocking or important information they gleaned from stealing those documents, and what did that lead to?
JH The documents they stole immediately revealed a program of illegal domestic spying. From the documents, there were a couple of instances of national spying activity, but a lot of it was more localized; there were so many institutions in the greater Philadelphia area, so many campuses, that a lot of the spying and surveillance focused on those groups. There were enormous protest organizations within Philadelphia and it was one of the largest areas of opposition and resistance to the Vietnam War and to many policies of the government at that time. A lot of what was stolen dealt with those groups.
For the first time, as reporter Betty Medsger wrote about in her first story, these FBI documents were seen in public. The Citizens’ Commission found what they set out to find. It’s remarkable, because only one document they stole actually had the heading “COINTELPRO,” and as Betty described, nobody knew what that meant. One document Carl Stern received detailed seven big broad COINTELPRO categories; surveillance of the Black Panthers, the black Nationalist groups, the Ku Klux Klan, the New Left, etcetera. Once those 50,000 pages were revealed, you got the full blow by blow.
There were so many shocking details. Perhaps the most notorious is the letter in which the FBI tried to persuade Martin Luther King to commit suicide. Again, this is well-documented. It’s been written about a lot. The documents were able to prove that the FBI, working with a police informant in Chicago, had pinpointed where Fred Hampton lived, and given the police a map of his apartment. It was everything, ranging from destruction of reputations to murder.
Jean Seberg, a well-known actress and activist, is also a famous case. When people found out that she was pregnant, the FBI started a rumor that the father was a Black Panther—with terrible consequences. She had a miscarriage. All these stories came out.
AJG How did the Citizens’ Commission come together? How did all those involved find each other and team up?
JH William C. Davidon, or Bill, was the leader of the group. He was a professor from Haverford, and he taught physics by day and was a very active anti-war activist and protestor in his spare time. A very well-respected person. As a physicist, he was level-headed and always looking for empirical evidence. There was a lot of talk within the movement that there were informants and that perhaps they were being spied on, and there were a lot of accusations and paranoia. Bill thought, “Let’s try and lay this to rest and find proof.” He gathered together a group of people he had come to know through his anti-war activities.
Bill, at that point in my interviewing, was too ill to be able to tell me exactly why it was that he hand-picked each individual. People took on different roles. And one has to presume he figured they were also trustworthy. Of the eight members, five are in the film. The others are not publicly known. A lot of them were in the academic field. I think the one decision he made was to go with people who would be modest and keep it quiet. The thing for me that is very striking about all of them is the absence of ego. That’s partly why they were all able to keep it quiet for so many years. They didn’t feel the need to talk about it.
AJG They were never caught, even though it was one of the largest criminal investigations in FBI history. How was it they were able to avoid being identified for so long? Is it like you said, that they were modest and simply didn’t talk about it?
JH That’s right, even within the activist community in Philadelphia. I was always amazed, I thought, there must have been sort of an inherent trust, even within that community, the fact that none of them went into a bar one night, and tried to impress somebody with the story. They were twenty years old! They say that because there was such a large community of resisters in Philadelphia, they were able to blend in. The FBI were looking all over for them, and seven of the eight members were suspects in the investigation. So in that sense, they were on their trail. But there was an overabundance of suspects. They were never able to narrow it down. Combine that with the discretion and carefulness on the part of the members of the Commission. It is very curious that they didn’t get closer than they did. They were very lucky.
AJG Why did the Citizens’ Commission choose to come forward now, after so many years? Are they no longer afraid of repercussions?
JH I started working on the story four years ago. There was definitely an element of feeling a little more secure. Although I do think Betty and I were probably a lot more worried than they were. They consulted with their lawyer. And it had been several years that Betty had been researching her book. They all had several years to get used to the idea they were going to go public. At any point in that time, they could’ve withdrawn or decided they wanted to remain anonymous.
They felt the story should be told in its entirety, from their motivation. Back in the day, several of them didn’t realize the full arc of the story. It had been a well-targeted blow, and they had been successful. There are many people in Congress, and historians too, who credit this break-in with really cracking that wall of secrecy surrounding the FBI. It was the first chink in the armor.
AJG Will there be any consequences for them now that they’ve been revealed? Is there any danger for the Citizens’ Commission?
JH When we started working on our respective projects, we consulted lawyers. We were operating with imperfect information, but what we surmised was, because the FBI had closed the case in 1976, the statute on burglary had run, and the statute of theft of government property, believe it or not, had also run—it’s also five years. So the FBI in all likelihood would not reopen the case. But we weren’t sure.
Hoover was so angry, he wanted to charge them with espionage, which is what Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg are accused of. Now, that charge wouldn’t have held, because the documents they stole pertained to domestic affairs, and espionage has to pertain to foreign matters. But it didn’t matter; I guess Hoover was so mad, he would have brought that charge against them. So we didn’t know. We decided to proceed with an abundance of caution. It was also just about protection of sources until we’d completed our respective projects.
When the book came out, a little before the film, there was a fair amount of publicity. It was on the front page of the New York Times, and those journalists obviously had to get a reply from the FBI. We all held our breath at that point. Fortunately, they came out and issued a statement. They said, we’re a different institution today than we were back then, partly as a result of the revelations from the ’70s. For a while, there was a statement on the FBI’s homepage that said, basically, because of this burglary, we instituted necessary reforms.
That was a giant relief and definitely signaled that nobody was going to initiate any proceedings against them. And subsequently, we’ve heard absolutely nothing. If they had wanted to do it, they would have done it immediately.
AJG What was the process of piecing the film together like?
JH Interviews with the C.C. today formed the backbone of the film. There’s a lot of archival footage, which took months of research. There are a lot of personal archives: photographs and 16mm footage. Danielle Varga, my associate producer, pulled off the heroic task of spending days in different archives in NYC, DC, and Philadelphia. We didn’t tell the archivists the names of the specific individuals we were looking for, mainly in order to protect our sources. That made her job very difficult. She managed to find fantastic pictures from back in the day though.
I decided to use reenactments and recreations, since obviously nothing existed from the heist. That was an aesthetic choice. I felt it was necessary for people to be able to put themselves in their shoes, as an immersive experience, partly because of the personal risk they took, but also because of the improbability of their success. They almost don’t make it in.
AJG From studying and sifting through this story, and seeing first hand how these very non-powerful, but politically active, citizens made a difference—what would you recommend to citizens of any country now, who want to take a stand against the NSA or the FBI? What can people do that doesn’t involve breaking into high security offices?
JH Stay informed. There are excellent news resources available. I think we’ve had examples in the past of legislation that has either been halted or modified because of pressure that’s brought by the public. There can be enormous public outcry that is very effective.
It’s easy for people to throw up their hands and feel like there’s nothing they can do. But I do think there are things that are possible. I would love for people to walk away from this film thinking, “What can I do to be a more engaged citizen?” Start thinking in those critical ways: “How can I be effective?” It might make people feel despondent, because they feel the NSA is omnipresent. But I hope this is an inspirational story that leaves people wondering and thinking about their own personal activism. Whatever they feel they need to act upon, whether it’s accountability in their local police department, or the NSA. There are ways they can have an impact.
For more on 1971, including information on upcoming screenings, visit the film's website.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic and non-fiction writer. She has published arts writing with BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, and Syracuse.com.