If You Care About Government Surveillance, Watch 1971 Tonight On PBS

[ Posted Monday, May 18th, 2015 – 14:49 UTC ]

Everyone who cares at all (one way or the other) about government surveillance should watch the documentary 1971 tonight, on the PBS show Independent Lens. Everyone who has an opinion on the Edward Snowden revelations should watch this film. Everyone who has an opinion on the USA PATRIOT Act should tune in. Disturbed by the National Security Agency's actions? Check your local listings for when Independent Lens airs.

I say all this, mind you, before I've even seen the film. Full disclosure: I'm not being paid or compensated for this plug in any way, either. But I know that however the subject matter is handled by the director, it is significant enough and important enough to pay attention to. I rarely strongly recommend a film, sight unseen. In fact, I rarely venture to recommend any film at all (it's not generally what I do). But in the case of 1971, I do so because I already know the story it is going to tell. This story is not only a fascinating piece of American history few today even remember, but it's also very germane to the current public debate about government surveillance.

What happened in the year 1971 that was so important? A burglary. No, not the one at the Watergate -- that was a completely separate event which wouldn't take place until mid-1972. This burglary took place in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in the town of Media, when the local office of the F.B.I. was broken into and all the secret files were stolen (this was 1971, so they were all paper files). The significant ones were then leaked to the media by the burglars (which was the whole point of the burglary). A whopping 40 percent of the secret files covered domestic political surveillance and investigations of political activity (with a 100-to-1 slant towards investigating liberal organizations over conservative ones). Only one percent of the files covered organized crime, by comparison. This shockingly showed the what the priorities of the F.B.I. were, at the time.

What happened as a direct result of this burglary is that Americans learned that J. Edgar Hoover was absolutely obsessed with infiltrating both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. The term "COINTELPRO" was first revealed in one of these leaked documents. What also happened (eventually) was a series of congressional hearings (the "Church Committee") where all kinds of disturbing governmental abuses were revealed. As a result of these hearings, new limits were placed on the federal government's ability to legally spy on its own citizens. That's how important this burglary was. And it happened even before the Pentagon Papers were leaked (probably the most famous media leak of the era).

I learned of the details of this case from reviewing the book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I. by Betty Medsger, last year. Medsger was the reporter at the Washington Post who received the leaked documents in the mail from the burglars, and who subsequently broke the story (the documents were leaked to other media organizations and members of Congress, almost all of whom immediately reported the leak to the F.B.I. and turned the documents in -- the Post was the only one to publish the story).

When I read the book to review it, I was so impressed that I wrote not just one article interviewing the author, but another two both reviewing the book and summarizing the important parts of the story told in The Burglary. I felt the story was that important, and that obscure and generally unknown today.

Medsger tracked down all the burglars (none of whom were ever caught, despite Hoover devoting hundreds of agents to the case) to write her book, which is an impressive journalistic feat, since so much time had passed. The movie 1971 was made as a collaboration with Medsger, and shows these people telling their stories to the camera. As I said, I have yet to see the film, but I bet it will be well worth watching for anyone interested in the debate over government surveillance.

When I heard PBS was going to air 1971, I asked Betty Medsger if she'd give me another short interview. What follows is our conversation.


Both your book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I. and the documentary film 1971 describe the same historic events, a break-in of the F.B.I. office in Media, Pennsylvania. In what way were the two projects -- your book and the film -- connected?

Each of our projects is independent, but we collaborated a great deal. I had been conducting research and writing The Burglary for many years. During that time I met Johanna Hamilton, when she moved to New York from South Africa and we became friends. She expressed interest in doing a documentary on the story. I always assumed there should be a documentary and was very glad that someone as talented as Johanna wanted to make it.


How many of the eight people who were involved in the burglary will we see in the film? Did any of them refuse to publicly tell their story on camera?

You will see the same five people who were fully identified in the book: John and Bonnie Raines, the couple who had three children under age 8 at the time of the burglary; Keith Forsyth, the cab driver who took a correspondence course in order to learn how to pick the lock on the FBI office door; Bob Williamson, the social worker who was especially good at casing; and Bill Davidon, the Haverford College physics professor who conceived of the idea of breaking in in order to get documentary evidence of whether the FBI was suppressing dissent, and who was the leader of the group.

Two other people who told their stories for publication but who, for personal reasons, refused to be named in the book were not interviewed for the film. Nor was Judi Feingold, the only burglar I had not found as of the time the hardback was published. Her story, quite different from the other burglars' stories, is told in the epilogue of the paperback. Whereas most of the burglars hid in plain sight in Philadelphia after the burglary, she went underground and lived under an assumed name west of the Rockies.

I would like to point out that Johanna uses re-enactments very effectively in the film. Because the burglary happened so long ago, she wisely felt she needed to bring it to life with re-enactments. She does so in ways that clearly distinguish those segments from present-day interviews. Audiences at film festivals and other screenings have reacted very positively to this method.


When you tracked down the original burglars to research your book, did anything surprise you about the lives they have led since? None of the burglars were ever arrested, even though J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with tracking them down, but they must have been looking over their shoulder for a long time. Will we see in the film how the burglary significantly changed their lives afterwards?

Yes, the burglars you meet in the film do talk about how the burglary changed their lives. The worry was perhaps greatest for the Raines. They were visited, as they discuss in the film, by the man we refer to as the "ninth burglar" -- the man who dropped out of the group just days before the burglary knowing everything about their plans. He showed up on their doorstep a few weeks after the burglary and said he was thinking of turning them in. That was a harrowing moment, as you can imagine. It caused lingering fear for quite awhile.

As to your question about what surprised me most, I guess I would have to say that the life led by Judi Feingold, the person who went underground, surprised me most. The youngest member of the group, 19 at the time, she is 63 now. In all that time, she had never spoken to anyone from that time in her life. She has now gone back and happily reestablished relationships she thought were gone forever. At first, she moved from farm to farm in the west, became a forest ranger for awhile and then settled into life as a horticultural therapist. Recently she became a hospice attendant.


Do you think the country is changing in its views on government surveillance? After 9/11 and the USA PATRIOT Act, government surveillance was increased, but now that it's up for renewal in Congress, several parts of it may be scrapped due to the backlash since Edward Snowden's revelations. Do you think, in the long-term, government surveillance programs will be curtailed, or increased?

I think that thanks to the discussions that have taken place as a result of the secret National Security Agency files made public by Edward Snowden in June 2013 the country and the Congress have come to oppose the government collection of metadata about all Americans' phone calls. It appears now that the government is about stop retaining that material and be required to have a court order to get access to it from the records of the phone companies.

But there is much more surveillance -- involving access to our email, our online chats and searches, just about anything one does online -- that has not yet been confronted. And I think the public has not confronted most of what Snowden has revealed about NSA collection overseas about Americans and foreigners, and about its goal to be able to tap into any phone any time anywhere.


I hear that in tonight's showing on Independent Lens that you will be featured in an additional segment. What subjects do you and the filmmaker discuss in this segment?

PBS has added a segment at the end of the screening. It is a conversation among Johanna, me and Laura Poitras, filmmaker extraordinaire, and me. Laura, an executive producer of 1971, is the director-producer of Citizenfour, the film about Snowden that won the Academy Award this year for best documentary. She and Glenn Greenwald were the first journalists with whom Snowden communicated and are the people to whom he released his files, entrusting them to make the editorial decisions about what information in the files should be published.

In our conversation we discuss the similarities between the action of the Media burglars -- the first people to ever release secret intelligence files -- and Snowden, who did so 42 years later. We discuss the motivation of the people who made the files available both times and also the decision-making by the journalists who received the files then and now.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


14 Comments on “If You Care About Government Surveillance, Watch 1971 Tonight On PBS”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    And I think the public has not confronted most of what Snowden has revealed about NSA collection overseas about Americans and foreigners, and about its goal to be able to tap into any phone any time anywhere. .... Ms. Medsger

    Well, Ms Medsger, I believe it is critically important for you to stick to the facts and truth of this matter.

  2. [2] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:


    Thanks for the suggestion. A very interesting piece. It really shows what a great and powerful law the Freedom of Information Act truly is. A law that should be protected as strongly as the first amendment. I think it maybe time to expand it to cover Congress...

    Also an ideal act of disobedience. Non-violent. Smart. Effective. And they got away with it. Beautiful.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    A whopping 40 percent of the secret files covered domestic political surveillance and investigations of political activity (with a 100-to-1 slant towards investigating liberal organizations over conservative ones).

    Yea, so???

    Oh wait.. Wrong reaction.. THAT was the reaction of Democrats when being told that the Obama Administration targeted conservative groups..

    Oh my god!! That's horrible!!!

    There... That's the appropriate reaction...

    With apologies, I really can't get excited over the Left's attitudes on domestic surveillance...

    By and large, the totality of the Left (including the vast majority of Weigantians) gave up ANY moral foundation to be cast aspersions on the US's domestic surveillance programs..

    About the only Lefty who has any moral right to be outraged is Glenn Greenwald...

    Practically everyone else on the Left has absolutely NO MORAL STANDING whatsoever to complain..


  4. [4] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    After the ISIS sets off the electromagnetic pulse over the homeland, the NSA will no longer be collecting anything. Problem solved.

    Wake up! It's 1984.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Wake up! It's 1984.

    Courtesy of the Democrat Party..... :^/


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    Also an ideal act of disobedience. Non-violent. Smart. Effective. And they got away with it. Beautiful.

    What's yer thoughts on Snowden??


  7. [7] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    I think acts like what Snowden did are important to the people of the US to understand how our government really works and strengthens the democracy in the long run. I understand the need for secrets but occasional mass secret dumps are just as important, especially when our government is doing questionable acts. I don't think Snowden reporting these problems through accepted channels would have done anything at all. His concerns would have been swept under the rug and it would be business as usual. I would hope at some point in the future he is pardoned and allowed to come back to the US.

    I am also a bit proud of the NSA. With all the stories about Russian and Chinese hackers breaking in to this and that, it's nice to know we are still the best by a long shot...

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Your comments on Snowden reflect my feelings as well..

    There is some good that can be pointed to in Snowden's actions..

    But there is also very bad things as well. Snowden's actions have hurt this country immeasurably. And I am not at all convinced of his altruism... The simple fact that he ran to China and then to Russia belays any claim of patriotism...

    But I am with you on the pride in the NSA...


  9. [9] 
    TheStig wrote:

    A very good documentary, as is typical of anything from Independent Lens.

    Hoover's FBI had implemented a Stasi-Lite police state during the 50's, 60's 70's. I can't think of a better short description, and there's no other way to assign ownership. Hoover ran the FBI as a personal fiefdom. He understood the US political class, and he had a thick dossier on every member. I'm convinced that was the primary secret to his success. Hoover traded in corruption. Crime fighting was incidental - it paid the rent. Politicians exchanged favors to live above their means and Hoover did the exactly the same...he was a jet setter on a government salary before there were jets. All I can say on that is "look it up." The difference was that Hoover knew the forest, the politicians just knew the trees. That translated into raw, unchecked, unconstitutional, Hoover Power for 50 yrs. Not of few of the powerful liked it that way and were willing to look over their shoulder and play nice with J.Edgar.

    Given their amateur status, the Media Conspirators demonstrated astonishingly good "tradecraft." Their ultimate objective was realistic, but highly uncertain - find vital evidence documenting illegal FBI operations and get it to at least one very brave news organization or politician. They kept things small and simple. They sought out FBI soft spots, and cased their target adequately. They trained, they anticipated contingencies, and they also got very lucky a few times. That said, you tilt own odds.

    This wasn't classical civil disobedience...i.e. break the law and go to jail serving a higher purpose. The Media Burglars broke the law and they got away with it, so far as legal punishment is concerned. They did suffer many years of psychological stress, but ultimately seem to have led personally satisfying and conventionally useful lives. Unlike Hoover and his political enablers, they reaped no monetary or in-kind rewards for their illegal behavior.

    I personally consider the Media Burglars heroic, but that's a matter of taste. I don't think a good soldier must be a kamikaze or die trying for his/her country. I wish the Media Burglars well and salute their service.

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    BashiBazouk [2] -

    I heartily agree. On FOIA, on their effectiveness, pretty much on everything you said.

    You should really get a copy (even at a library) of "The Burglary" as it tells the full details of the story, which are both amusing and fascinating. And eye-opening.

    Michale [3] -

    Except for the fact that what got conservative panties in a twist was a letter from the IRS questioning their tax-exempt status (none of the conservative groups ever even had their status denied). That was the sum total of the "retaliation" the government took against them.

    What the liberal 1960s groups got was government agents infiltrating them, being spied upon constantly by illegal wiretaps and everything else Hoover could throw at them, and an ABSURD amount of the FBI's time devoted to them (seriously, 40%?). Also, being called communist, anti-American, and a threat to American society. By the head of the FBI, no less. Also, faked letters in the mail urging you to commit suicide. I could go on and on, in fact.

    Yeah, um, those two are completely the same. NOT.

    Do yourself a favor, and do a web search on "COINTELPRO" to see what I'm talking about. And then just picture what Righties would say about such government persecution, were it ever to be aimed at them. Just for one tiny minute.

    Picture what the outrage on Fox would be if it was revealed that "40% of the FBI's time was taken up by infiltrating and investigating Tea Party groups." Just for one tiny second picture the Righty outrage if that were actually true... as it was, for Lefties, back in the 60's.

    BashiBazouk [7] -

    As for "proper channels," the Media burglars sent their stolen files to two members of Congress and three media organizations. Both members of Congress and two of the media organizations IMMEDIATELY picked up the phone and informed the FBI, and turned over all the files (although the LA Times was smart enough to save a copy of them).

    Only the Washington Post published anything. Ben Bradlee is the true First Amendment hero in this story, along with Katherine Graham.

    TheStig [9] -

    I rather like "Stasi-Lite" as it is the closest to an accurate description of Hoover's FBI I've ever heard. As I recommended to Bashi, read "The Burglary" to discover the detailed story, you will be amazed.

    As far as I'm concerned, the three biggest embarrassments for the United States government EVER are:

    (1) condoning slavery for so long.
    (2) the incredibly un-American concept of the "House Un-American Activites Committee."
    (3) J. Edgar Hoover.

    Close behind would be the Drug War and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

    That's just my personal opinion, though. Others might put Hoover higher on that list. When I wrote the original articles about "The Burglary" I also used the word "fiefdom" to describe Hoover's FBI, since it seems like the only proper term for what went on.


  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig -

    Good point on tradecraft. What impressed me most was their dedication to NEVER contact each other after the action. They stayed apart, by design. This likely saved them from ever being caught later, when 200 FBI agents were dedicating their every moment to catching them.

    The scenes in the movie about the block party to piss off the FBI were amazing -- these were also some of the most astonishing in the book, too.

    Read "The Burglary". It's an amazing book. It was an amazing act of civil disobedience, and it changed this country forever. Did you note in the documentary the fact that the Washington Post had to grapple, for the first time ever, with the question of whether to publish secret leaked government files? That was before the Pentagon Papers, before Watergate, before Snowden, and they had to make up the journalistic rules as they went along.

    This story should really be as well-known as the Pentagon Papers, and I'm amazed it isn't, personally.


  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Except for the fact that what got conservative panties in a twist was a letter from the IRS questioning their tax-exempt status (none of the conservative groups ever even had their status denied).


    MANY were denied..

    The vast majority took YEARS to get their status when comparable Left Wing groups got their's in months...

    Yeah, um, those two are completely the same. NOT.

    At their base, they are the same. Persecution from the government for political reasons..

    In THAT regard, they are identical...

    You might argue that the LEVEL of persecution is different.. I would probably agree..

    But when ya take away all the chafe, BOTH are cases of government persecution to serve a political agenda..

    That's just my personal opinion, though. Others might put Hoover higher on that list.

    Still others might take "Drug War" off the list completely.. :D


  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    Except for the fact that what got conservative panties in a twist was a letter from the IRS questioning their tax-exempt status (none of the conservative groups ever even had their status denied).

    Still want to go with this? :D

    You may think that the persecution of Left Wing groups is more serious..

    Just as those on the Right think that persecution of Right Wing groups is more serious...

    From where I sit, they both are perfect examples of Government Persecution to further a political agenda...


  14. [14] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW -

    I have just finished The Burglary. It's a much more ambitious book than I expected, more about putting Media into a roughly 60 year historical context than about the planning, execution and distribution phases of the operation itself.

    The book is admirably meticulous. My only major criticism is the formatting of citations. The book relies heavily on interviews of seven individuals over a 20 year period. Medsger's narrative is a synthesis, and it's not always clear who contributes what and when. Medsger acknowledges the individual narratives were not completely consistent with each other, and that they shifted over time. I would be suspicious of the scholarship if this didn't occur. Still, I think numerical citations in the text would have allowed readers follow the competing narratives more clearly, and that the book would have been better for it. Instead, the numerical citations at the end of the book reference chapters and brief phrases at the beginning of selected paragraphs. You can't easily reference this as you read. Frankly, I've never seen anything quite like this, maybe it's more common than I think, but I don't think it's a good approach.

    The above is a fairly minor point. I think The Burglary is an important piece of historical scholarship which will have a lasting impact.

    One lasting impact should be a formal exorcism of J. Edgar Hoover from the FBI. He was and out and out fraud and scoundrel. A pathological bigot. Take his name off the buildings. Keep in the pantheon, but only senses of the FBI's version of Satan. Take any pictures of him off the wall. Change the HQ logo to New FBI. There's a New Scotland Yard!

    As a summarize of a strict oversight process, I suggest a flip board with numbers, like those old safety citations in factories (see Simpsons) "208 days without infractions of American Civil Liberties."

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