Johanna Hamilton Goes Back to 1971 to Find Burglars Who Revealed Illegal FBI Spying

May 18, 2015 by Craig Phillips in

1971: A year before the Watergate scandal sent shockwaves through the United States, with no end in sight to the Vietnam War, and anti-war protests intensifying. In that same year a group of ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. What they discovered shocked them.

Long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, these activist-burglars exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal surveillance program that involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans. For forty years the burglars kept their identities secret, but in Johanna Hamilton’s new film 1971, these previously anonymous Americans publicly tell their story for the first time.

With the film premiering on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, May 18 at 10 pm [check local listings], Hamilton took the time to talk to us about how she approached telling this story on film, and its resonance with the more recent Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations.

How did you first learn about the Media, PA break-in and what made you want to make a film about it?

I was introduced to the story via Betty Medsger, a veteran journalist who had written the first stories about the documents when they were leaked to her at the Washington Post. Betty and I have been friends for years. When I first met her she was researching a book on the break-in. She shared the outline of the story with me — I knew she had found out the identities of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI — and I was hooked. I asked her to let me know when she and the Citizens’ Commission were ready to make a film. I made that request several times over several years and one day, about five years ago now, she called me and asked me if I was serious. The story coalesced all of my interests. I’ve been fascinated by the Vietnam War and this period in American history for as long as I can remember. I come from a journalism background, and these people were going to reveal themselves after 40 odd years — it was a scoop. We were going to be solving one of the last remaining mysteries from that time.

To me, every aspect of the story was compelling: a group of ordinary people who put everything on the line to protect freedom of speech and hold their government accountable. It’s also a completely improbable story: they were total outsiders who trained themselves for one night of amateur burglary in order to break into an FBI office — on a hunch! They had no idea what they would find. They could have risked everything for nothing. Not only did they manage to pull off a serious heist, they manage to evade capture despite one of the largest FBI investigations of all time. Then there’s a great journalism story that almost didn’t happen but for the persistence of Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post and then Carl Stern at NBC. The decision by the Washington Post to publish stories about the pilfered documents was a defining, All the President’s Men moment a full year before the Watergate break-in, and a few months before the Pentagon Papers. And there’s a political coda to the story. The revelations from the break-in helped lead to the Church Committee hearings in Congress, which ended up establishing the first ever set of guidelines governing the FBI’s investigative powers.

Once I had met with the Citizens and knew they were ready to go on camera, Betty and I began our collaboration. She was now in the midst of writing the book that would become The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI and we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefitted enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation. In the latter stages of production on the book and the film, we collaborated together on interviews.

It was thrilling to get to tell this untold and largely forgotten piece American history.

From 1971 dramatic recreation, FBI files are transported in suitcase by citizen-activist after break-in

Your film cleverly interweaves dramatic recreations to tell some of the story in flashback. Could you talk a little about how you decided to use that technique? Why do you think that’s become a more prevalent choice for documentary films?

Part of the reason the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI had remained undetected for 40 plus years was because they left no trace. There was nothing that existed from the planning, execution, and aftermath of the break-in. No notes, no photos, only memories of the events. So I was faced with the choice of having the burglars in their current state describe what they had done 43 years earlier. Films are an immersive experience, and for the audience to really put themselves in the burglars’ shoes, I decided to use to re-creations. I was thrilled to enlist Maureen Ryan, who had produced the recreations for Man on Wire and Project Nim, someone who’s work I had long admired.

I think documentary filmmakers are always looking to make their work cinematic and original, and some turn to dramatizations to do that. There is a long debate about the use of re-enactments in documentaries; they remain controversial. I felt slightly uneasy using them, mainly because they can be so difficult to pull off convincingly. But I decided to err on the side of making the audience’s experience more immersive. I wanted this to be a film that people felt they were part of, not outside looking in. It’s tough when you are telling a story from long ago.

Were any of the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI fearful for their security/privacy at the point where you started making the film? Was it hard to get any of them to talk to you?

No, none of them were ever fearful for their own security or privacy. I was much more concerned for them than they were for themselves, both while the film was in production and once the news broke and their identities became known. Bob Williamson was the most reluctant to appear on camera, but not because he was fearful for his privacy. He was most concerned that he not come across as a hero. During the course of a long phone call, I told him that I wasn’t interested in making a hagiography but was very keen to tell an extraordinary, largely unknown and, in my view, important part of recent American history. I’m very glad he agreed to be in the film because he lends a crucial and different point of view.

How do you connect the Media case with the contemporary stories of Wikileaks and Snowden? It feels like history repeating itself, but how do you think people can use the 1971 case to reflect on the more recent exposures?

A consistent theme — then and now — is how individuals take a stand at great risk to themselves and how their actions ultimately benefit democracy tremendously. Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. The Citizens’ Commission risked everything because they suspected the government was conducting illegal surveillance. And they were right. We are in the midst of the same discussion today.

The big question this film raises is, how can we be a democracy and a government by, of, and for the people when the government is operating in secret? In 1971, the FBI was actively working to dismantle dissent and illegal spying on Americans exercising their first amendment rights. That’s not how America is supposed to work. The FBI held all the power, and they got away with it because no one had any proof. That’s what’s so amazing about this story, it took a small group of committed citizens to expose the FBI’s illegal surveillance and intimidation. And we’ve seen that same motivation with more recent cases as well: everyday Americans who see something terribly wrong and choose to speak up.

A lot of people acknowledge that post 9/11 we lost many of the checks and balances that the government normally operates under. That was perhaps understandable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but, in hindsight, we probably lost too many, and it’s time for a fresh look. Lots of people, from the president on down, have acknowledged that there needs to be a re-calibration.

This is not about saying it’s a not a dangerous world. Threats of terrorism are very real. But we have to be vigilant about who conducts the surveillance and the extent of that surveillance. It’s about effective oversight.

Governments should not spy on law-abiding citizens — whether it’s Hoover’s FBI or today’s NSA. It’s up to all of us to help preserve democracy in America and prevent unwarranted government intrusion into our lives. I’m thrilled that the film is airing on PBS where hopefully it can help stimulate a robust and thorough discussion about this difficult balancing act.

John and Bonnie Raines and their children, early 1970s.
John and Bonnie Raines and their children, early 1970s

What was the most surprising revelation to you when you put this story together?

There were many small surprising things, like the fact that Bonnie was never a suspect in the FBI’s investigation — all the other members of the group were suspects — but Bonnie was the only person the FBI had a sketch of because she visited the office.

One of the documents they took had explicit instructions on how agents should celebrate Hoover’s birthday. One has to assume that if a small office like Media had a document like that every office did.

But hands down the most surprising revelation was the fact that the Media break-in could have been prevented. In the fall before the burglary, Tom Lewis, the head agent in the Media office, feeling there was an urgent need for security in the office, which basically had none, requested an alarm system — that request was turned down by none other than future “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt. At the time Felt was one of Hoover’s most trusted advisors and head of the bureau’s Inspection Division. He evaluated how all the field offices were run (and the requirements for how offices should be run were stringent). He refused Lewis’ request, saying that because the Media office was relatively close to a police station, a burglar alarm was not needed. Those details were not in Felt’s official report on the burglary. Felt’s goals at the time of the burglary, and later when he wrote his memoir, seemed to be to scapegoat Tom Lewis. He accused Lewis of being negligent about security but did not relay Lewis’s request for the alarm.

Hoover reacted in a draconian fashion to punish Lewis, who was suspended without pay for a month and then transferred to Atlanta. This meant that shortly after the burglary the agent who knew the most about the office and the area was unable to contribute to the investigation. Hoover’s harsh treatment of Lewis was widely considered excessive. Lewis’s move to Atlanta was a tremendous hardship for him and his young family.

We found out about the alarm request through a retired agent from the Media office. We found this agent mid-way through making the film. I was thrilled when we found him because I was really eager to include a voice from at least one of the agents from the Media office. All the senior agents had either passed away or were unable to speak on camera due to ill health. He spoke to Betty not for attribution, but after we spoke on the phone several times he ultimately declined to speak to me on camera. It is one of my great regrets, to this day. And this is why this part of the story is not in the film.

It’s quite striking to think that just one year later Felt would become a confidential source in the stories that revealed President Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate crimes and contributed to bringing down the president. Just a year before he had hidden his own role in contributing to the Media office’s being vulnerable to a break-in. The Media burglary might never have happened without Deep Throat!

looking at an FBI "COINTELPRO" file stolen from Media FBI office

What projects are you working on next?

While I was making 1971, I swore that the next film I made I would be able to talk about openly; I’d be able to crowdfund it. For now, all the projects I’m thinking about are not far enough along to talk about publicly — and believe me, it’s not because I want to be secretive! That said the subject that has me most engaged is very thematically consistent with my previous work. It chronicles the a story of a courageous individual who stood up, worked extremely hard against great odds, and directly affected the lives of thousands of people facing enormous hardship. I look forward to talking about it a lot more in the months to come.

Learn more about 1971 >>

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.