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

Surveillance camera peering into laptop computer
Surveillance camera peering into laptop computer

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; 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 FBI 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 1 percent of the files covered organized crime, by comparison. This shockingly showed the what the priorities of the FBI 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 FBI 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 FBI 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 was 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 FBI and the documentary film 1971 describe the same historic events, a break-in of the FBI 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 was 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 a while.

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 a while 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, 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. 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.

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