Stolen Documents That Cast a Spotlight on Surveillance

Published on: February 8, 2015

Filed Under: Featured, Film, Reviews

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The article originally appeared at www.nytimes.com

But on the evening of March 8, 1971, while much of America was distracted by the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, burglars broke into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Media, Pa., and stole files that revealed the bureau’s unlawful surveillance of antiwar activists. Photocopies were mailed anonymously to three major newspapers, including The New York Times, but only The Washington Post published anything from the files.

A stolen document that names Cointelpro, the secret surveillance arm of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. Credit: Andreas Burgess

F.B.I. agents combed neighborhoods in eastern Pennsylvania seeking the culprits, who were never found. If caught and convicted, the group of eight, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the F.B.I., could have faced long prison sentences. Their names became public in 2014 with the release of Johanna Hamilton’s documentary “1971” and a book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by the reporter who initially covered the story.

Ms. Hamilton’s straightforward documentary skillfully interweaves reminiscences by members of the group with re-enactments of the burglary. The F.B.I.’s frantic reaction sounds almost like a Keystone Kops comedy in which 150 agents, many poorly disguised as hippies, saturated the Philadelphia suburbs and went knocking on doors.

It is theorized that the manhunt ended only after the arrest of the Camden 28, a group of antiwar activists who raided a draft board in Camden, N.J., later that same year. Since at least two of those 28, who were all acquitted, belonged to the Citizens’ Commission, it is presumed that the F.B.I. believed it had solved the case.

The actions of the Citizens’ Commission led directly to the Church Committee hearings, the country’s first Congressional investigation of American intelligence agencies. The principal talking heads in the film include Keith Forsyth, the lock picker for the Citizens’ Commission; Bob Williamson, who was also a member of the Camden 28; Bonnie and John Raines, who had three children at the time of the burglary and risked destroying their family for their principles; and Betty Medsger, the reporter and the author of “The Burglary.”

To a person, they are a thoughtful and articulate group. At the end of the movie, Mr. Williamson, when asked about the unintended consequences of the break-in, reflects sadly that it “raised the level of cynicism in the country.”

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