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1971: Analogue heroes

Forty years ago, a group of Americans broke into an FBI office and leaked proof of citizen surveillance to the press. Johanna Hamilton sets her camera on these unsung whistleblowing heroes. 1971 premieres at Arsenal tonight, Thu, Nov 20 at 19:00.

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Forty years before Snowden, a group of eight American citizens broke into an FBI office and leaked documents giving evidence of unlawful surveillance of US citizens to the press. Ring a bell? Filmmaker Johanna Hamilton sets her camera on these unsung whistleblowing heroes. 1971 premieres at Arsenal tonight, Thursday, November 20 at 7pm.

On March 8, 1971, as most (male) eyes are fixed on a championship boxing match between Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali, a small group of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI break into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and steal 1000 documents, which they mail to selected Democratic leaders and newspapers. All return the stolen papers to the FBI, but journalist Betty Medsger breaks the scandal in the Washington Post: the FBI is illegally spying on pacifist activists – from the black civil rights movement to Women’s Lib and anti-war groups – by using unwarranted surveillance and systematic infiltration, in a programme known as COINTELPRO. The unprecedented scandal sparks the boundless wrath of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Yet, the ‘burglars’ are never caught, and their identity remains a mystery for over 40 years.

Hamilton brings six of the modest whistleblowers before her camera, inviting them to reminisce on the events preceding and following the break-in in a captivating piece of historical-political drama.

How did you come across this story?

I’ve known Betty [Medsger] since I moved to New York. It’s a friendship that goes back 15-16 years. She told me about how she was researching this incredible story in which she was a protagonist. They had sent the documents to her. It was an exciting story for a number of reasons. I had personally been interested in the late 1960s, early 1970s, in the Vietnam War and the government’s conduct in the war since I was a teenager. And getting to work with a veteran journalist whom I liked enormously on a personal level, and whom I admired on a professional level. And this scoop: these people were going to be revealing themselves for the first time. We had complications, because we wanted to keep the story very quiet. It was difficult raising money for an independent film for a first-time filmmaker with a story that you can’t really talk about.

At which point did you know you were making the film?

Over the course of the years, I’d say to her, “Let me know when you’re ready to make the film.” She was so deeply engaged in her research that she literally wasn’t ready to hear that for many years. About five years ago I got a phone call from her and she said, “Are you serious about this film?” So she facilitated a meeting with four of the burglars and their lawyer, all of whom are in the film. I went down to Philadelphia and I met with them. Two days later I got a phone call from one of them who said, “Yes, we’d like to work with you.” So at that point I knew that I had the access.

So as Betty Mesdger was writing her book about them, you decided to get the story on camera?

The book and the film were made simultaneously, but Betty had been working on her book a lot longer. Two of them had revealed themselves to her in the early 1990s. She started researching the book, gathering all the FBI files, and shared the story with me in early 2000. For the past four years she and I were meeting and working together every 10 days. We’d email every single day. She’d share drafts of the book, I’d show her cuts of the film.

Who were the first two burglars Betty found and how did she find them?

The married couple, John and Bonnie [Raines] – she actually found them by chance! Before being at The Washington Post she had worked at a newspaper in Philadelphia, and it turns out she already knew them – she had interviewed John many years before. They knew her work and followed her, so when it came to that time, they knew they wanted to send her the documents. She was at a journalism conference in Philadelphia and went for dinner at their house and over the course of the dinner it slipped out almost by accident. They said to their children, “We want to meet the journalist Betty, because 20 years ago we found these documents we thought the American public should see, and we sent them to her.” She was amazed. She almost fell on the floor.

So, that’s how she got the idea for her book?

She basically came back and asked, “What do you think about a book?” They said okay, and they agreed to look for the other members of the group because they hadn’t been in touch with each other for over 15 years. They got some legal advice: there were some risks, but it was probably okay. It was on that basis that five of them decided that they would use their real names in the book. And then it was a long time till I came around wanting to make the film, so they had had many years to get used to the fact that they were coming out. So it wasn’t such a stretch in the end to go on camera. The other two, who are under pseudonyms in the book, have very personal reasons for not being in the film. I tried to persuade them, but they refused. [Since then, one has come out!]

But they can’t be prosecuted anymore, right? At the end of the film, you say the case was closed in 1976.

Five years after [1971], the case was closed. That was the clearest indication that the FBI wouldn’t do anything. The statute of limitations on burglary was five years, and for theft of government property it was also five years. If they had been caught back in the day, it would have been drastic what would have happened to them. Hoover wanted to charge them with espionage, the same charges pressed against Chelsea Manning. Daniel Ellsberg was charged with espionage, and they were seeking a sentence of over 100 years with him. In the post-September 11 legal framework, where the laws had changed, it was unlikely but not completely out of the realm of possibility that they would revisit the case. And there could have been a charge of espionage that we didn’t know about that was still lingering within the files of the Department of Justice. There is no statute of limitations for espionage charges. .

What do you think motivated these five people to tell their story 40 years later?

Two reasons, really. They still feel very passionate at heart about being active and engaged citizens, at least four of them. And I think they feel that the country has very much changed since 1970. Some feel strongly that it’s a better place, others feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done. They feel there’s a good story to be told, there’s a cautionary tale to be told. There’s an inspirational story to be told. Then there’s the story of Bill, who was the leader of the group. We knew Bill was ill at the start of the making of the film and he died just before the film came out, which was incredibly sad. They all say very strongly that this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for him. He was a very discreet, hard-working guy, who felt passionately that when faced with injustice you have to act.

Bill Davidon was a very inspiring figure…

Exactly. They wanted to tell that story for his sake. There are lots of extraordinary stories from that time, people doing inspirational things. But he’s very little known, as is this whole incident. There were thousands of people, but not thousands of people like Bill.

It seems so incredible that they never told anyone. In our digital era, when most people feel the need to brag about everything over social media, you would think they would want some recognition for the amazing risks they took.

You would think so. It’s inconceivable today, isn’t it?  I constantly marvelled how they never spoke about it. Obviously John and Bonnie have each other, and every year on the anniversary they drink champagne. But they never told anyone. There was this amazing absence of ego.

This was really the pre-digital era. They actually went and stole physical files, which seems so old-school. And they were never caught. Maybe the authorities weren’t as good at catching people as they would be now….

That’s right. Today they would have been caught in a second. There are so many reasons that they were not caught. One of the principle reasons was that there were so many activists, particularly in Philadelphia, so the FBI was inundated with possible suspects. The same with photocopying. There were well over a thousand copy machines active in Philadelphia at that time. So they were just overwhelmed with the potential amount of evidence. But they could have gotten caught, so there was a lot of luck. There was the sketch that the FBI drew up of Bonnie, the one person after the event that they realised they had actually laid eyes on, but they made the decision not to distribute t to the media. And that was because Hoover was so embarrassed by the break-in that he didn’t want to draw further attention to the burglary. He wanted to keep the investigation very quiet. Today that would be unheard of. You remember what happened with the Boston Marathon suspect? He was found. I’m not drawing an analogy between the two because we need to emphasise the fact that our burglars were not terrorists. But today that would just never happen. They would distribute a picture immediately, whether she would have been handed in would be a different question because there were so many people sympathetic to their cause, but who knows?

So for those five years they lived in the fear that someone could knock on their door at any time and drag them away?

Depends who you talk to. John and Bonnie: yes.

Because of their kids, and they were a bit older…

That’s right. I think with Bill, he came to realise that he hadn’t given enough thought to his family and he regretted that later in his life. We have an interview which we didn’t include in the film, a very touching conversation with his daughter about how Bill felt very badly about that. Keith and Barb were quite extraordinary, they just said, “You know, we moved right along.”

In the movie one of them says, “We were young, we were immortal.”

There are a lot of 20-year-olds who feel like that. Some of the people who participated in some of the denial of service attacks, when Wikileaks was being denied, when a lot of the world heard about Anonymous for the first time. I think a lot of those people were teenagers or in their twenties and didn’t imagine that they would be arrested. I don’t think they realised the power that they had.

And when it comes to the outcome, that’s pretty interesting as well, because we see a lot of different levels. For the first time ever there were actually congressional hearings about what intelligence agencies were doing… an older Democratic representative talked about “how we shall ensure that it never happens again”. But the outcome was… well, temporary.

I imagined that they would have a say about it. John and Bonnie are still very politically active. They feel like there is still a lot of work to be done, it’s up to the next generation to pick up the baton and run with it. Keith feels that the country is a much better place than it was 40 years ago. Bob feels the most ambivalent of all. He doesn’t regret what they did back then. But he thinks that the consequences of what they did are much more complicated.

He’s the one who says, “We were these ordinary people who got together and did extraordinary things. We meant well, but there were these unintended consequences…” He says that basically that cynicism increased and he feels bitter about it.

Yes, he feels that they contributed to that increase in cynicism greatly. And that is perhaps very true.  It was an age of loss of innocence for America. There were many actions at the time that helped contribute to that. Seymour Hersh was reporting on the fact that the CIA was spying on people domestically, which was also against the law, and then you had Watergate… all of these things coalescing a year or two years after the break-ins. The veil was falling from people’s eyes. People were, for the first time, mistrustful of their government.

You show this in the film, this amazing trust in the FBI back then. That definitely feels like a different era.

Exactly. I think it’s incredible that one person would be the head of the FBI for almost 50 years, until they died in office. After Hoover died, they put in the term limits. Now the FBI director has a 10-year term.

What was the actual outcome of this break-in and the revelations that followed?

The FBI came up with guidelines that they attempted to adhere to. There was also the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up the court that people have to go to if they want to get a warrant to surveil people. There were many safeguards that were put in place in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, almost as soon as they were put in place they started to get repealed, already under Ronald Reagan, but very dramatically after 9/11. We sort of knew it was happening again, but it was only when Snowden came along that we had absolute confirmation.

And I feel there is an analogy between the two actions. They’re not the same, but they’re same in providing empirical evidence that these things were happening. Bill, who was a scientist, felt that the American public wouldn’t believe it until they had proof – and then they got it.

I found the similarity to be really striking. They both were providing evidence that intelligence agencies were out of control, abusing their power over normal citizens. Back then black civil rights activists were singled out, now it’s Muslims. Each era has its own targets.

You’re right, the targets shift. The methods are updated, but they stay the same… Getting towards the end of my film, when the lights come up, people want to know what they can do. I think Laura Poitras hopes Citizenfour will make people feel differently about how they can engage digitally. In my case it’s a throwback to a different age, but I feel that the “Citizens” feel the same way. I feel it is very easy in this day and age to feel cynical, to throw up your hands and say there is nothing that you can do and despair: the NSA is all-seeing and all-pervasive. But I do feel that there are certain instances, still today, where people can have an impact if they raise their voices, and I think that all of the subjects in my film would say the same thing.

I looked at lists of whistleblowing acts over history: After 1968, it’s really the heyday of engagement and from the Pentagon Papers to Deep Throat, many whistleblowers came forward. Around the same time. But then it kind of fizzled out.

Back in the 1960s there were probably more engaged people, which is why there were so many suspects. There were different reasons for it: there was the draft, the Vietnam War, the possibility that you could go to that war. Today people feel much more disengaged from the wars which are going on around the world.

Interestingly, older people who lived through that era, veterans from the military, the CIA or the NSA, these are the people looking back and saying “what’s going on?”, raising the alarm on the blanket consensus in the US right now, as if people couldn’t bother questioning anything anymore… 

And you have this digital convenience. Jacob Appelbaum talks about this a lot. Everybody carries around these tracking devices in their pockets because it’s so convenient. So we are totally complicit in giving up some of our own privacy and some of our rights.

What about the role of the media in whistleblowing? In your film, they send those documents to different newspapers and everyone sends them back to the FBI. It takes one courageous, enlightened person, who is Betty, to convince The Washington Post.

It actaully wasn’t hard for her. She speaks about this very openly. She realised that the documents were really important. They corroborated that they were actually authentic. She was just writing her story at her desk, on the phone, talking to sources and didn’t realise there was a big fight going on upstairs with Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Betty says it would never have happened without Ben Bradlee.

Snowden didn’t choose a medium, but people he could trust, which is interesting. You feel it’s impossible to trust a newspaper any more.

That’s why he tried Glenn Greenwald and then got Laura Poitras. But they felt they needed the backing of a bigger institution like The Guardian.

Do you think today they would have chosen a different medium like Wikileaks?

It’s hard to say. I think they felt ambivalent about Wikileaks, because Wikileaks published everything in an uncensored way. I definitely heard them say that publicly. They were certainly in favour of the general agenda, but when Wikileaks published the Afghan files uncensored and there was a possibility that some sources might be in danger, I think they felt ambivalent about that.

What’s amazing about your film is that most people didn’t know a thing about this incredible whistleblowing story…

We were trying to fill this historical hole. Nobody knew about this incident. A very small number of people knew about the effect of the break-in, and that this one break-in had led to the revelations on COINTELPRO.

It’s not even listed on Wikipedia’s lists of whistleblowing scandals.

It takes time to work its way into the history books. Snowden has come through in such a big way, because he revealed himself. If they had been caught or revealed themselves they would have gone to prison for a long time. And everyone would know about them, but they weren’t interested in that. Perhaps there’s a trade-off. Fortunately they were able to get the word out and the documents made their way through the system

What’s really amazing in the case of Snowden, but also in the case of people like John and Bonnie, is how they’re ready to sacrifice so much, for the sake of the common good.

I think that is something that characterises all activists who commit these acts of courage. You have to have this level of conviction that you are doing what is right, and that you will put everything on the line. These guys, the Citizen’s Commission, were not foolish. It was very carefully thought through. They were very careful with the files that they took. They didn’t release files about the investigations that the FBI should have been engaged in. They thought very carefully about what they would do if The Washington Post didn’t publish. And from everything that I’ve heard, Snowden was remarkably thought-through as well. It takes months of preparation to be able to execute something in a responsible way.

John and Bonnie are parents and they recounted how people keep asking them how they could take the risk… a real dilemma. You’re also a parent.

I’ve asked myself, would I have acted the way they did? I like to think I would have, but I know that I couldn’t. After screenings, John often says now that after you become a parent you actually have a double responsibility. You have a responsibility to your children, and you have a responsibility to leave them a better place. I think that’s what every parent would like to do. They just took it to a different degree than most people would. And thankfully they didn’t spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Snowden wanted to show that he was a real person. And that’s what you’re doing 40 years later with the people in your film. When an anonymous person leaks something, you can’t relate to it as much. You show that they were actual people. 

It’s very easy to see them in an inspirational role, as heroes, as non-threatening – as grey-haired people. They’re like us. They’re genuine people.