Review by Willard Manus

The tagline of the important new documentary film 1971 is “Before Watergate, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, there was Media, Pennsylvania.”
In 1971, a small group of political activists calling itself the Citizens’ Commission broke into an FBI office in the town of Media and removed a bunch of files which revealed the extent of the U.S. government’s secret surveillance of the American people. The activists then anonymously leaked the contents of these files to various journalists across the country, some of whom were brave enough to challenge the FBI to come clean about its role in the conspiracy. Of particular interest to the media was a major (and illegal) FBI program called COINTELPRO.

The brainchild of J. Edgar Hoover, it was aimed at curtailing the power of the New Left, which at the time included anti-Vietnam War protestors, Black Panthers, members of the ACLU, and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. The FBI didn’t just shadow these militants but used every dirty trick imaginable to smear and suppress them. The revelations led to the formation of the Church Committee, which held the first-ever congressional investigation into America’s intelligence agencies. F.A.O. Schwartz Jr, chief counsel to the Church Committee, appears in 1971 and talks about the inner workings of Cointelpro and about the impact it had on dissent in the USA. Ultimately, Congress passed legislation that curtailed some of the surveillance powers of the FBI, CIA and NSA.

Among the many other talking-heads in 1971 are two FBI agents and such journalists as Betty Medsger (Washington Post) and Carl Stern (NBC News). Medsger, who was the first reporter to receive the stolen documents, recalls how the Nixon administration tried to persuade the Post’s editor and publisher to kill her story. Fortunately, the executives didn’t cave in to the pressure. Her expose ran on the front page and triggered a national debate on privacy issues.

1971 gives most of its screen time to the surviving members of the Citizens’ Commission: Bill Davidon, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, Bonnie and John Raines. They describe how and why they decided to break into the FBI office and pilfer every file they could get their hands on. (The reenactment of the break-in is well handled by the film’s director, Johanna Hamilton). In all, ten thousand documents were taken. The FBI launched a massive investigation but could never find any of the culprits. They have remained silent and anonymous all these years--until Hamilton and her team found their way to them.

Now, thanks to 1971, these courageous whistle-blowers have finally been able to tell their remarkable story.