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. governments
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.
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 didnt 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 Americas 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 Posts editor
and publisher to kill her story. Fortunately, the executives didnt
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 films 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.
to 1971, these courageous whistle-blowers have finally been able to tell
their remarkable story.