LA Times: For the subjects of ‘1971,’ being Snowden before Snowden

By Stephen Zeitchik


John and Bonnie Raines were an ordinary young married couple in the early 1970s, raising three children in a Philadelphia suburb, he a college professor and she a homemaker. John had been a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, and he and his wife each attended anti-war protests.  But neither showed a particular predilection for radicalism.

Yet as the Vietnam War raged, the Raineses decided to undertake actions that belied their unassuming lives: to plot to break into an FBI office

“She was a lot more enthusiastic‎ than I was,” said John Raines, 81. “I was dragged along by her enthusiasm.”

“He had more sleepless nights,” Bonnie Raines, 73, said with a laugh, departing briefly from her quiet, no-nonsense manner for dry understatement.

The Raineses are the subjects of a new movie, “1971,” that documents the actions they and several other unlikely radicals took that year in the name of throwing light on what they believed were illegal and intrusive government activities.

Led by Haverford physics professor Bill Davidon, the group’s aim was to break into a comparatively lightly guarded office in Media, Penn., to obtain proof of a part of J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous counterintelligence COINTELPRO program.

As demonstrated in Hamilton’s movie — now playing in Los Angeles and set for a run on PBS in May — the so-called Citizens’ Commission to investigate the FBI carefully plotted over months to steal the files that detailed spying on the legal anti-war activities of ordinary Americans. By making the FBI program known via the press, the Raineses and their cohorts hoped, those overreaches would become known and corrected.

The idea basically was to provide damning proof of U.S. government malfeasance than the more ceremonial burning of draft cards and other methods in vogue at the time.

The Raineses’ roles were significant: Another other things, she went undercover to scout out the office during the planning stage, even meeting agents in plain sight, while he drove the getaway car the night of the break-in. The raid was planned in their Germantown, Penn., home.

Those efforts bore fruit. The documents would come to show that Hoover had ordered a surreptitious infiltration of the protests both to harass those engaging in legal anti-war activities and to deter others from joining them. The spying, read the line in one memo, “will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

“1971” mixes more traditional interviews and thriller-like reenactments to tell its story. The actual break-in, staged on a March night when much of the country was distracted by “the Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, is a white-knuckler as the group is nearly caught.

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LA Times: ‘1971’ recalls burglary that birthed America’s ‘big brother’

By Kenneth Turan


“1971” is an appropriately matter-of-fact title for a decidedly low-key documentary. But don’t mistake a lack of flash for an absence of substance. The story told here couldn’t be more significant or more timely.

As directed by Johanna Hamilton (who co-produced the excellent “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”), “1971” tells all about a half-forgotten clandestine event that took place on the night of March 8 of that year, an incident that had a more enduring impact than even its participants anticipated.

While much of America was watching the long-awaited heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a group of men and women broke into an FBI office in Media, Penn., a small town near Philadelphia, and walked out with every file in the place, more than 1,000 documents all told.

This group, which called itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, did more than take the documents, they sent the most incriminating to members of Congress and key media outlets. Only the Washington Post allowed its reporter, Betty Medsger, to publish the contents of what was unabashedly stolen material, and the results were incendiary.

For what those Media documents revealed was the first proof of the extent of government snooping on, and intimidation of, ordinary citizens, revelations that led to the first congressional investigation of intelligence organizations.

More than that, those documents led, a year later, to a Freedom of Information search initiated by NBC News’ Carl Stern that revealed how the bureau threatened and coerced activists like Martin Luther King Jr. through a shocking program called COINTELPRO.


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Huffington Post: Interview with director Johanna Hamilton

‘1971’ Film Tells Story Of FBI Office Break-In


Watch video of live Huffington Post interview with ‘1971’ director Johanna Hamilton, originally aired on March 11, 2015.

Philadelphia Inquirer: ‘1971’ Looks at Infamous FBI Burglary

by Gary Thompson


“”1971” moves briskly through the efficient planning and execution – selecting the soft target of a bureau branch office in Media, waiting until the night of the Ali-Frazier fight, making off with the files, mailing them to news organizations.

Elements of this are amusing – Bonnie Raines cases the office as a college “co-ed” reporting a campus-paper story on opportunities for women, exploiting the bureau’s obvious chauvinism. It worked. She was the one member of the eight-person team who was never considered a suspect. Apparently, investigators couldn’t get past that homemaker facade.

This is fun, but the movie is perhaps most interesting for the way it examines the group’s collective on-the-lam cool. The politics of surveillance may not have changed much, but you can see that the culture has.

They have none of the self-dramatizing posture of the anti-war activist or modern hacker so often celebrated in (pardon the pun) the media.

They did one job, did it well, watched the collapse of Hoover’s regime and got on with their “normal” lives. Even today they look like folks you’d see in the landscape department of Home Depot.

No book tour, no gloating, no social-media high-fiving. Instead, there is introspection. They still regret placing their children’s upbringing at risk, and one still worries that fall-out from the burglary’s revelations have contributed to a toxic public cynicism.

That’s an interesting take: That today’s jaded citizenry is beyond surveillance-state outrage because they are beyond shock.”


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The Independent: Johanna Hamilton documentary reveals how citizen burglars broke into FBI office and exposed huge abuse and public surveillance

By Andrew Buncombe.

They are older now, some of them are frail. One has passed away.

But more than 40 years ago they were involved in an unlikely, unprecedented break-in at an FBI office and the release to the media of thousands of pages of documents that revealed staggering institutional abuse. Their effort to reveal the extent of government snooping preceded by four decades that of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The eight members of the group, which called itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, were never identified, despite a huge man-hunt, and they swore themselves to secrecy. These days, few people even know about the break-in.

Last year the veil slipped, at least for some of them, with the publication of a book by the Washington Post journalist who in 1971 was the first to publish the information the group obtained. Now, the five members of the group who have been identified and their remarkable story is to receive a wider audience with the release in the US this weekend of the documentary 1971 by British filmmaker Johanna Hamilton. [READ FULL ARTICLE HERE]

Film Journal Review: 1971

By Doris Toumarkine.

Highly engaging International Documentary Association award winner about the headline-grabbing 1971 anti-war Media, Pa. FBI office break-in is a skillfully mounted amalgam of familiar genre elements that benefits mightily from superb re-enactments, the palpable integrity of its activist band of break-in artists, and some Rififi-like suspenseful moments.

Filmmaker Johanna Hamiliton achieves something quite special with 1971, which features the highly secretive activist coalition that called itself “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” coming forward to tell their story for the first time. The film rewards viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with the historic break-in and ensuing exposé that lead to revelations of illegal FBI tactics (intimidations, violations of First Amendment rights) in the Bureau’s efforts to stem dissent. The break-in also brought about Congress’ first investigation into these illicit intelligence agency operations and spurred closer oversight.

For those of a certain age and leftist bent, there’s an additional bonus of nostalgia for a year when anti-war (and civil rights) activism and government paranoia about that activism were peaking. Many decades before the Edward Snowden digital “break-in,” NSA and WikiLeaks scandals and even a year or so shy of Watergate, the eight activists in Philadelphia, suspecting FBI malfeasance, met secretly to plan their counteroffensive. [READ FULL ARTICLE HERE]

New York Times: In ‘1971,’ Stolen Files Reveal Spying on Antiwar Activists

By Stephen Holden.

In the age of encryption, computer hacking, WikiLeaks and Edward J. Snowden, the theft of typewritten government documents from an unlocked file cabinet 44 years ago by ordinary citizens may seem quaint.

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.

The uproar that followed was enormous. The F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, then so powerful that even presidents feared him, was apoplectic. He was behind Cointelpro, short for Counterintelligence Program, which was later revealed to have secretly collected information on civil rights activists and any group the F.B.I. deemed potentially subversive, with the intent to intimidate and disrupt them. The illegal program had been operating since 1956. [READ FULL ARTICLE HERE]

The New Yorker: 1971

by Richard Brody.

This documentary, by Johanna Hamilton, unpacks a crucial but little-known episode in modern political and journalistic history. On March 8, 1971, eight antiwar activists broke into a small F.B.I. office in the aptly named town of Media, Pennsylvania, and stole files showing that the government was trying to suppress legitimate dissent; they mailed copies to the Washington Post, which, despite government pressure, reported on them. The eight perpetrators were never found; here, Hamilton films five of them admitting to the break-in for the first time and describing their actions in detail. The story, including its cat-and-mouse aftermath, adds the intricate excitement of a thriller to righteous historical outrage…[READ FULL ARTICLE]

Flavorwire: February 2015 Indie Movies to See

By Jason Bailey. In March of 1971, a group of antiwar protestors called “The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every file in the joint. Among them were detailed descriptions of the agency’s surveillance and penetration into various “subversive” organizations — y’know, like antiwar groups, civil rights leaders, and women’s liberation organizations. The most incendiary items were sent to media outlets, resulting in the first congressional investigation of the FBI and a healthy shot of pre-Watergate government distrust among constituents. It’s a killer story, all but forgotten today, but this isn’t just a dry document. Director Johanna Hamilton supplements the customary archival footage and talking heads (many of them the perpetrators of the burglary, who were never caught) with slick and successful reenactments that configure the picture as both a political thriller and a heist movie (on fight night, even!). It works both as a “tick-tock” and as history; 1971 is as riveting as it is thoughtful and introspective.

Full article here.