"1971" Documents FBI’s Domestic Spying
At Tropic Cinema’s 4 Nights 4 Justice
Exclusive interview by Shirrel Rhoades
You may think Deep Throat was the whistleblower who changed the way the media looked at government, resulting in the Washington Post taking off its kid’s glove to report on Watergate. Truth is, there was one whistleblower event -- less heralded -- that came earlier.
In 1971, a Washington Post reporter named Betty Medsger began receiving copies of files stolen in a burglary of an FBI office outside of Philadelphia. J. Edgar Hoover was incensed and launched what was one of the biggest manhunt in FBI history -- but the perpetrators were never identified.
A tell-all documentary titled "1971" will be showing Monday night at 6 p.m. the Tropic Cinema, the second entry in this year’s 4 Nights 4 Justice series, sponsored by a grant from the Mike Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment and others.
Producer-director-writer Johanna Hamilton will be on hand to answer questions from the audience.
"1971" tells the story of eight concerned citizens -- known to the media as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI -- who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, and stole all the files. Five of them appear on camera.
Among the documents released to newspapers was a reference to COINTELPRO, a program of domestic spying by the FBI. This was long before Edward Snowden (who coincidentally called himself "Citizenfour") blew the whistle on NSA’s domestic surveillance programs.
Back then newspapers didn’t publish stolen government documents. But Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee convinced owner Katherine Graham to go with the story ... even before Woodward and Bernstein discovered their own Deep Throat (assistant FBI director Mark Felt as it turned out).
Twenty years later Betty Medsger was having dinner with two old friends -- John and Bonnie -- in Philadelphia when the husband accidentally blurted out that they were two of the eight burglars who had sent her the stolen documents. "She fell off her chair," says Johanna Hamilton.
Medsger decided to write a book ("The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI") that identified five of the burglars the FBI couldn’t catch (the agency quietly closed the investigation in 1976 and the statute of limitations has run out).
So when she asked her longtime friend Johanna Hamilton, a British journalist transplanted to the States, if she wanted to do a documentary about it, Hamilton jumped onboard.
Medsger had turned up seven members of Citizens’ Committee, but the eighth had disappeared. "Judi had gone off the grid and we couldn’t locate her," says Hamilton. "After we’d completed the film, she got in touch. Turns out she had gone underground, living under an assumed identity for many years."
They had played their roles in exposing domestic spying by the FBI. When Hoover died, his secretary Helen Grundy, with the help of a young agent, shredded 28 file cabinets filed with documents that resulted from this illegal surveillance program.
This was before we ever heard of Deep Throat or Edward Snowden.