Before Snowden: Documentary Film, 1971, Tells the Story of the Original Whistleblowers

It’s been nearly a year since Edward Snowden exposed deeply-kept secrets of the United States Government and the NSA. But Snowden’s actions are nothing new.

In 1971, 8 anti-war activists broke into an FBI Field office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole hundreds of files, and systematically mailed the files to newspapers and political leaders to expose the illegal surveillance of citizens by the United States Government. 

Credit: 1971

In Johanna Hamilton’s 1971, the identities of many of these activists are revealed for the first time in a documentary highlighting the initial planning, execution, and aftermath of their findings. Set against the height of the Vietnam war, we meet activists Bill Davidon, Keith Forysth, Bob Wiliamson, Bonnie and John Raines, as they describe a Philadelphia that is highly political and rife with protests. Though they come from different backgrounds, they all are politically active in protesting the ongoing war, and are becoming increasingly weary of the presence of FBI agents among the antiwar and civil rights activists. “I was ready to make a transition from nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption,” John Raines says in the film. 

Inspired by an earlier, and ultimately failed, attempt in Rochester, New York, Davidon, A Haverford College professor, is inspired to expose the FBI, knowing that, “Even the President of the United States was afraid of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.”  He organized a group of 8 activists (originally 9, but one dropped out last minute) and they called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Expose the FBIDavidon was the ring-leader, Forsyth, the lock pick, Williamson and John Raines helped with crucial reconnaissance, and Bonnie Raines gained critical access to the the internal workings of the FBI offices.

Credit: 1971

After the break-in, there was little national attention, but the group carefully sifted through the files. “I think we dedicated two paragraphs to the break-in,” recalls Washington Post reporter, Betty Medsger, “so when these files landed on my desk a few weeks later, I was very surprised.” The group uncovered memos instructing agents to infiltrate universities, non-violent African American student groups, and among other groups, the Boy Scouts, to keep tabs on any “Communist, Socialist, or dissident groups.” 

The group uncovered pages of damaging material, but in what would become most damning, the group uncovered documents suggesting a massive surveillance program known as “COINTELPRO - New Left," a series of covert projects issued by Hoover and conducted by the FBI aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. 

Credit: 1971

After publication by Medsger and the Washington Post, what occurred was nothing short of a fallout. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI offices, and their agents came under direct fire for allowing these programs to occur. Media outrage followed the release of these documents, and the full scope of the surveillance program eventually surfaced. Congressional action became inevitable and, as a result of these revelations and Watergate, The Church Committee was formed to investigate the American Intelligence Agencies. Ultimately, the committee passed legislation that limited the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies.

Though the Citizens’ Commission to Expose the FBI lead to the first time the government sought to limit the power of the FBI and their surveillance programs, the consequences still linger. Until 9/11, the FBI had a more limited scope in their ability to spy on US citizens and, even more so now, citizens know to question the actions of the United Stations Government. But, perhaps most importantly, a question still remains in 2014: Is illegal activity justified if it's used to expose the potentially further-reaching and more devastating illegal activity of the United States Government and its agencies?

Laced with archival footage from the days of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the resulting Congressional Hearings, as well as clips from the activists, 1971 is a fast-paced thriller based on a larger-than-life story that is worth a trip to the theaters to see.  It's up to the audience, however, to decide if these activists, and those that follow, are national heroes or merely a band of rogue outlaws.

The film isn't here to touch on the moral grounds of the actions of the activists, but these questions will remain relevant as we continue into an era with increased surveillance, increased questioning of the government, and an increase in whistleblowing. 

Learn how you can see the film here.