By Danny Peary
On March 8, 1971, on the night of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, eight young men and women broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Philadelphia, and carried away several hundred files in a few suitcases. They soon sent the files anonymously to a few journalists and liberal senators, making public the FBI’s secret program to spy on and intimidate civil rights activists and Vietnam War protestors. Their action would change the protocol of government surveillance until 9/11. Despite a huge FBI investigation, the eight activists were never caught and their identities were never revealed–until now. Johanna Hamilton’s new documentary, 1971, comes on the heels of a book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Hamilton’s friend and collaborator, former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger (who wrote extensively about the break-in). And it, too, had the full cooperation of nearly all the surviving burglars, who were known collectively as the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI. In fact, two key members, John and Bonnie Raines, made appearances when Hamilton (coproducer of the remarkable documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell) presented her new film at the recent TriBeCa Film Festival. To my mind, it was one of the most exciting moments at the festival. (I wasn’t at screenings when other Citizen’s members appeared.) A few days after the festival, Hamilton and I chatted over breakfast about her debut feature and her heroic subjects.
Danny Peary: When Pray the Devil Back to Hell was selected the best documentary at the 2008 TriBeCa Film Festival, I interviewed its director Gini Reticker, its producer Abigail Disney, and its subject Leymah Gbowee, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. But not you. So let’s start with your background. I know you lived in London. Were you born there?
Johanna Hamilton: Yes, I was born in the UK and lived there until I was ten. My dad worked for an international organization, so we moved to Switzerland. I went to an international high school there, then did my undergrad back in London at the University of London, studying history and French. I met my husband and after I graduated moved to South Africa, where he is from. We lived there for five years, during the transition from apartheid to democracy, which was incredibly exciting. I wanted to be a journalist. I had grown up on BBC, so in my mind I would be a researcher for historical documentaries. I was able to join a very small production company almost as soon as I arrived, and I ended up doing everything. It was just an incredible time when everybody and everything was accessible and open, so we got to do all these wonderful stories. I worked on the equivalent of 60 Minutes, which was great training.
DP: Did you know the music from Rodriguez that’s in Searching for Sugarman?
JH: I didn’t, but my husband grew up on it in South Africa. There’s a clip in that movie of Rodriguez on a talk show. I worked on that show and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even pay attention to him at the time.
DP: When you were at the university, did you know you wanted to go into film?
JH: I was interested in documentaries, but I didn’t imagine myself actually making them just helping someone else making them. As a journalist my hope was to uncover remarkable stories of modern history.
DP: Were you political at the time?
JH: My interests tended to be toward politics. Most of my history classes were politically and economically inclined. At the time I met my future husband, I was taking a class with a very famous exiled historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. My husband has actually been interviewed in a variety of films because he was the executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I haven’t interviewed him but other people have.
DP: When did you move to New York?
JH: About fifteen years ago.
DP: How did you get involved with Pray the Devil Back to Hell?
JH:. I have a very dear friend, Kirsten Johnson, who’s my DP on 1971. She and I met a decade ago working on a PBS film. She was potentially going to be involved with Pray the Devil Back to Hell while it was in its formative stages and she suggested that I meet Gini Reticker because of my experience living in South Africa and working and traveling all over Africa.
DP: How do you become a co-producer?
JH: As the director, Gini needed somebody to help her make the film, so I was there in service of her vision. I did research but I was really assisting her in every possible way on an intellectual, substantive level, and a logistical level too.
DP: Were you thinking, at that point, that you’d learn a lot about politically-progressive filmmaking from Gini and Abigail Disney, the producer?
JH: Oh, definitely. I’d be facilitating, but also learning. I remembered that moment in time when Charles Taylor [the dictator of Liberia] resigned, and his infamous, “I’ll be back.” I remembered watching seeing him say that on television. So it fed directly into my interests, but I had never heard of Leymah Gbowee or the Muslim and Christian women who helped her bring about peace in Liberia and his downfall. We arrived there and everybody knew about “the women in white,” and yet there was really nothing written about them. So it was just an enormous privilege to help craft this story everyone knew but nobody had told before and inscribe it into the historical narrative of Liberia.
DP: That film came out in 2008. How did you make the transition the next year to start making your own film, 1971.
JH: On which Gini and Abby Disney are executive producers. On Pray the Devil I had a baby. So I had a small baby and was helping with outreach for Pray the Devil and doing research for my own project that I had been trying to get off the ground just prior to my working on Pray the Devil. I was going back to that when this story for 1971 came along.. I had been friends with Betty Medsger, the author and the journalist, for over a decade. I had met her just before I came to this country, so it had really been a long friendship. I was put in touch with her when I was in South Africa and applying to journalism school here in the States. I really wanted to come live in New York. My father-in-law had met Betty at a journalism conference in South Africa. He said, you know, you might want to talk to her, just for advice. So Betty and I started an email conversation back in the mid-’90s and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She wrote for The Washington Post in the early 1970s, but when I met her she lived in San Francisco and was a journalism educator at San Francisco State. After she retired she moved to New York, and we became closer friends. During all that time she had been researching and writing a book, The Burglary:The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, about the events in my movie. She had shared the outline of the story with me a few times.
DP: She was already thinking about writing her book when you started making your film?
JH: She was already researching this story because she was given the documents after the break-in in 1971. About 20 years after being given these documents by John and Bonnie Raines, they accidentally revealed themselves to her. It turned out they were acquaintances! Before going to the Post, Betty lived and worked in Philadelphia. So they knew each other vaguely, and John and Bonnie followed her career. That’s why she was one of three journalists they sent the documents to. Twenty years later, she came back for a journalism conference and she filled her time seeing friends and old acquaintances, including John and Bonnie. She went for dinner at their house, and at the end of this long meal, John just kind of blurted out that he and Bonnie were involved in the break-in and had sent her the documents. He hadn’t thought it through. He just called over one of their children and said, “You know, Mary, twenty years ago we had these really important documents and sent them to Betty.” Betty was just floored, she didn’t believe it. They had been anonymous sources all that time, and she couldn’t believe they had been acquaintances of hers. They stayed up all night talking about how they had done what they’d done, and she asked them to consider participating in the book. They agreed to help her find and communicate with all the others.
DP: Had she been trying to figure out who was behind the documents all those years?
JH: As she describes it, she didn’t really have a burning desire to know. Because she’d been part of this movement in Philadelphia, she figured it was somebody from that movement. She definitely wondered who sent her the documents, but she never had the urge to find out because she worried they would be arrested. I think she worried that she might be followed and didn’t want to lead anyone to them. Especially in the early seventies, that was definitely her fear. She taught the story in her journalism ethics class at San Francisco State, explaining what you should do if you receive stolen government documents.
DP: Did she want to do the book all those years?
JH: It was only after they revealed themselves that she thought about doing the book. She had a full-time job and was working on other things, so she worked on the book very slowly at first. It was periodic; she would do her research and then come back to them. In the past four years, she worked on it more frequently.
DP: There were eight people involved, and I guess they were all alive until Bill Davidon died in 2013…
JH: We never found the eighth person. We assume she’s still alive but we don’t know.
DP: Do you think she’s still hiding or just got married and disappeared?
JH: I’m not sure, but I assume the latter.
DP: For the book, did Betty make sure everybody else was on board?
JH: Absolutely. Betty had seven of the burglars for her book, two of whom participated anonymously and were given pseudonyms. I tried quite hard to get the two of them in front of the camera but they did not want to appear in the film for professional reasons.
DP: Betty’s book has come out and your movie has premiered, so was it important to coordinate your two projects?
JH: Absolutely. All along Betty and I had a collaboration agreement and made our best efforts to get the book release and movie premiere to coincide as closely as we could. We worked closely together and were in touch constantly. She was in her study writing, I was in the editing room and we would talk to one another twice a week at least. We also met regularly to discuss our latest research and where we were on our projects. She might talk about her timeline and I might update her on my funding.
DP: During the four years you worked on the book and film, you two kept both projects and the group secret although the five-year statute of limitations had run out and they could no longer be prosecuted.
JH: We didn’t think John and Bonnie Raines would be arrested for what happened in 1971, but we weren’t 100% sure. It was highly unlikely that anything was going to happen to them, but you never know. So we were incredibly careful. In fact, I encrypted my drive in case anybody came to visit. In terms of checking sources, Betty didn’t refer to any of them by name in her manuscript but gave them numbers. I adopted that same numbering system, and when we emailed or talked on the phone, we referred to the people by number.
DP: Looking back, were you being paranoid or correct?
JH: I think we were correctly cautious, in the absence of absolute knowledge, and I think that was the correct course of action. For sure Betty and I were more worried than they were. Everybody consulted lawyers. I had my own legal counsel. In the film I interview John and Bonnie’s lawyer, David Kairys, who’s on the longest no-fee retainer in history.
DP: What if two or three years into the book and film, John and Bonnie or one of the others worried about going public and told you not to proceed?
JH: That would have been a bit devastating, for sure, because we were all body and soul into it. But to be clear, Betty and I were always more concerned than they were about keeping silent. Their response was, we were ready then, we are ready now.
DP: In the press notes you state that the breaking into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 is “a little known but seminal event in contemporary American history.” Talk about that. Did you know about it? Showing my ignorance, I remember Hoover going down because it was revealed he was doing illegal domestic spying but I don’t remember the circumstances.
JH: It was because of the FBI files that were taken that night in Media. It was because of the eight activists who called themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI. We wouldn’t have known about any FBI spying if it hadn’t been for that break-in on March 8, 1971, and the disclosure of the hundreds of files that were taken. My feeling is that 99% of people who will see my film never heard of this incident. People in the movement in Philadelphia at the time know about the break-in, and every once in a while I’ve come across somebody who was very clued-in and remembers it. But it always surprised me when I come across those people. I have a small bookshelf full of FBI histories, and while the break-in is always mentioned, it’s mentioned in just a paragraph and there is no full exposition of its real importance. It’s the story that we tell now. Who were these people and what did they do? It was one the last mysteries from that time.
DP: So if not for your movie and the book, almost nobody would know about the story or its significance.
JH: Exactly. It’s fantastic and a total privilege to be able to tell that story.
DP: The break-in revealed that the FBI was spying on everybody and trying to intimidate civil rights activists and nonviolent war protestors. How did these eight people know they’d find such evidence when they broke in?
JH: They suspected what they might find but they didn’t know. So they risked everything on an action that was premised on a hunch. It was a well-educated hunch, but it was a hunch nonetheless and they could have come away completely empty-handed.
DP: It was a small office in Media, Pa. not the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., so why would it contain such damaging evidence against the organization?
JH: In truth the documents they found were very heavily focused on the Philadelphia area. There were documents that referenced other programs throughout the country, but those were far fewer. It was heavily concentrated on Philadelphia, because there were so many colleges around and Hoover was obsessed by what was going on campuses. So that fed into it. There was just an enormous amount of activity in that area. But while the documents they took were by and large focused on Philadelphia, they were emblematic of what was going on in the rest of the nation. That was really evident once Carl Stern took the baton.
DP: Carl Stern was an NBC journalist covering the Department of Justice. It says in the press notes: “On a chance visit to the Senate, he is given one of the Media documents with the heading ‘COINTELPRO—New Left.’ He asks the Department of Justice what the term means. After a protracted legal battle, 50,000 pages of documents emerge detailing the scope of COINTELPRO and the FBI’s dirty tricks. These revelations, along with Watergate, now make a Congressional investigation inevitable. The Church Committee [headed by liberal Idaho Senator Frank Church] is formed; it is the first-ever congressional investigation into American intelligence agencies.” At that time, everyone on the left knew the FBI was spying on civil rights and anti-war activists. Watergate was not a surprise to activists, but it was a surprise to the mainstream population. So what you’re saying is that Carl Stern revealed what the rest of us knew to the general population.
JH: That’s right. It was about exposing the FBI’s tactics to the general public. That was what Bill Davidon, the leader of the group, and the seven others felt very strongly about. All of them felt nothing was going to be done in Washington and no one was going to be held accountable.
DP: Was it them who revealed the counterintelligence program with the name COINTELPRO?
JH: People didn’t know about COINTELPRO, and what I always found extraordinary was that only one of the documents that they took from the Media office had that heading. And then almost a year later, once the documents were in the public domain, Carl Stern went to the Senate office doing something else, and he was handed this sheet of paper by some Senate staffer with the COINTELPRO heading. So he started asking, “What does this mean?” He read the document which basically was urging FBI agents to write anonymous letters to campus educators, urging them to take action against the New Left. Stern was a lawyer, the Department of Justice was his beat, and he was like, what right do FBI agents have to write anonymous letters? There was no writ in law that gave them that authority. That was what peaked his interest–there appears to be somebody breaking the law here, let me investigate. What did COINTELPRO mean? Nobody knew. But because he had the code name, he could ask the FBI what it meant. Without the document he wouldn’t have known what to ask for.
DP: I was surprised to learn that COINTELPRO started back in 1956.
JH: It was supposed to be about uncovering communists. It started with one program and then grew and grew and grew. When Fred Schwartz, the chief counsel for the Church Committee, says at the end of the film, that COINTELPRO was un-American and un-Constitutional, but that what it became was bound to happen when you have a program that at the outset is wrong and without oversight. It was bound to morph into something grotesque and incomprehensible. I think that we’re engaged in that same conversation today. The CIA and the Senate Committee are in the headlines again about oversight due to illegal spying History is repeating itself. But we’re at least having that conversation. I think that after 9/11, it was perhaps understandable that certain things were rolled back at the cost of civil liberties, but now, I think everyone from the President on down has acknowledged that we need to have a conversation about excesses still going on a decade later.
DP: After the break-in, the burglars sent the documents to three journalists and two senators?
JH: That’s right, George McGovern [who was the Senator from South Dakota and would run for President in 1972], and Parren Mitchell, from Maryland, who is in my film. They both sent the documents back to the FBI. Mitchell did read them and said, “It does appear that something illegal is going on here and it should be looked at.” But he sent them back, and did McGovern. And the journalists were Betty at the Washington Post, Jack Nelson at the LA Times, and Tom Wicker at the New York Times. It’s unclear whether Jack Nelson ever received the documents. Tom Wicker we’re not sure about, but we know the Times photocopied the documents and then returned the set they’d received to the FBI. At the Post, Betty was the only person who received them on her desk and didn’t give them back to the FBI.
DP: Was there a note with them?
JH: Yes, after the break-in. The note was a statement they gave to Reuters. It said something like, Dear Friend, we thought you might be interested in these documents, read on. And it gave the statement and there was a sheath of documents. By the time the Church Committee formed, J. Edgar Hoover was dead. For the Church Committee to happen when it happened and for the Watergate hearings, it was necessary for Hoover to be gone. [He died in May 1972.]
DP: In almost every fiction thriller, in theaters or on television, we see corrupt villains in the FBI, CIA, and police forces. People forget that before Watergate, there were no bad agents or policemen in the movies or on TV, unless they were single rogue individuals. It was one bad apple, it was never systematic.
JH: Yes, very true. There was a sense of knowing the FBI was breaking laws then, without the ability to prove it. And that’s precisely what the eight activists set out to do and did. It was an end of an era, a loss of innocence. I think it’s hard for people to believe even now. As we were finishing editing our movie, we were feeling tension about how and to what degree we make it contemporary. That’s when the Edward Snowden revelations happened.
DP: Well, the Snowden story makes it the perfect time for your film.
JH: The timing is remarkable. All along we might have been tempted to go in that direction. In 2011 I think it was Brian Williams on the evening news saying there were FBI raids across Michigan and Pennsylvania against environmental groups and animal rights groups. He said the tactics being used by the FBI were reminiscent of those used by the FBI in the 1970s. We thought the government’s tactics was very cyclical, but didn’t have an enormous amount of proof. Then Edward Snowden comes along, and now we have proof.
DP: WikiLeaks, too. Discussions about whistle-blowers always include the question: are they heroes or are they villains?
JH: It’s different with the FBI break-in because they’re not traditional whistle-blowers. They weren’t interested in being seen as heroes, and that’s part of the reason they were able to stay undetected.
DP: Another political film that played at the festival was the fictional Night Moves, about three extremists who blow up a dam and then feel paranoia about each other. It deals with the question: who can you trust? Do you think the eight activists constantly looked over their shoulders to see if anyone turned them in, particularly the ninth member of the group before he dropped out. The Camden 28 were arrested on the word of an informer.
JH: For the five years before the statute of limitations ran out, for sure. John and Bonnie were acutely aware of that five-year limit. I think Keith Forsyth and Bob Williamson, for two examples, were not. They didn’t necessarily pay attention to that. Keith is so matter-of-fact, saying, “If we weren’t caught within the first couple of months they weren’t going to catch us.” Amazing. And then he and Bob were arrested and were defendants in the Camden 28 trial. They were charged with breaking into the Camden, New Jersey draft board. The 28 defendants were charged with breaking into the draft board office in Camden, New Jersey. It was an attempt to capture the Media burglars, but neither Keith nor Bob gave up the other. I asked Keith if he was afraid that Bob would give him up. He said, no. He was absolutely certain Bob wouldn’t give him up. They trusted one another. They were twenty-years-old!
DP: In your film, when Bob was on trial, he suddenly realized he could go to jail for the rest of his life. Do you think the other activists in Media contemplated that if they were arrested?
JH: I think for all of them were very clear and very serious. They thought that they had no business breaking into an FBI office or a draft board if they were not prepared to go to jail.
DP: Was the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI a secret name?
JH: No, it was a public name. It was the name that the Media group gave themselves when they issued a statement after the break-in. It was a statement that was very underreported, because they phoned Reuters, and being a British news agency, Reuters wasn’t particularly interested in a statement about a break-in of a tiny FBI office in Pennsylvania. Betty also received this statement when they first sent the documents to her. They claimed responsibility and in the very first paragraph of the statement announced their name. It said, “We’re the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI and we’re the ones who broke in…”
DP: They revealed themselves after the fact?
JH: It was not known before. It was their only known action.
DP: Was there a plan after the break-in for everybody to go their separate ways?
JH: Yes.. They decided that they would sever contact with each other.
DP: In Night Moves, that’s the plan but it doesn’t happen. Was it difficult for the eight activists?
JH: It was difficult. Because of the mass movement that existed in Philadelphia, they definitely bumped into one another. But they didn’t hang out together, they kept their distance. With John and Bonnie Raines obviously it was something good that they shared, just in terms of their own personal narrative over the years. I think our stories become our stories in the telling and retelling of them, and for John and Bonnie it was something they were able to talk about with each other–the others didn’t have that ability.
DP: Part of the reason they did the break-in was they were so frustrated because they felt the protesting wasn’t working. Is that true? I would hope that all our marching and picketing did have an effect.
JH: I think that for them the pace wasn’t fast enough. They felt that they were on this evolutionary path, as John describes it, from non-violent civil disobedience to non-violent disruption where they could take a well-targeted poke at the government.
DP: So they did the break-in and sent out the documents. Were they optimistic about calling attention to the FBI’s illegalities?
JH: I think they were very optimistic. In fact they were very disappointed that things took so long. I think once they’d mailed the documents, they imagined there would be more news about the break-in itself. I think they underestimated the extent to which the FBI wanted to keep it very quiet. The Associated Press had a very small article and that was about it. The FBI’s statement was, yes there was a break-in and a few things are missing. That was all. A few things? They took all the documents in the office! In suitcases, so they weren’t suspicious. It was a residential building, so they could have been visiting somebody in the apartments. It’s totally amazing. So I think initially they were disappointed there wasn’t more news about the break-in itself, but once they started mailing the documents, the turn-around was very quick.
DP: So where does this event fit in with the Pentagon Papers?
JH: It happened a few months before the Pentagon Papers, and another a year before Watergate. Jackson State and Kent State had happened before, in 1970. It was definitely part of a natural progression. People who had never protested before were out on the streets protesting, finally, I think there was a groundswell they were part of. There was an escalation in every sense from the government and on behalf of the protesters. But while draft board raids were almost commonplace, a break-in at an FBI office was definitely something different.
DP: And you believe what came after–the Pentagon Papers being published and Watergate hearings–progressed from the break-in in Media?
JH: Definitely. Betty says in my film as well as her book that Katharine Graham really gained courage from her decision to publish the stolen FBI documents in the Washington Post. This was first time that the administration had asked her to suppress a story, so this was the first time she had to go head-to-head with the administration. And in a very short time, ten or twelve hours, she published against the advice of the Post‘s legal counsel. That it was the first time makes it more significant. The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was easier.
DP: How much did Betty write about the Media break-in in the Post?
JH: She wrote a number of stories. Certainly the first article was on the front page, and every ten days or so they would send her packages, so she continued to write stories through the summer.
DP: Did John and Bonnie send material to the Post or to her directly?
JH: They sent it to her desk.
DP: Does Betty have any resentment that she uncovered a great story but Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the two Washington Post investigative reporters from the seventies who are known, because of All the President’s Men?
JH: She knew them back then. She’s very modest so her ego is not bruised. And there is a movie that will be made, so she will have her movie, too.
DP: In addition to your documentary?
JH: Yes, a narrative feature film is in discussions.
DP: Will the narrative version in the works help your film get a theatrical release?
JH: It turns out they were more worried about the documentary existing already. They knew about it instantaneously, because the rights for the book and the film are packaged together, so when they came for the book rights they got my film, too. I think they’re now trying to get their film out as quickly as they can. My film will probably be on PBS next year, and I know they’re trying to get their film out next year. The idea that my film will eat into their market seems remote to me.
DP: Can you understand why some of the activists, including John and Bonnie, opted out of doing other actions after the break-in?
JH: I totally understand it. Keith and Bob were involved with the Camden break-in and Bill Davidon carried on doing a variety of things. There were other parents in the group, but John and Bonnie were the only parents who risked everything together. So I totally understand why they wouldn’t risk everything again. As a mother of four children, I do get that threshold. And it wasn’t a short-lived thing. They had to get through the next five years hoping they wouldn’t be arrested. Bonnie was the only person the FBI had a sketch of because she had gone to the FBI office in Media under the guise of doing an interview about the opportunities for women in the bureau.
DP: Were the recreations of that scene and the break-in a fun thing to do as a change of pace?
JH: Super fun. It was terrifying but enormously exhilarating.
DP: Was it influenced by Errol Morris at all?
JH: Yeah, we looked at his Thin Blue Line and James Marsh’s Man on Wire. They were very strong precedents. I wanted to be able to tell the full story, and obviously there was no video that existed. If we were going to tell the story for the first time, I really wanted to tell it in all its full glory and show the full arc. Recreations would obviously make it much easer for people who were coming to the story for the first time to visualize and comprehend the risk the burglars took and also just how improbable the whole plan was. They ingeniously staged it the night of the “Fight of the Century” between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier so security guards would be distracted listening to their radios; then they discovered the lock had been changed; then the filing cabinet almost fell over–it was one incredulous thing after another. And then they get away with it and are never found. So yes, that was really the rationale behind the recreations. Maureen Ryan was my recreations producer. I admired her work on Man on Wire, so if I was going to walk on that road, I wanted to go to the person I consider the best in the business, and be in very safe hands. For four days, it was like we were making a full mini independent feature film. There were about thirty-five people on the set.
DP: You also call 1971 a heist movie.
JH: Yeah, in addition to it being an amazing journalism story, it is a heist movie, a political thriller. The heist story is at the heart of it, then you get the journalism story and the overarching political story, which has lots of different elements.
DP: As you said, it’s incredible that they weren’t caught. In the press notes, it says that there were 34,000 pages of FBI investigations.
JH: It’s one of the largest FBI investigations ever, but you would never know it because it’s a crime they still don’t talk about very much. The FBI talks about the JFK investigation and Dillinger, but they don’t talk about this because it was about them. It’s amazing they weren’t caught, especially when you consider that seven of the eight were suspects. Bonnie was the only one who wasn’t a suspect and she was the only one they had a picture of!
DP: It sounds like bureaucratic incompetence. Maybe they shouldn’t have had fifty to eighty agents investigating rather than one good agent.
JH: I think there was a combination of reasons they weren’t caught. There were so many people, so many suspects because of how big the mass movement was at the time. Then they decided it was John Peter Grady of the Catholic Left who was responsible, so that groupthink led them in the wrong direction and they didn’t deviate from that.
DP: What would have happened if the government had arrested the wrong people for the crime after the break-in?
JH: That’s what they did after the Camden break-in, essentially. As we say in the film, they thought they caught those responsible for Media when they arrested the Camden 28. They definitely fixated from Day One on John Peter Grady, who was a leader in the Catholic Left, but they thought he and others were involved in the Media break-in. The Camden 28 could have gone to jail for a long, long time had they not been acquitted, which was historic itself. In fact, there’s a great documentary about the Camden 28. One of the reasons they were let off was that the judge gave the jury these unprecedented instructions that has never been given before or since. He instructed that if they found that the government had been overly meddlesome than they should acquit them. They did acquit because they realized that the government basically set up the Camden action.
DP: It was entrapment, but it’s still amazing they got off. It helped that the informer changed his mind about testifying because the FBI lied to him about there being no possible prison sentences. But regardless of Camden, if somebody else had been arrested for the Media burglarly, how would the Citizen’s Committee have reacted? Because that would have been awful for them to deal with.
JH: To be honest, I can’t tell you, I have no idea. You know, I’ve never asked them that.
DP: I imagine that you’re greatly disappointed that Bill Davidon, the “mastermind and defacto leader” of the group passed away in 2013, prior to the book and movie.
JH: Yeah, it’s really sad. He was ill for a while with Parkinson’s, and we hoped we’d finish in time. He’d been working with Betty for many years prior on the book, and when I came on board, she introduced me to the group at his house. When I started working on the movie I wanted to get him on camera as quickly as possible, and I’m very glad we did. It was upsetting that his health took a turn for the worse and there were many tears shed in November when he died. He was very aware of all we were doing. Betty and I wanted him to be able to see both projects. I think everybody in the group did, and that certainly was an impetus for them to go on-camera.
DP: Do they dislike the word burglary, rather an something like “political action?”
JH: I don’t think they mind the word burglary at all. We always refer to them as the burglars, and they don’t mind that.
DP: We mentioned earlier that because of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks it’s the perfect time for your film and the book to come out. Do you think now is the perfect time for them to emerge or would ten or fifteen years ago have been okay for them to come out in public?
JH: I don’t know. What they did back in 1971 started the national discussion about privacy, surveillance, and civil liberties that Snowden has reignited now. So the timing is fortuitousness for the film. I’m not sure how it would have been viewed ten years ago, I know that Betty had hesitations and I know there were certainly hesitations about them coming out ten years ago.. Let me say that today when you have the Citizens’ Commission juxtaposed with Edward Snowden, it’s incredibly easy for people to see the group that did the break-in as non-threatening, as opposed to a thirty-year-old with a computer who’s living in another country. It’s much easier, as Keith said at the film’s premiere. It’s easy to see a bunch of gray-haired folks as non-threatening to the country. Jon Stewart did a great bit in January when the book came out, principally about Snowden. He addressed how Snowden is now being called a traitor and a Russian agent, etc., etc., and then he cut to a video of CNN announcing our guys coming out into the open and speaking about them in somewhat laudatory terms. He said that now we know how long it takes to go from being considered a traitor to being a hero. As usual, he perfectly encapsulated the debate.
DP: Your movie speaks to the relevance of non-violent civil disobedience, while reminding people what it means to be an engaged citizen and how vigilance about our government is needed for democracy to work. Is that your theme?
JH: Yes, I think it is. The other big thing it’s about is civic and moral courage. I think there are certain times when citizens have to commit these courageous, albeit controversial acts in order to refresh the debate on checks and balances in government.
DP: And nobody got hurt.
JH: That’s right, non-violence was a very important element to them. It was key.
DP: You knew the story back in 2009. How much did you learn as you put together the story?
JH: There were always elements of the subjects’ personal stories that I discovered–a massive amount. I learned a lot about FBI history. Did you know Hoover vetted all those scripts for the TV show, The FBI, and that there were background checks on all the actors?
DP: You have an FBI agent in the movie, and he is adamant that those who did the break-in and stole the files committed a crime.
JH: Neil Welch. He was adamant they did something wrong when I recorded him. However, he told Betty that he actually believes they performed a service to their country. I think it’s in her book.
DP: Another critic from the FBI I read about was Pat Kelly, who worked in the office that was burgled.
JH: Pat Kelly is somebody I tried to talk to for the film and he wouldn’t talk to me. I was very disappointed. He said to me very directly, “I’m not interested in participating in anything that portrays them in a positive light.” I want to be careful not to besmirch him because he chose not to cooperate. I appreciate that he didn’t want to go on the record.
DP: That’s a mentality. It’s evident in the Snowden story, too, that no matter what horrible illegalities are revealed, you’re still wrong to expose them. What you did you’re not allowed to do, so it doesn’t matter that what you did brings bad things to light.
JH: On the phone Pat Kelly said all these things to me as well, He has a fantastic voice and would have been a wonderful, wonderful interview. It would have been amazing to get his account of this.
DP: So do you want those people to see the movie?
JH: Absolutely. Their lawyer says it himself, that there’s no constitutional right to break into an FBI office, but like I said before I think there are times for certain laws to be broken. In the Civil Rights movement laws were broken all the time to demonstrate that those laws were unjust. What these people uncovered was a whole range of illegal activities at the highest levels of government. So while it may have in the short term perhaps made the FBI’s job more difficult in recruiting informants, I think the bigger discussion that was generated was without doubt worthwhile to democracy.
DP: How was your TriBeCa experience this time?
JH: Terrific. New York’s been my home for fifteen years now, so it was really nice to show 1971 here, and it was really incredible that the four screenings sold out so quickly. That was very thrilling.
DP: How are John and Bonnie after the screenings and their appearances at the festival?
JH: They’re great. John especially. I think both of them I think are really happy and prepared to talk about the break-in. They have a cross-generational message.
DP: And what’s next with 1971?
JH: Discussions are beginning about a theatrical release. Meanwhile we’re trying to get it out as wide as we can. We have an impact-and-engagement campaign with various organizations and different festivals we’re going to now. So all kinds of things are happening!