On March 8th, 1971, eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, PA. Calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, they removed every file in the office. Mailed anonymously, the stolen documents started to show up in newsrooms. The heist yielded a trove of damning evidence. The most significant revelation was COINTELPRO, a controversial, secret, illegal surveillance program overseen by lifelong Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. Despite one of the largest investigations ever conducted, the FBI was unable to catch the burglars. Those responsible have never revealed their identities. Until now. For the first time the burglars have decided to speak about their actions. 1971 is their story, examining the consequences and implications of their actions – then and now. (Laura Poitras, director of the Academy Award-winning Citizenfour, served as co-executive producer.)
“In 1971, The Citizens’ Commission To Investigate The FBI ignited a national debate that had never taken place before,” said Johanna Hamilton, director of 1971, during a phone interview earlier this week. “The documents they removed from the Media office of the FBI and subsequently sent to the Washington Post which published them, were the first FBI documents that had ever been seen in public. They pierced the wall of secrecy that surrounded an all-powerful government agency that was equally revered and feared in Washington. It was the first time the American public could see the documents and debate the actions of this particular law enforcement agency. Edward Snowden ignited a similar debate when he leaked the NSA documents in 2013. Before that we had an inkling of what was going on, that in the wake of 9/11 there was a rollback of the Church Committee guidelines put in place in the 1970s, but Snowden provided empirical evidence that it had happened. Just as The Committee To Investigate The FBI provided empirical proof of what was really going on: The FBI was using its almost unlimited investigative powers to spy on Americans and crush dissent in direct violation of the First Amendment.” What the FBI was doing was COINTELPRO, a vast and far-reaching criminal enterprise whose primary victim was the Constitution of the United States Of America. The break-in and theft of files from the FBI office in Media by The Citizens’ Commission To Investigate The FBI was the beginning of the end of that criminal enterprise.