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For the subjects of '1971,' being Snowden before Snowden

Long before Edward Snowden, the subjects of 1971 engaged in risky activities to expose perceived overreaches

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 College physics professor Bill Davidon, the group’s aim was to break into a comparatively lightly guarded office in Media, Pa., 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, Pa., 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.

But the primary effect of the film is less political and more human. The raid was planned by everyday people who never imagined themselves engaging in such activity until perceived injustice changed their minds. At bottom, “1971” makes sharply clear the extent to which history's acts of bravery can be uncertain propositions while they happen.

“It was amazing what they did, ordinary citizens who felt strongly to take action,” said Hamilton, who spent five years working on the movie after learning of the story from the Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who broke much of the news contained in the stolen documents. “I mean, there were children sleeping in the next room.”

Those activities might seem heedless to those thinking of the couple’s offspring, the oldest of whom was just 8 at the time.

But the Raineses say there was a larger principle at stake: “We thought about the consequences for our children, but it just seemed right,” John Raines said. They had made contingency plans with relatives in the case long jail time awaited.

As it turned out, such a plan was not necessary. Despite a five-year manhunt, none in the group was captured. The Raineses lived quietly for decades in the same Greater Philadelphia area, John continuing to teach religion at Temple and Bonnie eventually earning her degree in early childhood studies.  

(Some of this is documented entertainingly in the film as, in the wake of the break-in, FBI agents descended on antiwar hotbeds in hilariously bad disguises to try to root out the Citizens’ Commission. Whether because of the group’s skillfulness, the FBI’s ineffectiveness or simply the lack of a discernible trail in a pre-digital age, no members were ever caught.)

Meanwhile, Medsger and the Post published the stories (other outlets were more skittish; whistleblowing as we know it today was new, and the legal and moral dimensions were not yet fully known). The publicity eventually led to the creation of the so-called Church Committee and the first   congressional investigation into government intelligence activities.

The cultural effect was significant too. Government overreaches were comparatively little known or even fathomed at the time. This was, after all, before Watergate, and the idea that a democratic government would spy on its own law-abiding citizens was largely unthinkable.

The Raineses decided to step forward — they are also featured in a 2014 book by Medsger — because the statute of limitations has expired and they sought to spread the word of their backstory.

“People really had no idea this [FBI spying] was happening," John Raines said as he sat next to his wife.  The couple have a kind of efficiency of language — born perhaps of many years in hiding — but have a way of getting to the nub of the matter. "You have to try to imagine how different it was," he added.

If the events remind of Edward Snowden, they should. The Raineses and the rest of the group put themselves at risk to expose government surveillance — an act of heroic whistleblowing to supporters and criminal treason to detractors — and activities that share plenty of similarities with those of the former NSA contractor (who, it should be noted, was still more than a decade from being born).

In fact, Laura Poitras, who directed the Snowden doc and newly minted Oscar winner “Citizenfour,” is an executive producer on “1971." “It was the scope of what they did and the desire to do it that struck me,” Poitras said. “And both those qualities apply to Snowden."

The Raineses have an unassuming air about their actions. But they say they are hopeful that their activities helped set the table for the more healthy skepticism of government activities that's prevalent today.

“There’s no way to know exactly,” Bonnie Raines said. “We’d like to think so.”

@ZeitchikLAT

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