In 1971, I was part of a group of activists called the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI who broke into a small FBI field office in Media, PA. I trained myself as a locksmith and used tools I made to pick the lock to the office door.

A new film telling our story, 1971, will premiere on Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival. You can find out more at (currently down due to HostGator server outage!)

Edit: You can check out the film trailer here:

Proof: NYTimes story with photos of me:

More background: We took every document in the office, and shared the evidence we found of illegal FBI activity with the American public. The documents we found exposed COINTELPRO for the first time, a massive program of domestic surveillance intended to intimidate dissenters and infringe on our right to free speech.

I'm happy to answer any questions you have. Ask me anything.

Edit: I'm going to have to sign off now--thanks for the questions, everyone. Make sure to check out the film, 1971, at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and next week. It will also be at other festivals this year, and on PBS towards the winter.

Comments: 828 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

thankyouhaveaniceday857 karma

You are a hero. Thank you all for what you did.

CitizenKeith605 karma

Thank you. There were a lot of heros in those times, most of whom no one remembers. Google Bill Davidon for one example, or Mick Doyle for a quiet hero that's still fighting the good fight.

williamconlow630 karma

Keith, the parallels between the Hoover era and the present are striking. One significant difference, however, is the media's willingness in the 1970s to call abuses of power "illegal." Even Hoover and Nixon seemed to acknowledge at times that things they did were illegal. Today, despite arguably worse abuses of power, the public, the media, and even critics of the Iraq, NSA spying, and tortur....errr... enhanced interrogation, seem unwilling to call a spade a spade. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that is?

CitizenKeith735 karma

This is a complex question. I think in retrospect we may exaggerate how well the media performed their watchdog role in the 1970s; the Post and the Times were more the exception than the rule. Also, there was a mass movement in those days, and the press like all other institutions had to respond. Today the abuses are perhaps less obvious and directly harm fewer people, and so the mass movement isn't there. Finally, I think the spectre of terrorism makes a better shield for government misconduct than did the spectre of "radical" american citizens.

williamconlow179 karma

Thanks, Keith!

With my comment, I didn't mean to imply that the media--or anyone--performed the role of the watchdog. Do you think the spectre of terrorism has been used more effectively than the Red Scare?

There have been no investigations--congressional or otherwise--of the illegal spying Snowden exposed. James Clapper hasn't been prosecuted for lying about the surveillance the NSA was doing. He also kept his job overseeing that surveillance.

It seems to me that once COINTELPRO was exposed, it was universally understood that very serious and illegal wrongdoing had been occurring. That seems to me to be the one fact that has no parallel with current events.

CitizenKeith250 karma

I agree completely with your point about the contrast between the lack of any official response to the Snowden revelations and the strong response to COINTELPRO (Church Committee, etc) in the 70's. I do think the press played a watchdog role in those days and still does to some extent, but that wasn't and isn't decisive. In my view the most critical difference is the presence of a mass movement in those days and the absence of one today.

GeorgeDouglasMcFly441 karma

Only about half of Citizens' Commission has identified themselves; you got away from the FBI in '76 without any definitive identification. Why come forward now?

CitizenKeith696 karma

I was persuaded by other Commissioners that this episode should be documented for its historical value, and also that stepping forward and the attendant publicity would help advance the political dialog about privacy, due process, and government power. I'm not really that comfortable with publicity, but I was persuaded by those arguments.

The_OtherDouche376 karma

I am going to go ahead an apologize for not knowing too much about your work and also tell you thank you for sticking your own neck out to help others.

Anyways, how scared were you the night of breaking in and how did you and your group go about not getting caught?

CitizenKeith416 karma

Starting with your second question, there were a number of factors: we spent months planning and were extremely careful about every detail, the FBI was a giant bureaucracy run by a megalomaniac and staffed by conformists, and probably most importantly there were hundreds if not thousands of suspects to sift through, all of whom despised the FBI and refused to cooperate. On the first question, we were certainly nervous and there were some deep-breath moments during the process of getting through the doors, but we were prepared for that

whirl-pool67 karma

"giant bureaucracy run by a megalomaniac and staffed by conformists" Ah! So nothing has changed then.

What are your thoughts on today's NSA revelations?

CitizenKeith3 karma

Your question is similar to LaMouth's. I'm no expert, but based on what the Guardian has published about Snowden's revelations, I'd say that today surveillance is much broader than in the 50's - 70's, but not as deep. By that I mean that more or less everyone seems to be under surveillance today compared to a few tens of thousands in earlier days, but fewer people are being actively targeted and watched day in and day out. At least for citizens within the USA they also don't seem to be doing the number of dirty tricks like assassinating people (Fred Hampton, Mark Clark) or trying to get them to kill themselves (Martin King) today as they were in earlier days.

CitizenKeith290 karma

Thanks to all who participated; I'm going to sign off now. If you're still interested after all this, check out the book "The Burglary" by Betty Medsger (out now), and the documentary film "1971" by Johanna Hamilton (premiering at Tribeca in two days, and on PBS later this year.)


bckirchoff215 karma

Would the person you are today still have done what you did then? Why/why not?

CitizenKeith396 karma

I've asked myself that question a hundred times since the January release of the book & film. My basic values haven't changed, only the details, so I hope I would and I think I would, but I'm not 100% sure. I have to confess that my tolerance for risk at 64 isn't what it was at 21. We'll have to see what I do with the rest of the time I have left.

F4X200 karma

Regarding The Camden 28, how hard was it to decide not to take the plea deal?

CitizenKeith721 karma

One of the easiest decisions of my entire life. No way were we going to compromise with those b******s. Maybe this is harsh, but if you're not prepared to go to jail, you have no business breaking into draft boards in the middle of the night.

rhapdimp162 karma


CitizenKeith431 karma

Actually I slept pretty well from the beginning. Once the actual break-in and get-away was over I knew they were either going to catch me or not and there wasn't anything more I could do about it one way or the other.

NDaveT157 karma

No question, just a ton of admiration. Too many people these days seem to think those excesses were ended by people working within the system, and nothing could be further from the truth.

CitizenKeith194 karma

That's always the Man's story: "the system works". As in our case, it eventually did work (slowly and partially and temporarily), but only after a big kick in the a** from the Citizen's Commission, the Washington Post, and the American public.

Brickus151 karma

Was there anything, amongst all the things you discovered, that stood out as being the most shocking?

Also, do you think that people have become complacent with regards to government spying, and merely see it as a "done thing" these days?

CitizenKeith350 karma

All of us knew that the FBI was breaking the law, but even we were shocked when we saw the extent and how brazen they were about documenting it. Probably the most shocking thing in the Media files was how many people were FBI informants: they had informers on the inside of virtually every local institution including churches and colleges and the post office. Even more shocking documents came out later as a byproduct of the action.

CitizenKeith133 karma

Regarding complacency, there was plenty of that in the 60's & 70's also. I think it was easier to believe in the possibility of change when there were demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets; it's much harder to have that belief today.

adismalscience147 karma

I'll ask the obvious question in the current environment: What circumstances do you believe create ethical grounds to steal confidential information and release it to the public? What similarities or differences do you see in what the Citizens' Commission did and what Snowden did?

CitizenKeith434 karma

For me it's no different than any other form of civil disobedience, whether it's Thoreau refusing to pay taxes for the Mexican war or John Raines riding a bus with black people in Alabama in 1964. Some laws are just, or at least not unduly unjust, and some aren't. Snowden is a long subject, but there are more similarities than differences. He saw something that he believed to be both illegal and wrong that the sworn guardians of the constitution were pretending not to see. The man is a hero and deserves an immediate pardon; Clapper is the one who should be in jail for lying to Congress.

AforAnarchist135 karma


CitizenKeith172 karma

We didn't have a plan if we were caught, other than not to say anything and call Dave Kairys when we got our phone call. It had the benefit of simplicity.

grachuss120 karma

As a Border Patrol Agent I can't understand why the FBI, NSA, and other agencies continue to do this. We would relish the opportunity to send someone from management up river for this sort of thing.

CitizenKeith197 karma

I think your comment illustrates a couple of things. One, there are and have always been people in law enforcement who are sincerely trying to do the right thing, and who take their oath to uphold the law (including the constitution) seriously. Two, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the need to fight that corruption will never disappear. And I agree that no one should be immune from prosecution; the law is supposed to apply to everyone.

karmanaut95 karma

Did any of your friends or family know or suspect that it was you without you telling them?

CitizenKeith212 karma

Two of my friends strongly suspected. One was an attorney that I spoke to a few days before the action; I told him he might get a call from me at an odd hour and if so please answer the phone. The second was a friend that lived in our commune; one day he came home from work early & found me crouched on the front porch picking the lock on our front door. When I vanished for two weeks after the action he put two and two together. Otherwise, no.

bckmtm91 karma

Do you have fears you'll be monitored now, after coming out? Especially with what we now know about the NSA -- don't you think your every move is being watched?

CitizenKeith197 karma

Based on what Edward Snowden has revealed, both of us are definitely being monitored. However, I doubt that it's at the level of "every move", but then official paranoia is never entirely rational and anything is possible.

MasterSlime61 karma


CitizenKeith143 karma

No one notices me on the street, thank goodness. I'm from Ohio and I don't think I could tolerate being famous. People who didn't know me before 1980 when I dropped out of active political work are quite surprised, some express admiration, some believe I'm completely crazy to have taken the risk. Most people who don't like what we did seem to be keeping it to themselves, which is kind of too bad because we should never be afraid of the conversation.

KarmaCartel60 karma

Were there any legal repercussions for your act? Also did you poop in a filing cabinet. I hope you pooped in a filing cabinet!

CitizenKeith112 karma

No repercussions: we stayed underground until long after the statute of limitations took effect. Regarding your second question, I can't say I wasn't tempted, but no.

jtzl_54 karma


CitizenKeith115 karma

For those interested in the details of how to actually break into an FBI office, I recommend the film "1971" and the book "The Burglary". To make a long story short, by coincidence the lock on the main door was changed to a type we didn't plan for sometime after our last casing and before the action. So I had to pick the lock on the secondary door, then break a passive inside deadbolt on that same door, then move a file cabinet weighing more than I did from behind the door.

adismalscience43 karma

Do you think your case that won at the Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Forsyth has served at all as a deterrent to violations of citizens' Fourth Amendment rights by Cabinet officers? If not, why do you suppose that is?

CitizenKeith71 karma

This question is probably a bit above my pay grade; a constitutional lawyer would have a better-informed answer. My sense is that it did help some, in that the Court said that warrantless wiretapping was and always had been illegal. However, they let Mitchell skate with no damages because he acted in "good faith". That was a crock, but it probably encouraged the attitude among officials that they wouldn't face any serious consequences if they got caught violating the constitution.

agf39 karma

Was your goal in taking this action narrow or wide? Was it strictly civil disobedience aimed at ending FBI abuses?

Or were you, as were many people at the time, aiming towards the nonviolent overthrow of the US Government, and this was one step towards that goal?

CitizenKeith98 karma

As a group, our goal was strictly to reveal to the public what those inside the movement already knew from first-hand experience: the FBI was not fighting crime they were fighting change. As individuals, most were left-leaning Democrats and only one considered themselves a revolutionary.

Harportcw37 karma

Thanks for the B&E! Seriously, that was a very admirable thing you guys did. My question is:

Was there ever a moment where you thought "This is Fun?" or was it scary the whole time? I only ask because in the pictures, when people plan an execute heists, it always looks like a damn good time.

CitizenKeith79 karma

I'd have to say it was pretty tense the whole time, and for at least a year afterward. The party when the book came out this January was pretty fun, though it would have been better if they'd hired George Clinton to play.

thatoneguy566734 karma

Do most people you meet and know your story consider you a hero or someone who has betrayed the trust of the government?

I for one think you are a hero!

CitizenKeith72 karma

It's interesting and somewhat surprising to me that opinion seems to be overwhelmingly positive. I think the ratio of pros to cons would have been a lot smaller if this had come out in 1971 rather than 2014. I know several people of my age and older who would have condemned us in 1971 but have changed their minds in the interim. Some of the change is also because young people seem to be less trusting of government on average than people of my generation. Also, it's safer to be in favor of civil disobedience that happened 40 years ago than it is to favor the actions happening today.

vincebarnes24 karma

How does one "go underground"? Asking for a friend. Also, thank you for what you did, you are a true patriot.

CitizenKeith72 karma

I don't really think that's the kind of thing one should answer on the internet. Plus, I don't think the stuff that worked in 1971 would cut it today; you'd need to know all that computer stuff that I have to ask my kids about. And seriously, thanks for the kind words. As the bumper sticker used to say back in the day, "my country right or wrong: if right to be kept right, if wrong to be put right."

wishliszt23 karma

THANK YOU for your service to the country! I'm adding the Burglary book to my to-read list.

  1. Who did you support for the Democratic nomination in 68? (If you were following it closely?) And knowing now what you might not have known then, would you make a different choice?

  2. Did you expect to find what you did in the FBI office?

  3. Who do you believe/think killed Bobby and Jack? Has your hypothesis on their deaths evolved over the years?

CitizenKeith53 karma

  1. At the time of the 68 Democratic convention, I wasn't yet political. (I did work a little bit for Gene McCarthy, but only because I was trying to get next to a girl who was active in his campaign.) I did not become radicalized until the fall of 1968.
  2. I was hoping they would document their misdeeds like good bureaucrats, but I could hardly let myself believe they would be that meticulous.
  3. Most likely, the conventional wisdom is correct in my view.

And, in addition to the book, check out the documentary film "1971". It's premiering at Tribeca Festival this Friday.

LegendaryGoji17 karma

I've heard about you! The story you're a part of is amazing! I want to know what sorts of things you were trying to get at, and what your reactions to COINTELPRO were. Please do answer!

CitizenKeith28 karma

That's too big of a question to answer here. Check out the book & film; they go into this in detail. Book is probably at your local library now, the film will be coming out soon.

JoaquinAntique12 karma

I bought the book, haven't read it yet and I haven't seen the film, so please forgive if discussed at length. My question is, what were your expectations prior to seeing what you'd obtained? Were you shocked at the extent of extra-constitutional activity? I consider what you did and what followed to be a watershed event of the 2nd half of 20th century US history.

JoaquinAntique12 karma

What did you think about the Weather Underground?

CitizenKeith61 karma

I had and have mixed feelings. I didn't think they were tactically smart, but I also didn't think they were morally wrong. Unlike our government, they never killed any civilians, let alone any innocent ones.