EXCLUSIVE: Decades before Julian Assange and Edward Snowden became the scourge of U.S. intelligence organizations by leaking secret documents, an unheralded group of eight anti-war activists broke into an FBI branch office one night in Philadelphia and made off with a treasure trove of classified documents they fed to newspapers that bared the ruthlessness displayed by the FBI in spying on and blackmailing those it considered troublemakers. Summit Entertainment has teamed with Participant Media to acquire the rights to tell the story of those bandits, acquiring the Betty Medsger book The Burglary: The Discovery Of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, which was published in January by Knopf, and an accompanying article by Mark Mazzetti published in The New York Times the same month.
They’ve set Scott Z. Burns to write the script and produce with Anonymous Content’s Michael Sugar, with Todd Hoffman exec producing. Ashley Zalta is a co-producer. Burns’ script work includes The Bourne Ultimatum, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Contagion and Side Effects and Fox’s summer sequel Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. The project was championed by Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group President Erik Feig, who’ll oversee with Meredith Milton and Participant’s Jonathan King.
The caper sounds too ridiculous to be true. Looking to make a statement at a time when Nixon was escalating the Vietnam War by bombing Cambodia as Hoover’s FBI created a swath of paranoia, this group of amateur bandits — one was a physics prof at Haverford College, another taught religion at Temple — targeted the FBI field office on the night when the world was paying attention to the televised title fight between Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. The amateur thieves gained entry with a lock pick and a crowbar and loaded all the documents they could find into getaway cars.
Once the thieves realized what they had, they began to disseminate the contents anonymously to newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times, creating untold headaches for Hoover. Among the documents was evidence of the emphasis Hoover placed on depicting his FBI agents as an intimidating force that carried out extensive spying campaigns against leaders they considered dangerous. Included in the treasure trove was a blackmail letter sent by FBI agents to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, threatening to expose marital infidelities unless he committed suicide. The group of eight burglars decided that the FBI had gone beyond serving the public and had strayed into an illegal campaign to destroy and discredit its enemies. Their leakage of the damaging documents put pressure on Hoover.
Unlike, say Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, the burglars in the FBI headquarters break-in managed to keep quiet about their one night of crime until after the statute of limitations expired so that they could not be prosecuted. The author of the book managed to coax some of them to go public. UTA and Anonymous Content rep Burns. UTA reps the book and negotiated the deal on behalf of Levine, Plotkin & Menin.