The Not-So-Secret Life of Keith Forsyth

Posted in Crosswalk, Winter/Spring 2015, Rad Grad

A recent book and documentary recounts how a group of activists including Drexel alumnus Keith Forsyth ’92 burglarized an FBI office to expose its secret surveillance of anti-war protesters in 1971.

His classmates and professors didn’t know it, but Keith Forsyth was guarding a huge secret as a graduate student at Drexel University in the early ’90s.

In fact, most of his friends, neighbors and fellow Americans didn’t know about the secret either until last year, when Forsyth came forward as one of the eight Vietnam War protestors who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and leaked over 1,000 classified documents to the press. Forsyth, who at the time was a 20-year-old cab driver and political activist, was responsible for breaking the office’s lock. He and the other members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI remained unknown until 43 years later, long after the statue of limitations ran out and the 200-man FBI investigation closed.

The documents revealed that the FBI was secretly spying on anti-war, leftist and civil rights groups, and the bombshell revelations contributed to public outrage and congressional hearings that undermined J. Edgar Hoover’s iron rule.

Now, in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, their actions and their impact on the public perception of the government are the subjects of “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.,” a book written by a former Washington Post reporter, and “1971,” a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was backed by Laura Poitras, the Pulitzer Prize-winning filmmaker who was among the three reporters to meet with Snowden in Hong Kong.

Now the principal engineer and program manager at Avo Photonics, a photonics manufacturer in Horsham, Forsyth has opened up about his past in interviews with The New York Times, answered questions in a Reddit AMA and spoke with his fellow perpetrators during the documentary’s Philadelphia premiere at the National Constitution Center. Recently, Drexel Magazine asked him what persuaded him to go public. — Alissa Falcone

Q: Now that the story is out, you’ve been getting a lot of publicity. What did it feel like to finally have this out in the open?

I have mixed feelings about it. I was never an advocate for publicizing our actions. We had very good reasons for not making what we did public. The value of what we did, for the most part, had nothing to do with who we were. In fact, that probably would have been a distraction.

Some other people convinced me that this was something that had some historical impact and that it would be good to get documentation on the record before we all pass away. So I was convinced that, especially given what’s been happening in recent years with the Patriot Act and the abuse of rights by courts and the stuff that Edward Snowden revealed, it might be a good time to talk about it again.

I thought that it might be a vehicle for stimulating that conversation over again, and this maybe would have a good effect on our country. Usually the NSA and Edward Snowden comes up as a topic in every one of these public forums, so that part has been great.

But I’m never going to be entirely comfortable with talking about myself in public. I’m from a small town in Ohio and that’s just not something we do.

Q: Did you expect this kind of reaction?

It’s about what I expected, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t expecting any more reaction than this, but I wasn’t sure that there’d even be this much, especially among younger people. There’s been more interest from that group than I really expected.

Q: What do you think about activism in America today? Are young people less inclined to question the status quo now?

Certainly there are fewer and smaller street protests, acts of civil disobedience and other political activity outside of electoral politics than there were in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s partially because we achieved many of our goals, including making many forms of race and sex discrimination illegal and helping to stop the war in Vietnam (the Vietnamese did the heavy lifting). It’s also a fact that mass movements are the rare exception in history, not the rule. Fighting the system on the streets is hard, frustrating and sometimes frightening; you have to have a pretty strong reason. But I don’t think that young people today are less inclined to question the status quo; poll data on issues like race and Edward Snowden show that.