FBI to release last of its John Lennon files
The U.S. had such an act could provoke military retaliation. The papers, withheld 25 years, don't seem to bear that out.
By Henry Weinstein
Times Staff Writer
9:07 PM PST, December 19, 2006
The FBI agreed Tuesday to make public the final 10 documents about the surveillance of John Lennon that it had withheld for 25 years from a UC Irvine historian on the grounds that releasing them could cause "military retaliation against the United States."
Despite the fierce battle the government waged to keep the documents secret, the files contain information that is hardly shocking, just new details about Lennon's ties to New Left leaders and antiwar groups in London in the early 1970s, said the historian, Jon Wiener.
For example, in one memo, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon's chief of staff, that "Lennon had taken an interest in 'extreme left-wing activities in Britain' and is known to be a sympathizer of Trotskyist communists in England."
Another document had been blacked out on the grounds of national security when Wiener obtained it more than 20 years ago through litigation brought under the Freedom of Information Act. It is now known that it said two prominent British leftists, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, had courted Lennon in hopes that he would "finance a left-wing bookshop and reading room in London."
But the newly released document adds that Lennon apparently gave them no money "despite a long courtship by Blackburn and Ali."
Another surveillance report states explicitly that there was "no certain proof" that Lennon had provided money "for subversive purposes." And yet another says there was no evidence that Lennon had any formal tie to any leftist group.
Still another describes an interview with Lennon published in the 1971 in an underground London newspaper called the Red Mole. "Lennon emphasized his proletarian background and his sympathy with the oppressed and underprivileged people of Britain and the world," the document says.
Wiener and his attorneys, Dan Marmalefsky of Morrison & Foerster and Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, all said the documents revealed that there was no sign government officials considered Lennon a serious threat. They said they were mystified that several administrations had resisted making the material public.
"The content of the files released today is an embarrassment to the U.S. government," said Wiener, 62, who has written two books on the late Beatle, "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" and "Gimme Some Truth: the John Lennon FBI Files."
"I doubt that Tony Blair's government will launch a military strike on the U.S. in retaliation for the release of these documents. Today, we can see that the national security claims that the FBI has been making for 25 years were absurd from the beginning," said Wiener, who requested the documents in 1981.
Wiener initially obtained some files showing that the FBI closely monitored Lennon's activities in 1971 and 1972. The documents indicated Nixon administration concern that Lennon would support then-Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) for president against incumbent Richard M. Nixon in 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds could vote.
But the FBI also withheld numerous files, saying they were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, including part of a surveillance report on a December 1971 antiwar rally in Michigan. There, Lennon urged the release of activist and singer John Sinclair, who was serving a 10-year sentence for possession of two marijuana joints. A judge soon freed him.
Wiener sued in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking all the documents. The FBI countered that some contained "national security information provided by a foreign government under an explicit promise of confidentiality" and that release of the documents "can reasonably be expected to ... lead to foreign diplomatic, economic and military retaliation against the United States," according to a government brief filed in 1983.
Wiener lost the initial court skirmishes, but in 1991 he won a major victory in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that declarations filed by FBI agents provided inadequate grounds for keeping the material secret. From that point forward, the court ruled, the FBI had to file "affidavits containing sufficient detail" to allow Wiener to "intelligently advocate" for their release and for a trial judge "to intelligently judge the contest."
That decision significantly strengthened the hand of people trying to pry secret documents out of the government. Justice Department attorneys, including John Roberts, who is now the chief justice of the United States, appealed, but the Supreme Court let the ruling stand.
Six years later, Wiener settled with lawyers from the Clinton administration and obtained a number of FBI files on the former Beatle. But Justice Department lawyers continued to withhold 10 documents under the national security exemption of the Freedom of Information Act.
Scott Hodes, who was acting chief of the FBI litigation unit dealing with freedom of information cases, said that disclosure of the documents could strain relations between the U.S. and a foreign government, lead to diplomatic, political or economic retaliation and have a chilling effect on the flow of information between the two countries. Hodes also said disclosure of the documents could subject the government agents involved in the Lennon operation to "public ridicule, ostracism" or even jeopardize their safety.
In August 2004, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi granted summary judgment to Wiener, concluding that the government had not adequately supported its claims. Justice Department lawyers said they would appeal. But a 9th Circuit mediator eventually forged a settlement, leading to a final settlement resolution of the case Tuesday.
Years ago, Wiener called the case a "rock 'n' roll Watergate," in part because the FBI took an intense interest in Lennon at the time operatives from the Nixon administration perpetrated the Watergate burglary. But on Tuesday, Wiener agreed that given how long the case dragged out, it might more appropriately be characterized as a "rock 'n' roll 'Bleak House,' " referring to the Dickens novel about a years-long inheritance case.
"The release of these final documents, concealed from public view for nearly a quarter of a century, reveals government paranoia at a pathological level and an attempt to shield executive branch abuse of civil liberties under the rubric of national security," said Rosenbaum of the ACLU. "The ultimate lesson of these documents is that the head of document classification for the FBI must be Stephen Colbert."
On his late-night television show, satirist Colbert plays a right-wing talk show host who is a government cheerleader.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Marmalefsky said the one concession that Wiener made in settling the suit was agreeing that the letterhead on some of the documents released Tuesday could be blacked out "as well as a word here or there that would identify the foreign government" that provided information to the U.S.
However, Marmalefsky said, "having reviewed the final documents and all the others in this case, it is very difficult to believe that it could be any government other than the United Kingdom."