Bigger Than the Beatles

UC Irvine professor Jon Wieners fight for John Lennons FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America

The Immigration and Naturalization Service hearings to deport Lennon eventually bogged down. Documents from the CIA—which investigated Lennon on U.S. soil in violation of its own charter—included a suggestion from then-acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, who had by then replaced the dead Hoover, that the ex-Beatle would be easier to deport if he could be arrested in America for drug possession.

"I read this as a drug-bust setup," Wiener said. "The FBI is not involved in drug-possession enforcement; that's a state matter. Clearly, here they were worried the immigration hearings were not succeeding. This is an abuse of power by the FBI."

In the end, it's possible to conclude the government beat Lennon. Tied up in deportation hearings for the rest of 1972, Lennon canceled his peace tour. "His attorneys urged him not to do anything more to provoke the Nixon administration," Wiener said, "because he had a very weak case for staying in the United States."

The last 10 pages on Lennon must be kept secret because of a pact made with a foreign government that supplied the information. Wiener says he already knows what's there: a report from British intelligence that Lennon helped fund communists and the IRA. David Shayler, a former British MI5 agent, says he's seen agency documents that claim Lennon made large contributions to the IRA and the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), whose best-known member was actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Wiener points to evidence that shows Lennon supported nonviolent Irish civil-rights groups and the New Left Marxists, whose political orientation was completely different from the WRP. Ono has denied her late husband was involved with the IRA, and an ex-WRP executive-committee member maintains, "There was absolutely no link between Lennon and us."

But that didn't stop ultra-right-winger Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times of London from splashing this banner headline across the top of the Feb. 20, 2000, issue: "Lennon Funded Terrorists and Trotskyists." The story asserted that secret documents proving the allegation were about to be released. They weren't.

The Sunday Times story was based on a development in Wiener's ongoing case, which is ultimately after those last 10 FBI pages. But federal Judge Brian Robbins had just ordered the government to release two pages of 1997 FBI correspondence with the unnamed "foreign government" that provided the information about Lennon, not the FBI's 1972 Lennon documents.

Of course, there's one way to clear all this up: just release the freakin' documents already.

"It's kind of silly to say these are secrets and that national security will be threatened," Wiener said. "These are reports on 30-year-old activities of a dead rock star."

It's more than silly. Wiener learned long ago that the secrets America's top law-enforcement agency kept on a long-dead rock star were far less intriguing—and ultimately less important—than the actual battle to get the documents released.

Secrecy is considered power to some misguided souls in our supposedly democratic society. But we can't keep our society democratic unless we "find out what the government is up to," Wiener said. "We need the freedom of information for journalists and scholars and citizens to use as a weapon in the battle of democracy against secrecy."

For Wiener, happiness would have been a "smoking gun"—a letter from Hoover to Nixon. The files don't include that, but they do show Hoover and Gray did update H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff and the closest person to the president in the White House. "There is no reason to tell Haldeman if Nixon didn't want to know," Wiener said. "That's why they communicated with Haldeman, to get to Nixon."

Yet the files also reveal "there are no real secrets here about John Lennon," Wiener added. "John Lennon lived a pretty public life. What you see in these 400 pages is the effort the government put into what they called 'neutralizing' John Lennon. They succeeded."

Rather than rejoice in a mission accomplished, the FBI has fought to keep the matter secret. Why? Because there are no secrets about Lennon and, thus, no reason to mobilize vast resources to spy on him. All the documents now reveal is a highest-levels-of-government conspiracy to neutralize one guy who strummed a guitar. That's embarrassing, especially in light of later federal-enforcement blunders such as Waco.

As the Christian Science Monitor wrote recently, Gimme Some Truth "is a primer in legal maneuvering, persistence and recognition of the public's right and need to know. In short, Gimme Some Truth is one of the most important books ever published about the FOIA."

One thing Wiener is proudest of about his book is its format: after the first 104 pages of text—mostly chronological in nature—readers get to see 200 pages of reproductions of the most-important FBI documents. The blackened-out pages he initially received run right alongside the exact same pages in unobscured form.

To demonstrate how dishonest the government has been about its stand to keep the documents secret because of "national security," look at the report on Lennon's appearance at the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" in 1972. Sinclair, who was head of the White Panthers, was serving a 10-year prison sentence for selling two marijuana joints to an undercover officer. The report shows that among the 15,000 people at the concert was an FBI agent, who'd inform his bosses that Lennon was there and that he sang a song called "Free John Sinclair." Included in the report were the lyrics.

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