Jonathan Wiener, a UCI history professor, scored a recent victory in court when Los Angeles U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi ruled that the FBI must release 10 pages of documents gathered from its investigation in the early 1970s of John Lennon, a political activist and former member of The Beatles.
This decision is the latest development in a legal battle that has lasted over 20 years.
Wiener’s quest to uncover the FBI’s files began shortly after Lennon’s death in 1980. Wiener, a Beatles fan, wanted to commemorate Lennon’s legacy in a unique way.
‘Back in 1981, there was a lot of stuff written about John Lennon as a Beatle,’ Wiener said. ‘There was not much written about his involvement in the peace movement, which I think was a major part of his life. One way to document this involvement was to look at the files that the government kept on him.’
In 1981, under the Freedom of Information Act, Wiener asked the FBI to release the Lennon files that they had in their possession. While some of the documents were made available to Wiener, about 70 percent were withheld because of the FBI’s concern that their release would ‘endanger national security.’
The Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966, is intended to allow public scrutiny of government documents. It contains many provisions, however, that would allow a government agency to keep documents from the public if their release would somehow conflict with national interests.
In 1983, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California became involved and, along with Wiener, filed a lawsuit against the FBI for the release of the remaining documents.
‘The ACLU did almost all of the legal work,’ Wiener said. ‘I wrote a declaration at each new stage, but that was not really central to the case.’
In 1997, most of the missing documents were released as part of a settlement in which the FBI also agreed to pay $200,000 to cover Wiener’s legal fees.
In 2000, Wiener wrote a book, entitled ‘Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files,’ based on the uncovered documents and his struggle to obtain them.
The release of many of these documents, Wiener said, clearly did not pose a threat to national security.
Some of the more notable examples of unthreatening documents that the FBI had originally retained include a description of a female parrot who had been trained to say, ‘Right on.’
It also contained a transcription of lyrics to one of Lennon’s songs which had already been made public when they were printed on the back of an album jacket, and a ‘Wanted’-style poster in which a photograph of David Peel, a folk singer and one of Lennon’s friends, is mistaken for a photograph of Lennon.
The files describe of the threat that Lennon posed to the Nixon administration and of Nixon’s use of the FBI as a political tool to intimidate his critics.
‘Lennon was encouraging young people to register to vote and to vote against Nixon in 1972,’ Wiener said. ‘That was a threat to Nixon, but that’s part of democracy. The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech.’
Almost all of the files that were released to Wiener were from 1971 and 1972.
Some documents that support Wiener’s allegation of political motivation for the investigation include a letter from John Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, to Harry Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, discussing Lennon’s deportation and a memo from the New York FBI office to law enforcement officials in Miami that encouraged police to arrest Lennon on narcotics charges ‘if at all possible.’ Such an arrest would have expedited the case for Lennon’s deportation, which was in the midst of a lengthy appeal process.
Wiener stressed that although the outcome of the case was favorable, it will not yield immediate results.
‘What we got was a court order,’ Wiener said. ‘What we did not get were the documents. Under the law, the FBI has 60 days to appeal the ruling … It could take a year or two for us to see the documents.’
Wiener said that although the contents of the remaining files have not been divulged, he has a good idea of what they contain.
‘The FBI says that the law requires them to withhold these files because of an agreement between our government and a foreign government,’ Wiener said. ‘David Shayler, who had worked for MI5 [a British intelligence agency], came public three years ago and said that he had seen a John Lennon file at MI5. Our guess is that Britain had provided some intelligence and that these are the documents that Shayler saw.’
The FBI has not yet stated whether it will appeal the court’s decision. The FBI was not available for comment about their next steps.