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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Author vs. FBI: Court to Have Last Word

February 26, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

When the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights revealed two weeks ago that the FBI has for several years been investigating members of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in defiance of congressional restrictions on political surveillance, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener wasn't surprised.

"The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover," he said in his UCI office recently, "consistently went far beyond its legitimate law enforcement role. This would seem to indicate that in spite of assurances to the contrary, not much has changed."

Wiener should know. He has been involved in a seven-year battle for release of the FBI's 288-page file on former Beatle John Lennon. Wiener got about one-third of that information--heavily censored--for a book he was writing on Lennon. When he was refused access to any of the rest, he went to court in 1983 under the Freedom of Information Act to force the FBI to release all the information in the Lennon file that didn't--in the view of the court--endanger national security. Although final arguments were made in Los Angeles County Superior Court almost six months ago, there still has been no decision.

"I think," Wiener said, "that we showed convincingly that nothing Lennon did, planned to do or talked about doing in any way threatened the national security of the United States. At most, it threatened the reelection of President Nixon."

Wiener has become philosophical about the waiting. Anticipating that his attempts to get more information might take years, he published the book--"Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" (Random House)--in 1985. When and if new material is released, he'll amend the book accordingly. Meanwhile, he is dismayed to see the enormous advances in public knowledge represented by passage of the Freedom of Information Act being, in his view, steadily eroded by the Reagan Administration.

"The FOIA," he said, "is a wonderful thing. No other country in the world has anything like it. It says that not only does the government of the United States belong to the people, but so does the government's information. Therefore, the government has an obligation to release this information. The law came about during the Carter Administration as an aftermath of Watergate.

"The FBI is frustrating the intent of the act, and this has become steadily more apparent under President Reagan. Trying to pull the teeth of the Freedom of Information Act has apparently been a high priority of the Reagan Administration."

Wiener pointed out that under the original concept of the law, the government was required to balance the public's right to know against any possible damage that disclosure might cause. Reagan pushed hard early in his presidency--"when he had his greatest clout"--to get rid of the balancing concept. Congress obliged by rewording the law so that virtually all the government has to do now to prevent disclosure is to profess some basis for danger. That makes it necessary for the public to argue each issue in court--an expensive and time-consuming process.

But Wiener has hung in--with considerable help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Although he had always viewed the Beatles as the soft underbelly of rock music ("they later became much more complex as political figures"), Wiener was hit hard by John Lennon's murder in December, 1980. Soon afterward, he decided to do a book on Lennon, "not just a popular biography but a serious history. I think the history of youth culture and the New Left belong as a legitimate part of American history."

That's when he filed his first request for the FBI's files on Lennon. He also requested Lennon's immigration files. Those were sent promptly and completely. "Immigration," Wiener said, "complied with the act. The FBI took five months to respond and then sent about one-third of the material, and even some of that was outrageously deleted."

Citizens requesting information under the FOIA are allowed one appeal. Wiener filed his at FBI headquarters and at eight FBI field offices "where the most interesting raw data is kept." A year and a half later, he received a few more pages--and that was it. His only remaining recourse was a lawsuit, but he did not have enough money to see it through. So he took his problem to the ACLU in Los Angeles "and the people there felt we had a good case of flagrant abuse."

"It's the only way to take them on," Wiener said. "I have a friend who is trying to write a biography of Paul Robeson. The FBI probably has more complete information on him than any other single source, but my friend has already spent $20,000 and has received virtually nothing. Unless you're independently wealthy--or get the support of someone like the ACLU--they'll outlast you."

Wiener is determined that isn't going to happen to him. A slight, bespectacled man of 43 with the broad perspective of the historian that he is, Wiener takes a rather dispassionate view of his troubles with the government.

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