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Orange County

Professor Wins Release of Last FBI Data on Beatle

October 01, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

For more than two decades, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener battled the federal government to gain access to a 300-page file the FBI kept on the late Beatles member John Lennon.

Along the way, he scored small victories, gaining access to portions of the dossier and finding gems such as a 1972 FBI memo suggesting that Lennon, a British citizen, should be targeted for a drug arrest in order to aid efforts to deport him.

Or a photograph the FBI circulated as a likeness of Lennon, one of the most recognizable faces in the world and a 1960s counterculture icon. But the picture was that of David Peel, a New York city street singer, who favored shaggy hair and round glasses like his friend Lennon.

Finally, Wiener's quest to have the entire file released may be over. On Tuesday, a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles ordered the FBI to unseal the last 10 pages of the file, one of many the agency kept on what it considered anti-government activists of the era.

"I never wanted to spend -- what has it been? -- 21 years on this," Wiener said from his campus office Thursday. After Lennon was fatally shot in front of his New York apartment in December 1980, "I just wanted to write something about Lennon."

Wiener, a self-described "radical historian," former student activist and Beatles fan, said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI shortly after Lennon's death. He got a treasure trove of documents, but most were censored by officials who cited national security concerns.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Wiener sued. The legal wrangling dragged on until 1997, when the Clinton administration settled most of the case and released the remainder of the file, except for the final 10 pages.

U.S. Department of Justice officials could not be reached for comment on whether they would appeal Tuesday's ruling.

Wiener, who has written two books about Lennon, said that he doesn't expect to find any bombshells in the remaining documents but that at least the subject will be closed. He said Lennon's FBI file sheds less light on the 1960s icon than it does on Richard Nixon's White House and the FBI.

"The most interesting thing to me is that it shows how Nixon feared the political power of John Lennon, the political power of rock 'n' roll," Wiener said. "It also shows the administration's abuse of power."

Federal immigration officials tried to deport Lennon in 1972, citing a previous drug-related arrest in Britain. But Lennon, who had been one of the highest-profile figures in the anti-Vietnam War movement, appealed and was able to remain in the U.S.

The government maintained publicly that Lennon was not being targeted for his political views. The FBI files, however, told a different story.

A 1972 memo Wiener uncovered shows FBI officials admitting that the deportation case against Lennon was "loose." They suggest encouraging police in Miami, where the Republican Party was holding its convention and demonstrations were expected, to arrest Lennon "if at all possible on possession of narcotics charge." Lennon ended up not going.

Wiener said the Justice Department relented over the years on the Lennon files possibly because "the FBI has other things to worry about."

But with the country at war again and the presidential election just around the corner, Lennon's message may have renewed resonance, he said.

Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, with whom Wiener has kept in touch, will soon re-release Lennon's pacifist anthem "Give Peace a Chance," he said.

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