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FBI to release last of its John Lennon files

The U.S. had said such an act could stir military retaliation. The papers, withheld 25 years, don't seem to bear that out.

December 20, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

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.

Another describes an interview with Lennon published in 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 there was no sign that 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.

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