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John Lennon is still bugging the White House

September 10, 2006|Jon Wiener | JON WIENER, a professor of history at UC Irvine, is the author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files" and was the historical consultant on the film "U.S. vs. John Lennon."

WE ALL know that a key to preventing future terrorist attacks is sharing intelligence with foreign governments. When Justice Department attorneys urge courts not to release national security information provided by a foreign government under a Freedom of Information Act suit, they argue that the courts should defer to the experts in the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.

But what if such intelligence isn't about today's terrorist threats? What if it's about the antiwar activities of a British rock star during the Vietnam War?

That's precisely what's at issue in a Freedom of Information Act suit pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case of John Lennon's FBI files illustrates the federal government's obsession with secrecy, which it justifies with appeals to national security.

Lennon's story, told in the documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," opening this week in Los Angeles, revolves around his plans to help register young people to vote in the 1972 presidential election, when President Nixon was running for reelection and the war in Vietnam was the issue of the day. Lennon wanted to organize a national concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar protests and voter registration. Nixon found out about the plan, and the White House began deportation proceedings against Lennon.

It worked: Lennon never did the tour, and Nixon was reelected.

Along the way, the FBI spied on and harassed Lennon -- and kept detailed files of its work. The bulk of them were released in 1997 under the Freedom of Information Act after 15 years of litigation. I was the plaintiff.

But the agency continues to withhold 10 documents in Lennon's FBI file on grounds that they contain "national security information provided by a foreign government." The name of the foreign government remains classified, though it's probably not Afghanistan. The FBI has argued that "disclosure of this information could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security, as it would reveal a foreign government and information provided in confidence by that government."

U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi rejected this argument in 2004 and ordered the documents released. The FBI is appealing that decision.

The Lennon FBI files vividly illustrate the administration's problem. "Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government" -- those are the words of President Bush in his 2003 executive order on classified information. And he is right.

The Freedom of Information Act is necessary because Democrats and Republicans alike have secrets they want to keep -- secrets about corruption and the abuse of power. But now the White House wants to shield information from with a new rationale for secrecy -- protecting the homeland from terrorists.

The administration acknowledges that it has dramatically increased the number of documents classified "confidential," "secret" or "top secret." Between the time Bush took office in 2001 and 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, that number has nearly doubled. In 2004 alone, 80 federal agencies deemed 15.6 million documents off-limits. And that figure doesn't include documents withheld by Vice President Dick Cheney, who refuses to report to the National Archives the number of documents his office classifies even though Bush's executive order requires him to do so. Cheney claims his office is exempt.

The administration's frenzy on secrets has led to documents being reclassified after having been in the public domain for decades -- for example, the number of bombers and missiles the U.S. had in 1971. The same year that the FBI began its surveillance of Lennon, Nixon's secretary of Defense testified before Congress and displayed a chart showing the U.S. had 30 strategic bomber squadrons and 54 Titan and 1,000 Minuteman nuclear missiles.

Thirty-five years later, Bush officials blacked out that information in the public version of the secretary of Defense's 1971 report, claiming it is now a national security secret. About 55,000 pages of previously declassified material in the National Archives were edited this way, mostly by the Air Force and CIA. (In response, the U.S. archivist announced last week that a declassification initiative would eventually return 85% of the withdrawn CIA materials to the shelves.)

The justifications for such decisions are often ridiculous. In the Lennon FBI files litigation, the government claims that our national security would be damaged if it discloses the sharing of intelligence between the U.S. and the unnamed foreign government. But Bush himself declared in a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "relations and cooperation between our intelligence services are essential to secure the people of our respective countries."

That makes me wonder: Could it be that the same British intelligence service provided Nixon with information about Lennon in 1972? All this suggests that the time has come to end what Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, calls "silly secrecy."

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