Imagine there's no secrets

Larry Gerber

Associated Press

March 6, 1996

LOS ANGELES -- After fighting since 1981 to make the FBI tell why its agents shadowed John Lennon, a biographer of the late Beatle hopes the answers finally will come together now.

"I would love to do something else for the next 10 years," said Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, who documented Lennon's attempts to change politics through rock music and the government's attempts to stop him.

"We are almost at the end," said Dan Marmalefsky, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Court battles have freed about 85 percent of the FBI's Lennon file, he said.

"I was a single man when I filed this case, and now my older son is going on into the seventh grade."

Wiener first asked for the Lennon FBI files a few months after the talented composer and musician was shot to death in 1980 by a deranged fan in New York. The professor and the ACLU sued in 1983.

The case has been thrown out and reinstated on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Wiener in 1992, rejecting an FBI appeal to kill the suit. In December, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi ordered the FBI to answer questions about why it kept a file on Lennon. Responses were due in February, but the FBI asked for an extension because of the federal government shutdown in January.

The ruling probably won't free the remaining files, Wiener said.

"But the implications are clear that the courts are ... telling the FBI it can't do what it's been doing in this case. And the logical thing ... for the Clinton Justice Department to do is to give us the materials," he said.

Step by step, the agency has dribbled out bits of information from its 1972 surveillance of Lennon, who was ordered to be deported after speaking out against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's re-election to the presidency.

Wiener has collected 26 pounds of paper, filling two cardboard boxes in the study of his West Los Angeles home. Some of the documents tell more about bureaucracy than the Beatles.

"Lennon formerly with group known as the Beatles," an undercover source reported to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on a Lennon appearance at a 1971 antiwar concert in Ann Arbor, Mich. Much of the report was withheld on grounds of "national defense or foreign policy." About 15,000 people attended the concert.

Wiener eventually got the withheld portion, classified "confidential" by the FBI. It begins with lyrics to the Lennon song "John Sinclair," which were printed on the back of an album cover in 1972.

The song, about an activist busted for marijuana, "probably will become a million seller," the FBI informant wrongly predicted "... but it is lacking Lennon's usual standards."

The report also noted -- confidentially -- that Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, "can't even remain on key."

Lennon, at the time, was discussing plans, later discarded, for opposing the war and Nixon on a rock tour ending with a "political Woodstock" outside the Republican National Convention in San Diego.

Lennon fought the government's deportation order and remained to see Nixon forced from office over the Watergate burglary and other "dirty tricks." He was never deported.

Wiener said he might add a chapter to his book "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" once he has all the FBI information. A specialist in recent American history, he suggested some youngsters could use a general update.

A student interviewer, for example, recently seemed puzzled when Wiener mentioned Lennon's anti-war anthem, "Give Peace a Chance."

"She asked, 'What does that mean?' " the professor recalled. "She knew there was a group called The Beatles, and she knew there was a Vietnam War. But she didn't know much else about the period."

Not that Wiener expects many new revelations from the remaining files. He expects to show that the Nixon administration acted illegally against Lennon, as it did against its Democratic opponents.

"I don't think the issue here is John Lennon. I don't think we're going to find out more about Lennon," Wiener said.

"What's important about these files is that they document government's abuse of power, using government agencies to harass and intimidate critics of the president, and that's a violation of the Bill of Rights, an attack on freedom of speech.

"And that has much bigger implications than whether John Lennon gets to sing 'Give Peace a Chance.' "

The ACLU has invested an estimated $500,000 in attorney time and other expenses, Marmalefsky said.

Four different lawyers have headed the case for the government. It wasn't known what the taxpayer expenses amounted to. Spokespersons for the FBI and the Justice Department either declined to return calls or to discuss the case on the phone.

"Nixon is dead and gone. J. Edgar Hoover is dead and gone. John Lennon is dead and gone. We've started relations with Vietnam," Wiener said.

"Yet the Clinton administration has apparently decided that they'll continue to keep these documents secret, at least some of them, and I wonder why," he said. "It doesn't make much sense."

Copyright 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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