The Lennon Files: The FBI and the Beatle

In the early 1970s, the FBI - along with anyone who listened to the things he said at the time - worked out that John Lennon harboured left-wing sympathies. But only now have the US authorities revealed the extent of the data held on the ex-Beatle.

Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 21 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Here are some facts about John Lennon deemed so sensitive to the national security of both Britain and the United States that they have only just been released to the public after 25 years of freedom of information requests and protracted legal battles.

"John Winston Lennon is a British citizen and a former member of the Beatles singing group." So begins a letter written in April 1972 by J Edgar Hoover, the long-serving head of the FBI, to a member of Richard Nixon's Justice Department. Clearly, this was news to someone, even as late as 1972.

"Lennon has encouraged the belief that he holds revolutionary views, not only by means of his formal interviews with Marxists, but by the content of some of his songs and other publications." That line comes from an FBI memo written in February 1972, when Hoover and the Nixon administration were both fighting tooth and nail to revoke Lennon's immigrant visa and have him deported. The song that appeared to interest them the most was "Power to the People" - hardly a secret document since it was released on Lennon's first post-Beatles album, Plastic Ono Band, in 1970 and played on radio stations around the world.

"Since 1972, John Lennon has continued from time to time to lend his support to various extremist causes, but does not appear to owe allegiance to any one faction." That's a sentence from an unmarked, undated document stamped "confidential" that appears to have originated with MI5.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we can now reveal to you the shocking news that John Lennon - despite his bewilderingly long hair and his mystifying habit of lying in bed for days at a time - was a peace activist who opposed the Vietnam War, spoke out against British military intervention in Northern Ireland, met and gave interviews to leading anti-war advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and was even known, on occasion, to open his cheque book to put his money where his mouth was.

We can further reveal that, according to one of J Edgar Hoover's confidential sources - on whose reliability and competence more in a moment - he experimented with illicit drugs, and was busted once for possession of marijuana. Such are the highlights of the last 10 documents in Lennon's FBI file - documents deemed so sensitive that, for years, the US government refused to release them on the grounds that to do so could "reasonably be expected to... lead to foreign diplomatic, economic and military retaliation against the United States".

Yes, you read that right. Starting in 1983, the Justice Department argued, with an entirely straight face, that to publish information on Lennon it was given by a foreign intelligence service - MI5, we can reasonably presume - might invite a military strike against the United States. Justice Department lawyers continued to make the argument through the end of the Cold War and into the post-9/11 era, and would no doubt be making the argument still were it not for the intervention of the federal courts, whose agonisingly slow deliberations led to the release of the documents this week.

The Lennon files - more than 300 pages in all - are now entirely unexpurgated, except in one particular. The "foreign government" protected by the FBI all these years remains unnamed.

The fight for Lennon's FBI file is one of those stories that tells us much less, in the end, about the subject himself than it does about the bumbling, bureaucratic, loopily paranoid universe of intelligence operatives and official secrecy. The fact that Lennon was under surveillance at all was already scandalous - neither the FBI nor MI5 established any instance of either criminal behaviour or intent, nor did they have more than the most measly of grounds to suspect it.

It appears, rather, that Hoover and the Nixon administration went after him because his popularity with young voters, and his opposition to the Vietnam War, made him a potential threat to Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. The veteran conservative senator, Strom Thurmond, all but acknowledged as much in a confidential memo to the White House, unearthed in an earlier release of Lennon-related documents, when he suggested the deportation of Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, might be an effective "strategy counter-measure". It can also be no coincidence that the FBI surveillance of Lennon ceased as soon as Nixon was returned to another term in the White House.

The whole episode, in other words, might be described as a rock'n'roll Watergate - a minor, but still telling, instance of official abuse of power designed to stifle political opposition to an ambitious and unscrupulous US president. The phrase "rock'n'roll Watergate" was in fact coined by the man who has done more than anyone else to dig up the full, embarrassing truth of the Lennon FBI file, a University of California historian called Jon Wiener. Mr Wiener has written two books chronicling his quarter-century of efforts to tear down the walls of official secrecy around Lennon, and has popped in and out of federal court more times than he can remember.

At this point, he's so astonished at the ludicrously extended timeline of the whole affair he is no longer talking about a rock'n'roll Watergate. It has become more of a rock'n'roll Bleak House - "only with a happier ending".

It has been 25 years since he filed his first Freedom of Information Act request for Lennon's papers - he started just a few months after Lennon's death - and 23 years since FBI stonewalling prompted him and the American Civil Liberties Union to file their first lawsuit.

"I feel like we should have settled this in 1981," Professor Weiner said yesterday, sounding more exhausted than elated that his long bureaucratic quest is at last over. "This doesn't really have much to do with John Lennon, since there is nothing in these latest documents that we didn't already know about him.

"What this is really about is the FBI and the four presidents since Nixon who kept this secret. It's got to be an embarrassment to them that they fought so hard and for so long to keep something secret that is so public and so trivial."

That embarrassment also extends very specifically to the Blair government. According to FBI records, the unnamed "foreign government" was asked for permission to release its documents on Lennon back in September 1997, just a few months after Mr Blair first took office. The foreign government said no, saying that secrecy remained necessary to avoid "serious and demonstrable harm to its sources, which remain sensitive".

Reading the newly released documents, it is hard to see what the British authorities could possibly have been referring to. The file reads like the hastily cobbled-together work of a junior operative, relying almost entirely on publicly available information. We read, for example, that Lennon gave an interview to British radicals Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn for their journal Red Mole, in which he "emphasised his proletarian background and his sympathy with the opposed and underprivileged people of Britain and the world". No surprise there, since the interview was published in 1970.

We read that Lennon met the radical French journalist Regis Debray, which was already widely known. We read that he signed a petition in support of Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk, following exposure of the covert US bombing campaign against his country. And we read that he gave money to the makers of a film documentary on Northern Ireland. Nothing new there, either.

The only morsel offered up by the file that was not already on the public record concerns a request by Ali and Blackburn for financial help with a left-wing bookstore and reading room they were thinking of setting up in central London. There is no evidence Lennon ever gave them money for the venture. Once his immigration fight began in the United States, he cut back on almost all his political activities in the interests of winning his case.

If the British intelligence on Lennon was banal, the US effort was downright ludicrous. When Professor Wiener secured access to the bulk of the FBI files nine years ago, he discovered that the FBI could not get even basic details right, like Lennon's address in New York. They hatched plots to arrest Lennon on drugs charges, which never materialised, and drafted a wanted poster whose most striking characteristic was that the photograph they used was not of Lennon at all, but of another rock singer with long hair and glasses called David Peel.

When Lennon's immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes, noted in court that Lennon had become involved in a "national anti-drug media effort", this was misinterpreted to mean that he had in fact joined the Nixon administration's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse - a wonderfully comic mistake that was repeated in memos for months.

A number of informants were sent out with instructions to catch Lennon in the act of advocating violent insurrection, but all they ever heard him say was that he would join anti-war protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions only "if they are peaceful". The most memorable tidbit they unearthed did not concern Lennon at all, but rather a parrot belonging to an anti-war group trained "to interject 'right on' whenever the conversation gets rousing".

The FBI might come off looking more like the Keystone Kops than a serious law enforcement agency - one possible reason why the files were withheld for long - but the seriousness of the Nixon administration's hostility to the anti-war movement should not be underestimated. We know from other sources that the President's men were actively considering such options as mugging demonstrators outside the Republican National Convention in Miami and abducting leading anti-war figures like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. John Mitchell, who was attorney general at the time, opined that this approach would be too expensive. So he and others advocated Plan B - breaking into the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate building in Washington.

It appears the British files on Lennon may still contain a few unpublished nuggets. David Shayler, the renegade former MI5 officer, disclosed a few years ago that he had seen a file on Lennon detailing his links, among other things, to the Workers' Revolutionary Party. But Professor Wiener, for one, is satisfied. Asked if he planned to pursue the Lennon files yet further, he responded, with relief: "I'm happy we're done with this now."

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