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2000-05-25

Gimme Some Truth: The FBI Files of John Lennon

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Democracy Now! has done extensive coverage of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, particularly in terms of African Americans and the breaking up of the Black Panthers and its sympathizers throughout the 1970s. But today we’re going to take a different look at the FBI. We’re looking at what happens when culture, music and politics come together. This is the story of John Lennon and the FBI. [includes rush transcript]

Guest:

  • Jon Wiener, Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of ??Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.

Related link:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve heard a lot of coverage on Democracy Now! of COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program. We’ve particularly looked at it in terms of African Americans, in breaking up the Black Panthers and sympathizers throughout the 1970s. But today, we’re going to take a different look at the F.B.I., and it’s looking at how — what happens when culture, music, politics come together, and it’s a story of John Lennon’s F.B.I. files. We’re joined right now by Jon Wiener. He is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and has just finished an investigation and written a book called Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JON WIENER: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First of all, how did you get interested in starting this investigation?

JON WIENER: Well, this whole thing started shortly after Lennon was killed. In December 1980 I was a Lennon fan, I was a historian. I wanted to do something, write something about his role in the peace movement in the United States, which I thought was being neglected. And actually this whole thing started as a sort of tribute to John Lennon for KPFK in Los Angeles on Pacifica Radio. I filed a Freedom of Information request for F.B.I. files on John Lennon. It was part of doing lots of other interviews and library research. 1981, I filed this FOIA request.

The F.B.I. told me they had about 400 pages of files on John Lennon, all dating from 1971 and '72, when Lennon had just moved to New York City, joined up with the peace movement, singing "Give Peace a Chance" at anti-war rallies. The Vietnam War was still going strong. Nixon was preparing to run for reelection. So it was all about kind of Lennon's engagement with the anti-war movement in New York in ’71 and ’72. The F.B.I. told me they had about 400 pages of files on Lennon.

At that point, they withheld about two-thirds of those files, on the claims that these were national security documents. I got the help of the ACLU of Southern California in filing a lawsuit in 1983. We were in court litigating it. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and came back, and finally, the Clinton administration settled in 1997, released all but eight documents. And this book, Gimme Some Truth reproduces the hundred most important pages that we’ve gotten from the F.B.I.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was so important for them to hide all these years?

JON WIENER: Well, that’s an interesting question. Lennon had an idea that he developed with some of his friends in New York. He was hooked up with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, the people who had organized the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which ended up in a police riot. They were trying to think of what they could do for 1972 that might be a little more successful. And what Lennon was talking about with his friends was doing a national concert tour that Lennon would headline. It would coincide with the ’72 election season.

It wasn’t going to be a regular rock concert tour, though. Lennon wanted to combine rock music with radical politics, sing some songs, bring movement leaders, both national and local leaders, to the different venues, and, in particular, organize young people to register to vote in the ’72 election and to vote against Nixon. So this was an effort to combine rock music and radical politics.

The Nixon White House got wind of this from an unlikely source: Senator Strom Thurmond. Usually we don’t think of Strom Thurmond as an expert on, you know, rock concerts or venues. But my book reproduces a memo Strom Thurmond sent to Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, that concludes — that outlines Lennon’s plans for this national concert tour to register voters and concludes, "If Lennon were to be deported, it would be a strategic counter-measure." The Nixon administration promptly began deportation proceedings against Lennon, and the F.B.I. file is really about the F.B.I.’s efforts to contribute to this effort to get Lennon out of the country, so to prevent him from doing this tour and to silence him as a spokesperson for the peace movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did they go about doing it?

JON WIENER: Well, his lawyers told him that he actually had a very weak case for staying in the country. The immigration law at that time was that if you had any conviction for a drug offense, no matter how minor, no matter what the circumstances, you were not eligible for admission. Lennon had plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cannabis possession in London in 1968. The infamous Scotland Yard detective, Sergeant Norman Pilcher, busted him in Ringo’s Montague Square basement flat. Lennon always claimed he had been set up. Years later, Pilcher was convicted of planting drugs on people he had arrested, and Pilcher went to jail. But in the meantime, Lennon was facing imminent deportation. He was under a 60-day deportation order for most of 1972 and '73. He didn't want to leave New York. It would have meant separating from his wife Yoko, which he didn’t want to do. So, basically, the Nixon administration succeeded in forcing him to cancel the plans for this tour, and, you know, it’s a case where he was really crushed by the powers of the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the letter that Strom Thurmond wrote to the Honorable William Timmons. Who was he, at the White House?

JON WIENER: Timmons was one of the assistants to Haldeman in the White House. It’s one of the ways he communicated with Nixon.

AMY GOODMAN: And it says, "This is an important matter. Find attached memorandum to me from the staff of the internal security subcommittee of the judiciary committee. It appears to me to be an important matter. I think it would be well for it to be considered at the highest level."

JON WIENER: Yeah, that would be the President, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, ultimately, he left the country?

JON WIENER: No, he had good lawyers, as you might imagine, and there was a national campaign, "Let them stay in the U.S.A." If anyone who still has Lennon’s album, Sometime in New York City, the original LP had an insert with the "Let them stay in the U.S.A." petition. Thousands of people wrote letters to their congressmen. His lawyers managed to postpone these 60-day deportation orders throughout 1972 and ’73, and then Watergate came along, and pretty soon it was Nixon who was leaving office. And finally, when Gerald Ford became president, Lennon got his green card and was granted permanent residency.

AMY GOODMAN: I have a letter of William Timmons back to Strom. "Dear Strom," that is. It says, "I thought you’d be interested in learning that the Immigration and Naturalization Services served notice on him that he is to leave this country no later than March 15."

JON WIENER: Yeah. Now, what happened there was that Lennon did do one concert of this series that they had been planning for '72. At the end of 1971 — really the first item in John Lennon's F.B.I. file describes the "Free John Sinclair" concert held in Ann Arbor in December '71. There's still people around who remember this.

John Sinclair was a movement leader in Michigan, head of the White Panthers, associated with the MC5 rock group. He had been sentenced to ten years in the state prison and was serving time for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover agent. And this was a cause celebre on the left at that time. The "Free John Sinclair" concert, 15,000 people came to Chrysler Arena in Ann Arbor. Lennon sang the new song he had written for that occasion, "It ain’t fair. John Sinclair, in the stir for breathing air. Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free."

The F.B.I. undercover agent, who was among the 15,000 people in Chrysler Arena, carefully copied down all the words to this song and sent them to J. Edgar Hoover. They were promptly classified confidential and kept secret for the next twelve years, even though Lennon printed those same lyrics on the back of his next album, Sometime in New York City. I reproduced the F.B.I. undercover agent’s report on the "Free John Sinclair" concert in this book, Gimme Some Truth.

This concert was a great success. Jerry Rubin spoke. Bobby Seale spoke. William Kunstler sent a message. And most amazing of all, John Sinclair was released from the state prison like the next week. So, Lennon was very excited about this, wanted to do more, and it was just two months later that the deportation order came down. So, all we know is they were excited about doing this tour. The first time they tried, it was a great success. Strom Thurmond, obviously informed by the F.B.I., saw what was happening and put a stop to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. We’ll be back with him and his research on the John Lennon F.B.I. file — his book is called Gimme Some Truth — in just a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jon Wiener, Professor of History at University of California, Irvine, and he has just written a book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files. Dan Rather said about this, "Just when you thought there may be nothing left to say about the Beatles or the Nixon years, the F.B.I. has opened up its secret files on the late John Lennon."

JON WIENER: Also, I love the quote — this is off the record, but what’s in the yellow highlight, what the F.B.I. said about this, about our arguments in court.

AMY GOODMAN: "A strident and impermissible effort to second-guess the wisdom of the F.B.I., a potpourri of conjecture, supposition, innuendo and surmise."

JON WIENER: They have a good vocabulary at the F.B.I.

AMY GOODMAN: From the F.B.I.'s court documents, fighting you getting the Freedom of Information Act request that you had put in for. You talk about the Lennon F.B.I. files, including some comic and hilarious moments, as well as the fact that clearly the attempts of the F.B.I. to neutralize Lennon weren't a joke. But let’s go to some of the funnier moments.

JON WIENER: Well, one of the items here is a report from an undercover agent on a meeting of anti-war radicals in the East Village, planning demonstrations for the Republican National Convention, which was going to be held in Miami in '72, where Nixon was going to be re-nominated. The undercover agent reports — this is to J. Edgar Hoover — that at this loft in the East Village, there is a parrot, and whenever the conversation gets heated, the parrot shouts, "Right on!" Now, it's kind of mildly interesting, but why does J. Edgar Hoover need to know this? Why should this be classified "confidential"? This is a document the F.B.I. went all the way to the Supreme Court to conceal from us and which they were finally forced to release and is reproduced among the other documents in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think? Why do you speculate?

JON WIENER: Well, their reason was that they wanted to conceal the identity of the informant who provided this information.

AMY GOODMAN: Another parrot?

JON WIENER: No, in fact, there’s a story behind that. The confidential informant who provided that information, during the course of our lawsuit, decided to join our side. This is one of the most amazing stories of the whole episode. It’s a woman named Julie Maynard. She had been a full-time — what do they call them?

AMY GOODMAN: Groupie?

JON WIENER: Confidential informant for the F.B.I. She had spied sort of — she spied on Lennon for the F.B.I. But then she had a falling out with the F.B.I. in the '80s. She was based in Madison, Wisconsin. And she called me up one day and said she wanted to join our side. She didn't want them to protect her identity. She filed affidavits as part of our lawsuit, saying that they didn’t need to conceal her identity, they should release these documents which she had provided. First they dismissed her affidavit. They called it irrelevant, which seemed kind of strange to me, since the whole reason for not releasing this document was to conceal her identity. But eventually they sort of threw in the towel and released the documents she had provided. It’s very rare. I actually don’t know of any other cases, where a full-time paid informant for the F.B.I. has changed sides. When we won this case in two years ago, I called up Julie to tell her, but unfortunately she had died like two months earlier, so otherwise she’d be on the radio here with us today.

AMY GOODMAN: Did she talk to you in that period before she died about what she was doing spying on John Lennon?

JON WIENER: Well, she was part of — you know, this was the '60s, so she was like the office girl for the organization planning the demonstrations in Miami. She kind of ran the office. The biggest information that she had was that she xeroxed a check, she says, for $75,000 that Lennon had given to the organization planning demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. She sent the xerox to J. Edgar Hoover, and then she deposited the check in the bank account of the organization. The reports of this check repeated over and over dozens of times in Lennon's F.B.I. file as sort of the proof positive that he was, you know, some kind of dangerous radical.

Of course, there’s nothing illegal about contributing money to an anti-war organization that’s planning demonstrations. Demonstration is political advocacy protected by the First Amendment, so, you know, all of this is a violation of the First Amendment, which, I should point out, is not limited to citizens. The First Amendment doesn’t say citizens have a right to free speech; it says Congress shall make no law, so even if you’re an alien, you have free speech rights in the United States, and so did Lennon.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go through Lennon’s history and talk about where the F.B.I. intersects with his life and his songs?

JON WIENER: Well, you know, all he was saying was: "Give peace a chance." That song comes from 1968. I can remember back in '68, this became sort of the anthem or the chant of the anti-war movement in those years. Some of us thought it was a kind of an apolitical, almost liberal ideal. It was — the idea was, you know, people should give up their kind of political debates on the left, and everybody should unite around this one demand: All we are saying is give peace a chance. I have friends who were singing at the time: "All we are saying is give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance." But Lennon's song was sung by something like a quarter of a million people at the Washington Monument at the 1969 moratorium against the war, at that time the biggest demonstration that had ever been in Washington. But Lennon moved steadily to the left, as a lot of other people did in the late '60s and early ’70s. And, you know, this wasn't just give peace a chance anymore, this was a very conscious effort to combine community organizing, grassroots organizing, with building a national anti-war coalition that could challenge the President. This was in ’72.

Now, of course, Nixon won that election in 1972 by an overwhelming landslide. George McGovern, the Democratic candidate, carried only what? Two or three states? South Dakota and Massachusetts, I believe. So, you might say this plan of Lennon’s was, you know, foolish; it was never going to work, and Nixon was just paranoid to think that this was politically significant. But you have to remember, at the time the F.B.I. was going after Lennon, no one knew that Nixon was going to win in a landslide. It wasn’t even clear McGovern was going to be the candidate. You know, there’s a lot of things we don’t like about Richard Nixon, but I think he did understand American politics quite well, and so if Richard Nixon considered Lennon to be posing a potentially significant political force, I’m willing to take Nixon seriously on that point.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jon Wiener, who is a professor at U.C. Irvine, University of California, Irvine, and has written a book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files. What about after that period?

JON WIENER: Well, I don’t think people really appreciate what a devastating effect this had on Lennon. When he came to the United States in ’71, he was full of optimism, full of energy. You know, his view was America is the land of the free. He was married to Yoko, who was part of this exciting avant-garde art scene in Manhattan. New York was, you know, the center of the universe, as far as he was concerned. They did this concert out in Ann Arbor that had this tremendous response. Then he was really crushed by the power of the Nixon administration. This was a guy who had always been known for his ironic stances. You know, he was the rebel. And they made him behave. You know, he had to cut his hair and wear a coat and tie and go to court and, you know, stay out of trouble.

You know, the result was that his music fell apart in the next year or two, his personal life fell apart — this is when he separated from Yoko. He went out to L.A. and lived the life of the dissolute rock star. You know, he paid a heavy price both as a creative person and in his personal life. And I think a lot of that is just the fact that he was crushed by the power of the United States government, something he never imagined could happen to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the British intelligence agency cooperate at all with the F.B.I.?

JON WIENER: Well, that remains an open question. There are eight documents that the Clinton administration still refuses to release. They say these documents contain information provided by the intelligence service of a foreign government, and we’re not even allowed to know the name of the foreign government. You might speculate, 'Probably not Afghanistan.'

But just recently a foreign intelligence agent of Britain’s MI5 has surfaced, a man named David Shayler. He’s kind of a whistleblower in Britain. And he says he has seen a Lennon file at MI5, the British intelligence agency. That is almost certainly the source of the information in the eight documents our own F.B.I. is refusing to release as foreign government information. According to David Shayler, these British documents describe Lennon’s financial support for leftwing groups starting in 1968. He says he also saw a copy of the lyrics to Lennon’s song "Working Class Hero," written in what appeared to be Lennon’s own handwriting.

After David Shayler made these revelations, he was forced to flee from Britain under their Official Secrets Act. You know, we have the Freedom of Information Act, the Brits have the Official Secrets Act. It’s kind of the opposite. He fled to France. The French put him in jail for four months as a courtesy to the British, while the Brits tried to extradite him. He’s out of jail now. If he sets foot back in Britain, he’ll be arrested, jailed and prosecuted as a traitor. The British press has been enjoined from printing any of the words of this guy, David Shayler, because he’s in violation of the Official Secrets Act.

So, now we know what’s in the foreign government-originated documents in the Lennon F.B.I. file, which seems to make it — I mean, these, obviously, are not national security secrets, these are more kind of trivial stuff about the political activities, you know, thirty years ago of a dead rock star. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration refuses to release them, and we’re, with the help of the ACLU of Southern California, we are still in court fighting over this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for a minute for stations to identify themselves. Jon Wiener is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files. We’ll continue with Jon Wiener in just a minute here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: What about the poster, "The Pope Smokes Dope"?

JON WIENER: Well, the F.B.I. continued to worry throughout the summer of 1972 that Lennon was going to participate in demonstrations outside the Republican National Convention, so they sent word down to the Miami F.B.I. to, quote, "arrest Lennon, if at all possible, on possession of narcotics charges," which they said would make him more immediately deportable. This seems to me to be an effort to set Lennon up for a drug bust, since the F.B.I. doesn’t enforce possession of narcotics charges; this is a state and local matter. So it’s clearly, you know, an abuse of power.

Along with this memo, they sent a kind of a wanted poster, apparently in the belief that the Miami F.B.I. wasn’t sure what Lennon looked like. Of course, he was one of the most famous faces in the world in 1972. Kind of gave his height, his, you know, eyes, hair color, and then there’s a picture of what’s supposed to be Lennon. But the strange thing is the picture on the F.B.I. wanted poster is not John Lennon. It’s another guy. It’s a guy named David Peel. He’s still around. He’s a East Village street singer. In fact, I got an email from him yesterday, saying "Congratulations on the book." David Peel was a friend of John Lennon’s. He kind of looked like John Lennon in a spirit. He wore the wire-rimmed glasses and had the same kind of long hair. And he had recorded an album on Apple Records called The Pope Smokes Dope. The picture of David Peel is what appears on the John Lennon wanted poster. It’s just another one of the sort of keystone cops aspect of this whole story, and the F.B.I.’s wanted poster is reprinted in my book, Gimme Some Truth, alongside the Apple Records publicity poster for David Peel.

AMY GOODMAN: How aware was John Lennon of the F.B.I. campaign?

JON WIENER: Well, he did not know for sure in his own lifetime if there was an F.B.I. file on him. I mean, I didn’t get this information until 1981, a few months after he died. He complained in public that too many people were coming to fix the phones at their loft on 105 Bank Street. In fact, whenever he needed to make a secure call, he would go next door and use the phone at John Cage’s loft.

AMY GOODMAN: The musician?

JON WIENER: Correct. Later, he sued the F.B.I., claiming he had been the target of illegal surveillance — illegal wiretapping. The F.B.I. file contains their response to this. They informed him in court that a search of their records had produced no evidence of authorized F.B.I. wiretapping. Now, you may note this is a kind of a non-denial denial, typical of the era. They said they could find no evidence, but maybe they didn’t look very hard. They said they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping, but maybe it was unauthorized. And they said they could not find no evidence of authorized F.B.I. wiretapping; it could have been he was wired up by the New York City police or military intelligence or someone else. In any event, there are no wiretap logs in the John Lennon F.B.I. file.

What there is is transcripts of appearances of his on TV programs, like, you know, the Dick Cavett Show, the Mike Douglas Show, these, you know, revolutionary programs on broadcast TV; reports of his participation in anti-war demonstrations in Manhattan; and then a lot of these undercover agent reports on the comings and goings of various activists, known and unknown — you know, 'Tim is using his parents' car to get to the demo,’ 'Bill has grown a beard,' just absolute trivia that seems to have — we argued in court — no law enforcement purpose. And therefore, the collection of these files was illegitimate in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you interview Yoko Ono?

JON WIENER: Yeah, I’ve interviewed Yoko. The transcript of our interview appears in the previous book that I published, which is called Come Together: John Lennon In His Time. She’s not a part of this Freedom of Information suit. She maintains what I call a friendly distance. You know, she’s got other projects going. This was — she appears in the files intermittently. You know, this was her life, too. They were trying to deport her, too, until they discovered that she had already been granted a green card, and they had somehow forgotten about that.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this current period? You spoke about it a little bit, with the MI5 and Clinton releasing these documents, but Tony Blair and President Clinton.

JON WIENER: Well, first of all, most of the time we were in court — we filed this lawsuit in 1983, so we were up against first the Reagan administration, then the Bush administration. Our assumption was as soon as a Democrat gets into power, they’re going to release these things, because these are — this is part of Watergate. This is part of the Nixon-era abusive power. This is, you know, Republican paranoia.

The Clinton administration fought this for five more years. I’m not sure why. And they continue to protect these last eight documents, which seem to come from the British government. My assumption here is that the Clinton administration, like its predecessors, sort of is part of a culture of secrecy, that they prefer to control the information that we get about them. May well be the Clinton administration has secrets, which it doesn’t want us to know about, and while the Lennon file doesn’t really matter to them, it’s the principle of Freedom of Information that’s at stake here, and that’s one reason why the ACLU has been willing to put so much energy into this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, what were you most surprised by in these F.B.I. files that you managed to get after almost two decades?

JON WIENER: Well, I think what’s surprising in the files is that there’s really almost nothing new about Lennon. There aren’t any big secrets about Lennon. Lennon, in these years especially, kind of lived his life in public, so we don’t find any conspiracies, we don’t find any crimes. There’s not even anything very embarrassing here. I mean, it says he’s involved with narcotics, but he sang a song at Madison Square Garden in July 1972, "Cold Turkey," about his struggles to get off heroin, so I mean, even that he sang about in public. This is really the story of F.B.I. misconduct, of the President using the F.B.I. to get his enemies, to use federal agencies to suppress dissent and to silence critics. Now, in a lot of ways, we know this story. This is the Watergate story. This happened before; it happened again. It happened to CISPES in the late '80s. We discovered the F.B.I. was maintaining files that infiltrated this group, completely unauthorized, no legitimate law enforcement purpose. The Lennon file is a lot like all the other files the government has kept on radicals, you know, from the beginning of the F.B.I. in the World War I era down through today. The only thing that makes it different is it's about John Lennon.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about John Lennon’s death? What about his murder?

JON WIENER: You know, Sean Lennon, himself, said last year that he thought his father —

AMY GOODMAN: John’s son.

JON WIENER: Yes, John’s son. He thought his father had been murdered as the result of a conspiracy because he had been a prominent radical activist. I don’t see any evidence of that. All of these documents are about Lennon’s engagement with the anti-war movement in 1971 and '72. It's all about reelecting Nixon. Once Nixon is reelected in November of ’72, the F.B.I., within a couple of weeks, closes their file on John Lennon. They had accomplished their goal. Nixon was back in the White House. Lennon has been silenced as a spokesman for the anti-war movement. End of the story.

Lennon was assassinated in 1980. This is eight years later. It’s a completely different political environment. Jimmy Carter is President. Lennon is not a movement leader. There’s not that kind of movement anymore. I mean, he had released a new album, but it was sort of about the joys of domestic life and fatherhood. So, I disagree, respectfully, with Sean Lennon and other people who think that there was some kind of conspiracy here, just because I haven’t seen any convincing evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the F.B.I. say about his death? Anything in the files that you got?

JON WIENER: No, these files end in 1972. They’re closed in December of '72. The only other thing the F.B.I. has on John Lennon, they have informed the courts, is a file on an extortion attempt against Lennon in 1977 by some individual. But, you know, the recent assassination attempt against, effort to murder George Harrison in London last month reinforces me in my belief that Lennon was killed by a deranged fan. When you are a celebrity, you know, a certain kind of paranoid person can have fantasies about you posing a danger to them. I think that's what happened to Lennon, and it almost led to the death of George Harrison, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files.

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