Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 25, 2000
Head: Historian Jon Wiener New Book Examines FBI's Secret Files on Former Beatle John Lennon
Sect: News; Domestic
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.
When John Lennon moved to New York in the early '70s, his anti-war music and his affiliation with anti-war leaders made him a threat to the Nixon administration. From 1971 to '72, the FBI had Lennon under surveillance, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport him.
On today's FRESH AIR, we talk about the Lennon FBI files with historian John Wiener, who got them released after a 14-year legal battle with the FBI. The key documents are included in Wiener's new book, "Gimme Some Truth."
The Lennon FBI files, coming up on FRESH AIR.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE," JOHN LENNON)
GROSS: First, the news.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Anti-war music, like "Give Peace a Chance," didn't exactly endear John Lennon to the Nixon administration. In 1971, shortly after John Lennon had come to New York on a visa and had hooked up with radical anti-war activists, the FBI put Lennon under surveillance. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport him.
My guest, John Wiener, is a historian who investigated what the FBI did to Lennon between 1971 and '72. After Lennon was murdered, Wiener requested Lennon's FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act. But the FBI refused to release many of the documents. So with the help of the ACLU, Wiener sued the FBI in 1983. Fourteen years later, after the case went to the Supreme Court, the FBI agreed to settle and release all but 10 of the documents.
Now Wiener has a new book containing the key FBI documents and the story of how he got them. It's called "Gimme Some Truth." Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California-Irvine. The book opens with a 1972 memo from Senator Strom Thurmond to Nixon's assistant William Timmons.
JOHN WIENER, "GIMME SOME TRUTH": Strom Thurmond at the time was chair of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which apparently was working closely with the FBI in monitoring anti-war protest in the United States. The Strom Thurmond memo outlined a plan Lennon had been developing with some friends of his in the anti-war movement for a national concert tour that Lennon would headline that would coincide with the upcoming 1972 election season.
Strom Thurmond pointed out that this was not going to be the usual rock concert tour. It's kind of strange to get this from Strom Thurmond, since you don't usually think of him as an expert on rock venues. But he or his staff (inaudible) really appreciated what was interesting here, that this wasn't just going to be the first live tour by one of the Beatles since the lads waved farewell in Candlestick Park five years earlier. Lennon hoped to combine rock music with radical politics and organize young people to vote in the 1972 election.
Thurmond thought that the Nixon White House should know about these plans, because they seemed to have political significance for Nixon's reelection.
GROSS: Read the last paragraph for us of that letter.
WIENER: OK. The Strom Thurmond memo concludes, "The source felt that if Lennon's visa is terminated, it would be a strategic countermeasure. The source also noted the caution which must be taken with regard to the possible alienation of the so-called 18-year-old vote if Lennon is expelled from the country."
GROSS: And how do you interpret that last paragraph about the "strategic countermeasure"?
WIENER: Well, a little historical background here. The '72 election was going to be the first in which 18-year-olds had the right to vote. Before that, you had to be 21. Everybody knew that young people were the strongest anti-war constituency, but also all real politicos know that then and as well as today, young people are the least likely to vote.
So the question was, for Lennon, how could he use his power as a celebrity to get young people into the political process? And also, this is a time when kids are very alienated from, you know, mainstream politics.
So to get Lennon out of the country, the strategic countermeasure is to deport Lennon so he won't be able to take this tour that would register young voters. At the same time, they're worried that, you know, young voters will vote against Nixon for kicking out, you know, the clever Beatle.
GROSS: How much were you able to find out about the extent to which the Nixon White House and Nixon himself was involved in this plan to deport Lennon, so that he couldn't mobilize youth to vote against Nixon?
WIENER: Well, the FBI files are -- have been released to me. There's nothing directly from or to Richard Nixon himself. However, there is one memo from J. Edgar Hoover to Robert Haldeman, who was the assistant to the president, the closest person to Nixon in the White House. That memo reports on the FBI's progress in building a deportation case against Lennon.
My assumption is that there's no reason to tell this to Haldeman unless Nixon is interested.
GROSS: And how accurate was the FBI's information that John Lennon did want to help organize these political concerts?
WIENER: Well, he...
GROSS: That would be for peace and against Nixon?
WIENER: There's no question that Lennon was talking about this with his friends, his friends being Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale. And they tried doing one of these in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December 1971, they headlined -- John and Yoko headlined a political rock concert, the Free John Sinclair Concert. Every once in a while I run into somebody who was there, 15,000 people spent six hours in Chrysler Arena. They listened not only to John and Yoko but Stevie Wonder came, Commander Cody came, the MC5 came, William Kunstler gave a speech, Jerry Rubin gave a speech, Bobby Seale gave a speech.
And a lot of it was about, you know, mobilizing young people to oppose Nixon. So they -- and they were very excited, John and Yoko were very excited about the tremendous turnout they had for this concert and how successful it was. So they were interested in the idea. They never got to the stage of setting up the national concert tour because the deportation order came down just two months later.
GROSS: Now, was the deportation order issued because of this campaign to get rid of Lennon before he could organize youth to vote?
WIENER: Well, it certainly seems that way. That's what Lennon always said. And that's what his fans all thought. Of course, the Nixon administration Immigration Service had a different explanation. They said that Lennon never should have been admitted to the United States in the first place because the then-existing immigration law prohibited admission of anyone who had been convicted of any drug offense, no matter how minor, no matter what the circumstances.
And Lennon in fact had plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cannabis possession in London in 1969, and the -- when he was busted by the infamous Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a name that will live in infamy among all Beatle fans. Lennon plead guilty even though he claimed the drugs were planted on him, and indeed a couple years later, Sergeant Pilcher was found guilty of planting drugs on another celebrity, and he himself went to jail.
But the Nixon administration's view was that they were simply enforcing the immigration law, and Lennon's legal case was actually a pretty weak one at that point.
GROSS: How far did the INS get in deporting Lennon?
WIENER: Well, for much of 1972 and '73, Lennon was under a order to leave the country within 60 days. He had very talented legal help, and they kept getting these deadlines extended. There was a lot of people mobilized to support him. But really, it wasn't until after Watergate, after Nixon left office, that the Gerald Ford administration Immigration Service finally agreed to grant Lennon his green card on a very narrow legal grounds.
So for two years he was under a 60-day order to leave the country almost continuously.
GROSS: Now, let's talk more about the FBI documents that you were finally able to get through the Freedom of Information Act. You say that the FBI documents make the FBI look more like the Keystone Cops than the Gestapo. Give us an example of one of the documents that you say makes them look like Keystone Cops.
WIENER: Well, there's one where they -- J. Edgar Hoover sends out instructions to locate Lennon as quickly as possible. They say, "His last known address is St. Regis Hotel, 150 Bank Street, New York City." Now, every cop and cab driver in New York knows the St. Regis Hotel, you know, is on Central Park, it's not -- and that Bank Street is in the West Village, so this couldn't be right.
In fact, Lennon at the time was living on Bank Street, but he was living at 105 Bank Street, not 150 Bank Street. So here's, like, this all-points bulletin, you know, Find Lennon! They're just confused. I mean, it could have happened to any of us, I guess.
The other really strange one is that there's a kind of a wanted poster for Lennon. The FBI proposed that Lennon should be arrested if at all possible on possession of narcotics charges -- I'm quoting now from one of the documents -- "which would make him more immediately deportable." And these instructions to local police officials include a kind of a wanted poster, a picture of Lennon, you know, height, weight, eye color, and so on. You'd think that they wouldn't really need this. Lennon was certainly one of the most recognizable faces in the world in 1972.
They have a picture there anyway, but the strangest thing is, the picture isn't of John Lennon. It's of another guy, a guy -- I mean, I know who it is, it's a guy named David Peele...
WIENER: ... who was an East Village folk singer, street singer, busker type, who looked a little like Lennon. I mean, he wore the wire-rim glasses and had Lennon's style of long hair. Of course, lots of other people did in 1972. David Peele had recorded on Apple Records. Maybe that's how they got confused.
So the FBI, you know, was lamentably out of touch with the mainstream, not just of, you know, the radical counterculture of New York City, but you would -- you know, you would think that John Lennon is kind of pretty much mainstream in 1972.
GROSS: Well, the funny thing is, is that the FBI documents -- well, for instance, there's a memo from Hoover in which he describes Lennon as something like "a member of this singing group, the Beatles," as if, like -- you know, as if, like, who the Beatles are really needs to be explained.
WIENER: You know, I've always been fascinated by that sentence. This is in J. Edgar Hoover's letter to H.R. Haldeman. And the first sentence is, "John Winston Lennon is a member of the Beatles singing group." Now, what I'm not sure is, is it that J. Edgar Hoover wants to prove that he knows what the Beatles are and the names of the Beatles? Or is it that he thinks that Nixon does not know who John Lennon is? Or that it's this John Lennon, the John Lennon who's the Beatle, is the one we're talking about here.
I've never been able to figure out which of those is the case.
GROSS: My guest is historian John Wiener, author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is John Wiener. He's the author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files."
Now, you also say that you're surprised at how trivial some of the documents that the FBI withheld from you turned out to be. Give us an example of something that you found just remarkably trivial, that they didn't want to hand over.
WIENER: Well, there's one report by a "confidential informant," the FBI calls him, undercover agent, on a meeting which is discussing upcoming demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 1972. This meeting was held at a -- someplace in the East Village of Manhattan. And the report to J. Edgar Hoover states that there's a parrot in this loft that's trained to shout, "Right on!" whenever the conversation gets heated.
Now, I'm sure it was kind of neat to be at the meeting where this parrot would say "Right on!" But still, you have to ask, you know, what is the law enforcement purpose of gathering this information about a meeting where John Lennon was discussed? This seems trivial to me.
GROSS: The FBI also seemed to just collect some interesting left-wing gossip. I'd like you to read an excerpt of a document that's a good example of that. This is on page 253. This is really a memo about Jerry Rubin and how a lot of the people he was working with thought that his ego had just gotten too big, and they really needed to put him in his place.
WIENER: "We listed our bitches to him. His superstar ego, which enables him to appear to lead, while he does none of the work yet gets the credit. No. 2, financial deals that have netted him money in the past that he made in the name of Yippie but then used for himself. Three, his B.O. and other bad habits. Four, his feud with Tom and other Zip people."
GROSS: That's Tom Hayden, right?
WIENER: You know, I'm not...
GROSS: Oh, maybe not, maybe not.
WIENER: This is -- the Zippies were a split from the Yippies, so I think this is -- Tom wasn't -- this was not Tom Hayden's world.
GROSS: Not Tom, OK.
WIENER: No, Tom was a sober type. He was not a Zippie. Shall I continue?
WIENER: "He said that he would do anything, and we should just tell him what we wanted. They told him they wanted money, and they told him that they wanted him to get signatures for the Armstrong petition. They also told him that we would stop bad-rapping him," I think it's supposed to be, "in accordance with how well he performs his assignments. We will make no interferences in his affairs, political or otherwise, as long as he didn't claim leadership in Zip or Yip. He will have no decision-making power. If he or Abbie" -- Abbie Hoffman -- "want responsibilities in the new party, they will have to earn them like everyone else.
"The fact that they are superstars and can get coverage of events does not impress us at all. They are a liability within the movement. They have turned too many people off."
GROSS: Now, now, there's an example of the FBI doing some interesting historical work for us.
WIENER: Yes, this is certainly -- you know, this is the kind of record keeping that doesn't exist anywhere else, and it's the reason that historians practice the Freedom of Information Act. You know, I doubt that there were minutes taken at this meeting, which someone filed and are now located in an archive. The FBI was the only institution that had the energy and the resources, you know, excessive as they were, to keep these kind of documents.
On the other hand, my attorneys in the ACLU cited this passage in arguing that the FBI lacked a legitimate law enforcement purpose in gathering this information, that the whole thing was illegitimate and they shouldn't have been doing it in the first place.
GROSS: Now, you actually got to meet the person who was the source for that document. You met the informant, and the informant ended up helping you in your fight to get the FBI files.
WIENER: Well, I talked to her on the phone. This was a -- this was one of the more unexpected developments. Ten years or so into this case, I got a phone call one day from a woman named Julie Maynard in Madison, Wisconsin, who said that she was the full-time paid confidential informant who had provided the FBI with the information about Lennon, and she had had a change of heart. She had split with the FBI, and she wanted to join our side.
This is something that hardly has ever happened in history. So we were, you know, pretty excited about it. But also, we were a little skeptical, because, you know, you can never be sure if the information that informants provide is completely true or accurate. Their whole occupation depends on convincing their employers that they are unique sources of extremely valuable information, even if it isn't very unique or very valuable.
Julie signed an affidavit saying she wanted the FBI to turn over all of her materials that she provided on Lennon to us. This was quite important, because the FBI was maintaining at the time that they were obligated to withhold confidential informant reports from us to protect the identity of the sources.
Here, for the first time, I believe, in FOIA litigation, one of the sources said they didn't want their identity protected.
Initially, the FBI rejected Julie Maynard's affidavit, which they called "irrelevant." Seemed to me it was extremely relevant. But eventually, a few years later, they did release all of her confidential informant reports, and we found out that indeed she was the author of this one. She was the one who was at this meeting.
After the case was finally settled in 1997, I called up Julie to tell her, you know, what had happened, that we'd gotten her documents at last. I learned that she had died just a few months before.
Well, let's get to the sentence that you describe as the most remarkable sentence in all of the confidential information that you finally got from the FBI. What is the sentence?
WIENER: This is in the same document that Julie Maynard provided, confidential informant report on a meeting planning demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 1972. The FBI claimed that they had a legitimate law enforcement purpose in investigating Lennon, namely that he planned to participate in violent disruptive demonstrations at this Republican National Convention, which would have been a violation of the Anti-Riot Act, passed after the demonstrations at the '68 Democratic National Convention.
Julie Maynard's report on this meeting concludes that Lennon said, quote, "He will come to the conventions if they are peaceful," close quote. In other words, the FBI's own paid confidential informants were giving them information that contradicted what they claimed as the basis for their investigation of Lennon. We argued, therefore, they lacked legitimate law enforcement purpose, that they knew they lacked legitimate law enforcement purpose, and therefore they should release the files to us.
GROSS: And was that a key point in getting the files released?
WIENER: Well, you know, they never told us their reasoning about why they finally released them. They maintained throughout all the litigation that their fears were legitimate, and times are different now, and it's hard to appreciate today how tense the world was in 1972, and it's the FBI's job to protect the president, and they were doing their job. And now times are different, is their view.
GROSS: Did you find anything in the FBI files that were released to you that indicated that the FBI went beyond surveillance, that they ever tried to set Lennon up?
WIENER: Yes, there's a couple of documents. Their concern was that Lennon would participate in some kind of concert, rally, anti-war demonstration outside the Republican National Convention. And there's a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to the head of the Miami FBI office that suggests that if Lennon could be arrested on possession of narcotics charges, he would become "more immediately deportable." Now, this seems to me an effort to set Lennon up for a drug bust. The FBI doesn't enforce possession of narcotics charges. That's a state offense. This is not part of what the FBI's supposed to be doing.
I then filed a Freedom of Information request with the Miami FBI office asking for their files on Lennon to see what their response to this was. They replied to me that their John Lennon file had been destroyed as a part of a routine file-destruction procedure.
WIENER: Now, I have to note that no -- that Lennon files were collected in five other cities, and none of those places destroyed their Lennon files. So we wonder, we wonder what was in the Miami Lennon file that was destroyed.
GROSS: John Wiener is the author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, how being under FBI surveillance affected John Lennon's life. We continue our conversation with John Wiener, author of "Gimme Some Truth."
(AUDIO CLIP, SONG EXCERPT, JOHN LENNON)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with historian John Wiener, author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files."
Wiener sued the FBI in 1983 in order to get Lennon's files released under the Freedom of Information Act. Fourteen years later, after the
from 1971 to '72.
Now, you have the FBI document that explains why the FBI stopped its surveillance of Lennon. Would you summarize and read an excerpt of that document for us?
WIENER: This is dated August 30, 1972. This is, like, two months before the presidential election. This is a memo to the acting director -- now, that's L. Patrick Gray, J. Edgar Hoover had died in May -- from the special agent in charge of the New York FBI office.
It says, "For the past several months, there has been no information received to indicate that the subject is active in the New Left." Then it indicates what the sources are. "All advised that during the month of July 1972 that the subject has fallen out of favor of activists Jerry Rubin, Stuart Albert (ph), and Rennie Davis due to subject's lack of interest in committing himself to involvement in anti-war and New Left activities. In view of this information, the New York division is placing this case in a pending inactive status."
GROSS: Now, was that true of the whole FBI, or just the New York division?
WIENER: Well, New York was the office of origin, the OO, as it's called in the files. They're the ones who are responsible for conducting the investigation. I mean, what this really is saying here is that the Immigration Service and the FBI have succeeded in pressuring Lennon to cancel his plans for this national concert tour and to withdraw from anti-war activity. His lawyers told him that his case for fighting deportation was a pretty weak one. In fact, they'd never seen anyone win a case under these terms. And therefore, the legal advice was, Don't do anything more that would further provoke the Nixon administration.
He really wanted to stay in the United States. Yoko was involved at that point in a custody dispute over her daughter from a previous marriage, her daughter, Kyoko (ph), so John -- if he had been deported, Yoko would have stayed behind. He didn't want to be separated from Yoko. So he canceled the plans for the concert tour, he dropped out of movement activity, and the FBI is reporting that they've accomplished their job.
GROSS: So in that sense, the FBI did succeed in neutralizing, as they like to put it, in neutralizing John Lennon.
WIENER: Yes, "neutralizing" is a -- one of the scary words which appear in the file. Some people think this refers, you know, to assassination plans or something like that. I don't think that's the case. "Neutralizing" means silencing him, getting him out of the picture through this deportation threat. And there's no question that Lennon was silenced as a spokesman of the anti-war movement.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Wiener. He's a historian and author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." And he tried to get those files for about 14 years in a series of lawsuits.
Why did you initially want to get the John Lennon FBI files?
WIENER: Well, after Lennon was killed, December 1980 -- I'm a historian, I teach history at the University of California-Irvine, and also a journalist. And I wanted to -- you know, I was a Lennon fan, and I wanted to write something or do something -- and actually, it started as radio program on KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. I was going to do their tribute to John Lennon that was going to focus on his peace movement activities.
And at that time, the Martin Luther King FBI file had just come to light and been published. And historians everywhere were amazed to discover how complete FBI records were on Martin Luther King, much more detailed than anything in King's own archives. And I just wondered whether there might be something like that for John Lennon, since I knew that Nixon had tried to deport him in 1972.
So I filed a Freedom of Information request, just, you know, the way historians do who have biographical projects, early in 1981. They do what they always do, they send you some pages, and they black out a lot of other pages. I was lucky enough to get the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in filing a lawsuit in 1983. And then we spent the next 15 years in court.
GROSS: Now, you got some documents that had a lot blacked out in them initially. And then when you won your case, a lot of those blacked-out parts were actually printed. What were some of the things that were blacked out the first time around that you got to read later on?
WIENER: Well, about two thirds of all of the -- they -- there's about 400 pages in all the different parts of the Lennon FBI file. Initially, in 1981, about two-thirds of those were blacked out, mostly under the claim that releasing them would endanger the national security of the United States. You know, now, the book contains almost clean versions of almost all of those pages.
Some of the -- you know, what we discovered was the contents of J. Edgar Hoover's letter to Haldeman, showing the direct White House involvement. We found the proposals to set Lennon up for a drug bust, which seemed a clear abuse of the FBI's authority. We found all these trivial documents, which suggested that the FBI didn't have any legitimate law enforcement purpose in investigating Lennon.
Basically, we found a lot of evidence that this was not a criminal investigation, which of course is what the FBI's supposed to be doing. This was political surveillance and political harassment of a critic of the president.
That's what Lennon had said back in 1972 when he was in the immigration hearings. But, you know, it's nice to see the historical documents that confirm what you argued and suspected in the past.
GROSS: Now, your lawsuit took about 14 years. You sued, appealed, and so on. It finally went to the Supreme Court. How did end up going that high?
WIENER: Well, we lost in U.S. district court in Los Angeles. Then we appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And there we got a strong and unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel that the FBI's procedure for describing the contents of the files they were withholding was unacceptable, and that they had to completely revise their procedures for processing Freedom of Information withholding.
They claimed this imposed a -- what they called an "intolerable burden" on them, and they -- they, the FBI, appealed to the Supreme Court to free them from this intolerable burden. The Lennon file is only 400 pages, but there are other files that are, you know, 40,000 pages or 400,000 pages.
The Supreme Court, to our amazement and delight, agreed with the ACLU position that this was not an intolerable burden, that it was required by the Freedom of Information Act. And even the Reagan appointees, you know, Rehnquist, Spence (ph), Scalia, joined in supporting the ACLU position and opposing the FBI's position.
So then it was sent back to district court in L.A., and the judge was ordered to start over at the beginning.
GROSS: Now, one of the things, very interesting, about the Supreme Court decision is that this is where Kenneth Starr enters the John Lennon story, the Kenneth Starr who was the independent counsel.
WIENER: (laughs) Yes, I noticed that too. Yes, the Justice Department brief to the Supreme Court explaining why they shouldn't have to redo their entire procedures because of the findings in the John Lennon's FBI file case are submitted by Kenneth Starr, Solicitor General. Of course, I had no idea who Kenneth Starr, Solicitor General, was when all this was happening in 19 -- when was it, '89 and 1990. In retrospect, it's one of those strange historical facts.
GROSS: So Kenneth Starr was representing the FBI.
WIENER: Yes, well, it turns out, I mean, the lawyers say, Well, Kenneth Starr files all the government briefs with the Supreme Court. That's the job of the solicitor general, is to represent the FBI before the Supreme Court. Nothing unusual about that.
GROSS: My guest is historian John Wiener, author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: (audio interrupt) historian John Wiener. After a 14-year legal battle with the FBI, he gained access to all but 10 documents in the agency's file on John Lennon. Many of the FBI documents are printed in Wiener's new book, "Gimme Some Truth."
So what's still withheld? Do you know if the FBI still has documents that you're not getting?
WIENER: Well, there's -- there are 10 documents, or maybe eight, and two of them are duplicates, that the FBI -- they -- the -- this is the Clinton Justice Department, even today, refuses to release. They have described these as documents that contain information provided by "the intelligence service of a foreign government under an express guarantee of confidentiality." We're not even to know -- allowed to know the name of the foreign government that provided the information in these documents.
GROSS: And your guess is?
WIENER: Well, for 15 years I thought this was information from Scotland Yard about Lennon's drug bust, which had been the pretext of the deportation case. But now we think -- we know what the contents are, and it's something completely different.
We have been told by a man named David Schaler (ph), a former intelligence officer for Britain's intelligence agency MI5, that he saw a John Lennon file at MI5, and that it contained reports on Lennon's financial support of left-wing groups in Britain dating from 1968. He says the MI5 file on Lennon also contains a copy of Lennon's -- the lyrics to Lennon's song "Working Class Hero" written in his own handwriting. Kind of strange to -- why would this be in an intelligence file on Lennon in Britain?
Anyway, David Schaler, the man who revealed this information, has been forced to flee from Britain as a result of these revelations. He fled to France. The French government imprisoned him for four months at the request of the British while the British tried to extradite him for violating the Official Secrets Act. He's out of jail now. I spoke with him on the phone recently.
The British press has been enjoined from printing any words of David Schaler's about MI5. Right now, if he sets foot in Britain, he'll be immediately arrested and prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. So this has been a fairly intense development that we never expected in the Lennon FBI files case.
GROSS: MI5 is the British equivalent of the CIA.
GROSS: So are you in touch with him?
WIENER: Yes, I spoke with him on the phone last week. He's interested in coming to the United States, but of course the British will immediately try to extradite him under the same Official Secrets Act, and, you know, he'll have serious legal problems here. So I'm not sure what his next move is going to be.
GROSS: So what are your guesses as to why MI5 had a file on Lennon if, in fact, they did?
WIENER: Well, I assume that he's right about this. You know, the MI5 is -- especially in the late '60s, was a lot like the FBI. And Britain had a radical New Left scene a lot like the United States, and Lennon was hooked up with some of those people. So it's not surprising to me that the British counterpart of the FBI would be investigating Lennon's engagement with their '60s radicals, and that they would have files on him.
It is a little surprising that they would still insist on keeping this information secret, you know, in the year 2000, but then our FBI is -- and the Clinton Justice Department are agreeing with them that this should be kept secret.
GROSS: How much do you think John Lennon knew about the FBI surveillance of him?
WIENER: Well, he understood that this whole deportation thing was politically motivated. He complained publicly on TV shows, on "The Mike Douglas Show," on "The Dick Cavett Show," you know, these criminal enterprises, that too many people were coming to fix his phones down on Bank Street in the West Village, and that there were strange men outside in suits who followed him around.
He eventually sued the FBI, claiming he had been the target of illegal wiretapping. Part of his FBI file is the FBI's own response to that charge. They replied that they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping in their files.
Now, this seems to me like a typical Nixon-era nondenial denial. 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 it could have been unauthorized. It's also possible that the wiretapping was not done by the FBI but was done by the New York police or some other agency.
So Lennon sometimes thought he was just being paranoid. He would say, you know, he wasn't important enough to be the target of this kind of surveillance. At other times, he, you know, loudly proclaimed that he was the target of government persecution. It turns out it's the second that was correct. But he never was sure in his own time that it was the FBI that was after him.
GROSS: Do you have evidence that his phone really was tapped?
WIENER: There's -- there are no wiretapping logs in the Lennon FBI file of the kind that there are, say, in the Martin Luther King file. So this remains an open question. I mean, he lived next door to John Cage on Bank Street, and whenever...
WIENER: ... needed to make a -- oh, it's, you know, it's the '60s, it's the West Village in the '60s. Whenever he needed to make, you know, a secure conversation, they would go next door and use John Cage's phone in the belief that the FBI didn't know who John Cage was. They were probably right about that.
GROSS: Right. The FBI wasn't interested in chance music, huh? (laughs)
WIENER: Probably not.
GROSS: You know, the fact that the FBI conducted surveillance against people who it considered, you know, political dissidents is enough evidence that conspiracy theorists need to show that the FBI was involved in lots of other things too, such as the assassination of John Lennon. Have you found any evidence at all that would support any conspiracy views about the assassination of John Lennon?
WIENER: None at all. All the FBI files that have been released to me date from 1971 and '72. They're all about Lennon's political activism in opposing Nixon's reelection. Once Nixon is reelected in November '72, the FBI closes their file on Lennon. They had accomplished their goal.
When Lennon was killed in 1980 -- that's eight years later -- it's a completely different political world. Jimmy Carter is president. Lennon had been a househusband for five years. I just don't see any motive for any conspiracy in killing Lennon at that time. And, you know, the recent attempt to kill George Harrison last month is an excellent example of how celebrities become the target of murderous fantasies of demented fans. And I'm pretty sure that that's what happened.
GROSS: Has reading all the files about John Lennon, the FBI files, changed your impressions of Lennon? I mean, there are insights from (laughs), from these informant documents. Has it added to your knowledge of John Lennon the man, added to your knowledge of his character or how he behaved in the world?
WIENER: Well, you know, this is a period which people don't pay very much attention to any more when they're remembering Lennon. You know, it was really less than 12 months. But reading these files, you get a sense of just what an intense and devastating period this was for Lennon. He starts out full of enthusiasm, high hopes, going to do this concert tour. He hadn't performed live for five years. You know, excited to be in New York, you know, the center of the universe.
Within a couple of months, he is feeling the heavy hand of the government of the most powerful country in the world, which, you know, wants to get rid of him, wants to kick him out. And it really -- I think it ruined his life for the next few years, and it's easy -- it's easier to see, you know, what happened to him. In the next year, his music kind of falls apart, a couple of albums that he makes here are, you know, pretty much the worst of his career. He breaks up with Yoko, moves out to L.A., the so-called lost weekend, living the life of the kind of over-the-hill rock star.
I think all of this is -- I mean, I don't know how much he understood at the time, but this is sort of the time when he's lost his optimism, he's lost his hope, he's been punished for not doing very much. And he paid a heavy price, both as a creative person and in his own life.
GROSS: My guest is historian John Wiener, author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is historian John Wiener. After a 14-year legal battle with the FBI, he gained access to all but 10 documents in the agency's file on John Lennon. Many of the FBI documents are printed in Wiener's new book, "Gimme Some Truth."
You know, you say in your book that one of the things you really find fascinating about these FBI files is that they document an era when rock music seemed to have real political force. Say some more about that.
WIENER: Well, you know, it's a little hard to believe today that a president would fear the power of a rock star. Rock stars often today have political causes, but they're always -- or they're often -- they're usually the safe ones, you know, save the rainforests or fight breast cancer or something like that, issues that nobody is going to, you know, try to deport you for advocating.
It's still hard to figure out whether the effort to deport Lennon was complete paranoia on Nixon's part. After all, Nixon did win the 1972 election by an overwhelming landslide. His opponent, George McGovern, carried, what, two or three states, something like that.
So maybe, maybe the whole thing was just paranoia on the part of Nixon, matched by paranoia on the part of Lennon and his friends.
On the other hand, all of this was put in motion long before that presidential election, you know, in the winter beforehand. And at that point, I don't think it was clear to anybody that Nixon was going to win in a landslide. Nixon was concerned about this youth vote and how that might affect the elections. Wasn't clear that McGovern was going to be the candidate. You know, there's a lot of reasons not to like Richard Nixon. I don't -- never liked him very much myself. But, you know, he was one of the most successful political candidates in recent history.
So I'm kind of willing to accept Nixon's judgment that Lennon's political plans for 1972 were significant, were interesting, and, you know, did merit some kind of presidential response.
GROSS: And that's something that you find interesting about the times, and something that you admire Lennon for.
WIENER: Yes, I mean, Lennon really took risks here of a kind that you hardly see anybody ever taking. How many people in the entertainment world have faced deportation because of their political actions? I mean, what, Charlie Chaplin was sort of run out of the United States. Paul Robeson left. It was sort of the opposite, where he was denied the right to travel, and then he left, you know, anyway. You know, Berthold Brecht fled after being quizzed by HUAC.
This is a very small group of people. So I think it underscores the intensity of Lennon's commitment. I mean, I don't think he knew the risks he was taking. But, you know, that's sort of what he was like, he was a risk taker. He wanted to stand up for what he believed in. He wasn't going to play it safe. It wasn't a safe age.
So I think that's admirable.
GROSS: Have you ever tried to get your own FBI files? Do you think there are files on you?
WIENER: Oh, yes, I filed a request for mine and got some.
GROSS: Oh. What did they have to say about you?
WIENER: Well, they were assembled in this same era. I was a student at Princeton University in the '60s and active in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, which the FBI was interested in, and so there's, you know, reports on SDS meetings at Princeton. They even went back to my high school, St. Paul Central High, and interviewed my teachers about whether I was a loyal American. And I was very happy to see that my teachers stood up for me, and they all told the FBI I was a loyal American. So that was very gratifying.
GROSS: And did you file for these after you filed for Lennon's files?
WIENER: I think it was around the same time, maybe before.
GROSS: Were your files a lot easier to get than John Lennon's were?
WIENER: Well, there's a lot of blacked-out stuff. I should probably go back to them and try again now that the president's openness initiative, supposedly, has freed up more of this material.
GROSS: You're a historian, a history professor. Say a little bit about -- more about what you think is the potential historical value of the FBI files now that Americans have access to them.
WIENER: Well, the FBI files can be a unique source of information about protests, organizations, radical groups, left and right, partly because the FBI had the resources to gather more information than anybody else, often including the targets themselves.
On the other hand, we -- historians know they have to be very careful in using this kind of information because a lot of it isn't true. A lot of it is rumors, a lot of it is exaggerated stuff that paid informants turn in in an effort to prove their own value to their employers.
So it's a risky sort of information that has to be, you know, compared to other information we have from other sources. But especially in the Martin Luther King files, and to a lesser extent in the Lennon files, there's stuff here that you simply could not find anywhere else.
GROSS: Well, John Wiener, I thank you so much for talking with us.
WIENER: My pleasure.
GROSS: John Wiener is the author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." He's a professor of history at the University of California-Irvine.
FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Monique Nazareth, Naomi Person, Phyllis Myers, and Amy Salit, with Ann Marie Baldonado and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
I'm Terry Gross.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "WORKING CLASS HERO")
JOHN LENNON (singing): As soon as you're born,
They make you feel small
By giving you no time
Instead of it all,
Till the pain is so big
You feel nothing at all.
A working class hero
Is something to be,
A working class hero
Is something to be.
They hurt you at home
And they hit you at school.
They hate you if you're clever
And they despise a fool.
Till you're so (bleep)ing crazy
You can't follow their rules.
A working class hero
Is something to be,
A working class hero
Is something to be.
When they've tortured and scared you
For 20-odd years...
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jon Wiener
High: Historian Jon Wiener spent 14 years fighting to gain access to the FBI's secret files on former Beatle John Lennon. Wiener's Freedom of Information case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the FBI decided to settle. His new book, "Gimme Some Truth," outlines and reproduces the most important pages of the file, revealing that the Nixon administration plotted to deport Lennon in 1972 and silence him as a voice of the anti-war movement. Wiener is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and also author of "Come Together: John Lennon and His Time."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; John Lennon; Police; Government; Lawsuits; Supreme Court
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End-Story: Historian Jon Wiener New Book Examines FBI's Secret Files on Former Beatle John Lennon
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