Volume 9, No. 9 - December/January 2000
More in this Issue...
"The basic purpose of the freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is to ensure an informed citizenry.... The more the people know about the government the better they will be governed." So the official home page of the U.S. Department of Justice has stated. First enacted in 1966, the FOIA guarantees a citizen's statutory right to all government information--including the files of the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Immigration and Naturalization Service. One need only write a request to the proper representative at the relevant office and voilà! The documents you requested are yours.
Well, sort of. As countless researchers have discovered, FOIA documents frequently arrive as palimpsests of crossed-out text. There are nine exemptions under which the government can withhold information from a FOIA petitioner. And the applications of those exemptions--as UC-Irvine historian Jon Wiener discovered when researching Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (1984)--are broad indeed.
Inspired by David Garrow's book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr. (1981), Wiener requested the FBI's file on John Lennon. Compiled under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover--who hoped to quell Lennon's anti-Nixon, antiwar activism--the file consists primarily of paranoid internal FBI memos, informant reports, and newspaper clippings that mention the "clever Beatle" collected from late 1971 through most of 1972. Following his request, Wiener sporadically received documents throughout the spring of 1981, acquiring about 30 percent of the file's total contents (82 of 281 pages). The rest of the documents remained classified, for the most part under three FOIA exemptions: protection of the privacy of others named in a document, protection of the identities of confidential sources, and national security. As for the documents Wiener did receive, many were completely or partially blacked out due to one exemption or another, while others discussed the same detail over and over again (for example, the Nixon administration's effort to deport Lennon in 1972).
Dissatisfied with the results of his petition, Wiener appealed to the associate attorney general for full disclosure. He argued that using the national security exemption to withhold information about Lennon's plans to protest Nixon's reelection was "arbitrary and capricious" and that other withheld documents were "not properly covered by the exemptions claimed." Six weeks later, he heard from President Reagan's assistant attorney general for legal policy, who had referred the national security material to the Department Review Committee and personally affirmed the withholding of the rest. Six months after that, when the review committee concluded that the national security exemption had been illigitimately applied, Wiener should have had a victory--but he didn't. The documents, the government decided, would now be kept classified under other exemptions: personal privacy and confidential source information. Exasperated, Wiener decided it was time to find a lawyer.
This is, roughly, where Wiener's new book, Gimme Some Truth; John Lennon And The FBI (California, 1999), begins. With the help of the ACLU, Wiener sued the FBI in 1983, seeking both information and vindication. He requested "an injunction ordering the FBI to release [all] documents, a written finding stating that the FBI 'acted arbitrarily or capriciously' in withholding the documents, and last but not least, an award of costs and attorney fees." Initially, Wiener had hoped to include Lennon's FBI files in Come Together. But, unsurprisingly, his case did not progress that quickly, and the book went to press without the information. Ready to put Lennon behind him at that point, Weiner says, "I was ready to do something else."
In a sense, Wiener v. FBI became that "something else." Though initially fueled by the hunger for Lennon knowledge, Wiener's lawsuit also became the political crusade of a tenured radical with an antibureaucratic impulse. Indeed, with dreams of contributing to the historical record of Nixon's disreputable deeds, Wiener sought to expose a "Rock and Roll Watergate." With "The Declaration of Jonathan M. Wiener," a document submitted to the courts in 1987, Wiener concluded that "the Nixon administration's persecution of Lennon was one small part of a massive, illegal effort to ensure Nixon's reelection" and that "Lennon's FBI file contained the best and in some cases the only documentation of some Nixon-era abuses of presidential power."
In exchange for eighty new pages of material previously withheld under the confidential informant exemption, Wiener's team had to agree that the FBI's release of information "shall not be construed either by the parties or the Court as an admission, tacit or otherwise, that such information was 'improperly withheld'.... Nor shall such release be construed as an admission, tacit or otherwise, that the FBI was not justified in withholding such information." This stings, especially when "Part Two" of Wiener's book is considered.
This section, called simply "The Files," includes facsimiles of a hundred Lennon-file documents; and the newly disclosed information, one finds, is often puzzling or simply trivial. Much of it appears in a before-and-after state, one page showing a document as Wiener received it in the 1980s--full of marked-through words and heavy black lines--and another showing it after the settlement, when the FBI disclosed previously censored information. A document from January 1972 had the following line blacked out until the settlement: "Mike Drobenare is now using his parent's [sic] car again."
Other documents detail the FBI's wide-ranging but hapless efforts to track Lennon. One recommends that Lennon be "arrested if at all possible on [a] possession of narcotics charge," which would make him "immediately deportable." Another offers the bureau's scrupulously detailed report on the 1971 John Sinclair Freedom Rally, an event that drew fifteen thousand people calling for the release of Sinclair, who had been sentenced to ten years in state prison for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover agent. The FBI report includes a careful transcription of the words to Lennon's song "John Sinclair" ("It ain't fair, John Sinclair / ...Let him be, let him free / Let him be like you and me") as well as a word-for-word rendering of an anti-Nixon speech delivered by Jerry Rubin. Echoing the ACLU's argument in court, Weiner writes that the transcription of the Sinclair song is "evidence that the FBI lacked a legitimate law enforcement purpose in its investigation of Lennon.... It was not a crime to sing a song about John Sinclair--it was a form of political expression protected by the First Amendment."
In the case of the Rubin speech, however, Wiener makes a different point. "This document provides an example of the invaluable role the FBI played in creating and preserving unique historical records," he writes. "There's nowhere else you can go to find speeches like this; no one else had the resources, or the motivation, to produce and save verbatim transcripts of political rallies."
Indeed, Lennon is not the only prominent cultural figure whose FBI files might be of use to historians. The bureau has long been keeping tabs on famous folks suspected of disloyalty to the government--among them Bertolt Brecht, Lucille Ball, John Steinbeck, and Paul Robeson. And for all the troubles Wiener has had in getting the Lennon files out into the open, it's worth noting that the files on Brecht and company are now available on line: Just log on to the FBI's Web site (www.fbi.gov), and click on "Freedom of Information Act." You will then find yourself in the "Reading Room." There, under the list of headings--espionage, famous persons, gangster era, historical interest, unusual phenomena, and violent crime--just choose your fancy. It's a lot easier than filing a lawsuit.
Hillary Frey is the managing editor of Lingua Franca. Her last article for the magazine, "Class Warfare," was about cult activity within Nigerian universities.
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