I researched this piece for a political ethics class in 2012. Younger generations know who John Lennon is as an artist, but he was also a tireless voice for peace and injustice. The relentless pursuit to shut him down was an assault on Lennon, on democracy, and on freedom.
Nixon Administration vs. John Lennon
In the spring of 1972, Richard Nixon was campaigning for re-election as president amid the war in Vietnam and strong public outcry against it. History records some legally and ethically questionable activity attributed to the Nixon Presidency at that time. This discussion presents the abuse of power represented by such activity in trying to silence what was viewed as a threat. Democracy is government by the people, for the people and of the people – everything the government disseminates should be truth and not sanitized under the guise of capitalistic rationales. If there is no purpose in society questioning and pursuing truth from the government downward, then democracy is an illusion and there is no freedom of information.
John Lennon was one of many artists whose spirited opposition to the war attracted the attention of Nixon’s Administration. With the advent of information dissemination and greater transparency in government, the true extent to which John Lennon was hounded by the Nixon Administration and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI is now common knowledge. It is relevant today, too, as artists lend their voices against a different war without the scrutiny Lennon was subjected to. The evolution of Lennon’s clash with the Administration highlights three principle threats to democratic ideology: (a) government surveillance becoming an instrument for the people in power to try to stay in power; (b) the use of surveillance for purposes other than legitimate law enforcement; and (c) using any false rationale for secrecy, such as the war on terror, as a premise for violations of the Freedom of Information Act and other laws.
Activism Draws Worldwide Attention
Before the relentless pursuit unfolded, the story began when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married in 1969 and used their honeymoon at the Amsterdam Hilton as a ‘Bed-In for Peace.’ This attracted worldwide media attention and was followed by a second bed-in in Montreal, Canada. That was where Give Peace a Chance was recorded – a song which became an influential anti-Vietnam War anthem. It was sung by a throng of demonstrators 250,000 strong on October 15, 1969 at the second Vietnam Moratorium Day in Washington, DC. The lyrics were interspersed with expressions deliberately intended to goad the president and other political officials (Vietnam Online, 2005). This was the first of many overt irritants to President Nixon, his Administration, and the FBI and Lennon was not even on American soil.
Less than two years later, and after the success of the highly moving song Imagine in 1971, the Lennon’s moved to New York. Both in song, in public appearances, and in interviews, Lennon capitalized on his fame and charisma to step up his criticism of the Vietnam War. What really set the White House off was Lennon’s appearance at the December 1971 rally in Michigan for ‘White Panther,’ John Sinclair. Lennon’s associates at this event included Black Panther member, Bobby Seale, and others the FBI considered subversives (Cohen, 2006). Nevertheless, when the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair three days later, a paranoid White House began to view Lennon as a threat to Nixon’s re-election (Richard, n.d.).
Albeit a volatile time for the country in general, it was a most inopportune time for the ‘Lennon’ brand to be making political waves. Lennon wanted to organize a national concert tour that would combine rock music with anti-war protests and voter registration. The 1972 election was the first following the passage of the 26th amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18 (Richard, n.d.). This created a huge new block of voters in the key demographic of rock music and the anti-war movement. The Administration’s concern over what may influence this new block of voters is understandable. The problem was the questionable ethics and legal measures used to neutralize that influence. Without a doubt, the public opinion message being sent was understood by Nixon and his Administration and did not need Lennon’s help to become any more clear.
A Convergence of Legalities and Ethics
The Nixon Administration had two ethical options; they could actively respect the cry to end the war, or they could proceed in truth without continuing to sanitize the war for the American public. Nixon’s paranoia precipitated a different plan of action. Once Nixon learned of plans for the concert tour, Lennon was aggressively harassed by the FBI and other agencies of the government. Lennon’s phone was tapped, he was smeared in the press by Nixon supporters, and it was spun in the media by Republicans and right-wingers that he should mind his own business and curtail his activist behaviour.
Regardless of Lennon’s activism and choice of associates, it is unsettling that the FBI surveillance was not tied to any legitimate law-enforcement purpose. Even more unsettling is the connection to Nixon’s re-election. The FBI’s timing is interesting because although Lennon had been involved in high-profile antiwar activities dating back to 1969, the bureau did not formally open its investigation until January 1972 – precisely the time of Nixon’s re-election campaign. However, as Lennon’s popularity and support of anti-war causes continued, the Administration had no legal or ethical way to silence him. It was at that time that Republican Senator Strom Thurmond suggested “deportation would be a strategic counter-measure” against Lennon (Vtdblue, 2010). In March, just as the presidential campaign was heating up, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) refused to renew Lennon’s visa, and began deportation proceedings.
If Lennon really did have an agenda to thwart the re-election of Nixon, then the action of the Administration, the FBI and the INS had the desired effect. Lennon publicly said in May 1972 that he would not participate in any protest activity at the Republican National Convention so he was not a threat to Nixon’s campaign. In fact, Nixon’s re-election in November was a landslide against McGovern. A month later, the FBI closed its investigation of Lennon and ended their surveillance which had been constant since the Sinclair rally. However, the battle against Lennon was fought on two fronts and deportation efforts continued.
The FBI Files
The power of bureaucracy to shroud their activity in secrecy should be of great concern to a democratic society. As Theoharis (2004) writes, “this problem of secrecy is best exemplified by FBI records destruction practices, practices inadvertently discovered through tantalizing hints in released FBI records” ( p. 1). In other words, the records had to be released in order to realize how many have been tampered with, held back or destroyed. In the historical timeframe relevant to this discussion, it had not been a matter of practice for FBI officials to make their records part of the National Archives. It was not until the 50’s and 60’s that the FBI discovered other federal officials and departments had been depositing records such as files of the Department of State, Treasury and Justice; and they pressured National Archives officials to withdraw the records from public access (2004, p. 1).
This changed in 1974 when Congress amended the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966. After that amendment, FBI officials were required to release all records in response to specific requests. There are several exemptions of disclosure to this requirement, but three are relevant to this discussion: (a) information classified as sensitive to national security; (b) anything that might reveal the agency’s sources or methods; and (c) violations of privacy rights. Those exclusions are subject to broad interpretation; and inherent in such autonomy is the risk that sensitive records have been destroyed to shield senior officials from accountability. That is difficult to reconcile with one of the intended purposes of the FOIA — to provide the public a window on federal agencies.
During the time that the FBI spied on Lennon they kept extensive files of their work. After Lennon died in 1980, historian, scholar and journalist, Jon Weiner, requested Lennon’s FBI file under the FOIA. When Weiner received his response, most of it consisted of blacked-out paragraphs or no paragraphs at all. The rationale for this was that many pages in the Lennon file could cause harm to the US government if released. Clearly they had deluded themselves into believing that their surveillance of a British citizen was a legitimate law enforcement activity rather than an abuse of power. Weiner thought the national security premise was unlikely and appealed unsuccessfully. So, thinking he had had his fill of frustration, Weiner sued the FBI with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This turned into a protracted battle totalling 23 years that reached the Supreme Court and wasted much time and money. At the very least Weiner’s effort, however personally frustrating, served to erode the FBI’s credibility.
Fast forward to the opening of the files and there is no concealing the Nixon Administration’s attempt to deport Lennon after he said publicly that he would campaign against him. The 10 documents that were concealed from the first release contained already-known information about Lennon’s ties to leaders of the New Left as well as other London groups. This information had been provided to the FBI by Britain, obviously, but the name of the government remains classified in the documents. Lennon’s sympathy for the poor and underprivileged people of London was emphasized in an interview he did for a London underground paper and that also appears in the files – not exactly a national security threat. The only information in the missing files that was not widely known was that Lennon had promised to finance a left-wing bookshop and reading room in London (Weiner, 2007). How that could be a threat to the US’s national security is hard to see.
Further known information included Lennon’s ties to members of the International Marxist Group, their names, and their present-day prominence as left-wing intellectuals. If anything, the British government could have been paranoid about Lennon’s involvement with the left and his influence over mainstream Britain. The British intelligence report concludes that Lennon had “apparently resisted the attempts of any particular group to secure any hold over him” (Weiner, 2007).
Was the Nixon Administration vs. John Lennon simply a story about Lennon as a truly threatening radical who needed to be silenced, or is it about abusive power and covering it up? The final 10 pages were withheld under the national security exemption to the FOIA by four Presidents – Reagan, Bush I, Bush II and Clinton. It was Clinton’s Justice Department that agreed to release all the other Lennon documents in 1997, except the ten (Weiner, 2000). Why did four administrations fight to prevent the release of information that was readily available elsewhere? What was the purpose of spending a total of 23 years in litigation when the government finally conceded that there were no national security threats in the files or any risk of foreign military retaliation in releasing them?
The answer is summed up in abuse of power and covering up embarrassing mistakes. Clearly, the FBI and the Justice Department were defending a principle: an inordinate interest in autonomously defining what constitutes a national security secret. They alleged that judges lack suitable expertise in issues of national security and should, therefore, defer to the FBI. It is little wonder that Weiner’s litigation took 23 years, as such allegations could create an endless circle of deferrals. The FBI and Justice Department do not want the courts telling them their definition of a national security threat is wrong and they do not want the ACLU telling them either.
Notwithstanding, the ACLU was defending a principle too – the freedom of information. In a democracy the government’s information belongs to the people and the people have a right to know what is in government files. The FOIA gives people the right to appeal decisions to withhold documents and the FBI and Justice Department are not the final authority on what is released and what is withheld (Weiner, 2007).
The aggressive pursuit of John Lennon and the illegal cover up of the information that chronicled it is of interest no matter whom the subject being pursued. More compelling though, is the power of the government to destroy, through illegal and legal means alike, a person’s right to speak out in opposition to their government’s practices. Further, if democracy is to remain alive and well, the information the government disseminates must be the truth, not a reasonable facsimile thereof. If the information is not the truth, then the people must demand it just as Jon Weiner did. Otherwise, democracy really is an illusion and there is no freedom of information.
Cohen, A. (09/21/2006). While Nixon campaigned, the FBI watched John Lennon. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/21/opinion/21thu4.html?_r=1
Theoharis, A. G. (2004). Secrecy and power: Unanticipated problems in researching FBI files. Political Science Quarterly, 119(2), 271. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database.
Vietnam Online. (03/29/2005). Piece is at hand. [Transcript — part 9 of 11]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/pt_09.html
Vtdblue. (12/08/2010). United States vs. John Lennon … AND Wikileaks’ Assange. Retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/12/08/918289/-United-States-vs-John-Lennon-AND-Wikileaks-Assange
Wiener, J. (2000). Gimme some truth: The John Lennon FBI files. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wiener, J. (2007). The last Lennon file. Nation, 284(2), 4-5. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database.