Under pressure from a Los Angeles federal judge, the FBI has grudgingly surrendered most of its remaining secret files on Nixon-era surveillance of former Beatle John Lennon, bringing a 16-year legal battle close to conclusion.
The agency this week turned over about 40 pages of documents on its investigation of Lennon to UC Irvine professor Jonathan M. Wiener, author of a 1984 book on the late rock star.
The memos, which the FBI had fought for more than a decade to keep secret on grounds including national security, range from reports on Lennon's contacts with antiwar organizers to a description of a talking parrot in an activist's grungy New York apartment.
"This action gives to professor Wiener all but a thimbleful of the documents he originally sought," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, co-lead counsel for the professor.
"These documents show that the FBI investigation was conducted in the manner of the shabbiest tabloid journalist imaginable and they show that the FBI had nothing better to do than record the utterances of a parrot and indulge in gossip and innuendo about rock musicians who happened to take political stances."
The files Wiener obtained shed new light on an era when the FBI was zealously investigating opponents of the Vietnam War and black militants under the rationale that such individuals were a threat to the nation's security.
Among the documents turned over this week is an April 26, 1972, FBI memo from an unnamed agency source describing a trip by a Madison, Wis., leftist to New York where she met with "Yippie and Zippie representatives" planning demonstrations at the August 1972 Republican National Convention.
The memo states that Lennon told the activists that "he will . . . come to the conventions if they are peaceful," and on the condition that his appearance not be advertised in advance.
Los Angeles attorney Dan Marmalefsky, Wiener's co-lead counsel, said that document alone illustrates the spurious nature of the FBI investigation of Lennon.
"The whole ostensible purpose for having Lennon under surveillance was the concern that he would be disrupting the Republican convention in August 1972," he said. "In fact, as the information released to us this week now reveals, the FBI's own informant told them in April 1972 that Lennon would only participate if the demonstrations were peaceful."
Both of Wiener's attorneys said the fact that the FBI withheld the documents for more than a decade shows that the agency has not properly complied with the Freedom of Information Act.
"These documents should have been turned over a long time ago," Marmalefsky said. Rosenbaum added, "This case raises profound questions about the day-to-day application of FOIA. It's supposed to be an open window on government . . . but the way the FBI dug in their heels shows that they shamelessly use exemptions to the act to cover their political embarrassments."
Justice Department spokesman Joe Krovisky disagreed. He said Wednesday that the department continues to believe that it has never been obligated to relinquish the documents turned over this week, saying they were released on a discretionary basis. Krovisky also offered an explanation of why the FBI launched its Lennon probe 25 years ago:
"The investigation of Lennon was precipitated because a source provided the FBI with information that Lennon was going to contribute and did contribute $75,000 to an organization which said it was going to disrupt the Republican National Convention in 1972. When the FBI got that information it was obligated to check it out." The files turned over by the FBI include a Feb. 7, 1972, memo stating that a confidential source told the agency that Lennon had contributed $75,000 to assist in the formation of a group called Election Year Strategy Information Center (EYSIC). The memo states that the group's purpose was to "direct movement activities during the coming election year designed to culminate with demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in August 1972."
Nothing in the documents turned over by the FBI this week or earlier in the case describes Lennon involved in the planning of any illegal act or engaging in any illegal act. Ultimately, he skipped the Republican convention.
Wiener did not return calls for comment Wednesday. In the past, he has emphasized that "Lennon was never a threat to national security. He urged people to register, vote and vote against the [Vietnam] war."
The lengthy April 1972 memo also describes the slovenly apartment of a young New York leftist who had trained her parrot to chirp "Right On" whenever a political conversation got particularly lively.
On a more serious note, another FBI document states that the New York City Police Department in the early 1970s sought a way to arrest Lennon on drug charges but was unsuccessful. Earlier, the FBI had turned over a document showing that it had engaged in a similar fruitless effort.
Other newly released documents show that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, was communicating with Justice Department officials and Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, about how to deal with Lennon, who they seemed to consider a threat.
Wiener lodged his first Freedom of Information Act request for FBI files on Lennon in 1981 while doing research for a book. He sued the FBI in 1983, alleging that it failed to comply with the law.
Wiener has won several legal victories since then, including a 1990 decision by a federal appeals court rejecting the FBI's argument that it had to keep documents secret to protect federal informants and intelligence methods. But even after that ruling the case dragged on and on.
In December, 1995, Los Angeles federal trial Judge Robert M. Takasugi issued an order directing the FBI to answer 13 questions about why it was continuing to withhold documents. In particular, Takasugi directed the FBI to disclose whether it had "used unlawful activities in connection with the Lennon investigation."
Marmalefsky said Takasugi's decision marked "the first time a federal judge specifically ordered the FBI to answer if it broke the law and whether they committed a series of enumerated illegal acts."
Rather than respond to the questions, Marmalefsky said, negotiations began that led to a settlement, including release of the documents. The FBI agreed to pay Wiener's lawyers $204,000 for fees and costs.
But the case is not over. Portions of 10 documents turned over this week were blacked out and the Justice Department contends that it still does not have to turn over 10 remaining documents. The government asserts that making public the papers would violate agreements with a foreign country--believed to be Britain--that provided information on Lennon.