A New Book Rips Open the Bag Job Against John Lennon by the Fbi and a Cast of Thousands
“It is hard to believe that precious tax money was used to surveil two artists whose private lives were not worthy of surveillance,” Yoko Ono said to PEOPLE last week. The widow of slain rock idol and peace advocate John Lennon added, “It must have been pretty boring for the ones who got the job.”
Yoko was reacting to new revelations on the intensive and shocking campaign of harassment waged against Lennon by the U.S. government under the Nixon regime. The government vendetta began in 1970, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover cabled a priority message to the special agents in charge of the Bureau’s offices in New York and Los Angeles. Hoover’s AIRTEL—G-man jargon for air telegram—warned that former Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, together with Harrison’s then-wife, Patti, would soon be leaving London on a TWA flight bound for Los Angeles. The two singers would be holding meetings in L.A. and New York with recording industry executives.
“While Lennon and the Harrisons have shown no propensity to become involved in violent antiwar demonstrations,” wrote Hoover, he wanted his agents to “remain alert for any information of such activity on their part or information [of] their using narcotics.” Now, 14 years later, with both Lennon and Hoover dead, a University of California professor of history has raised a contentious question: Why did the legendary lawman lower his sights to pursue two British songsters?
“This was,” says the professor, Jon Wiener, “an early example of the FBI and the Nixon Administration using and spreading misinformation against John Lennon.” Wiener is the author of Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (to be published by Random House in late June; $19.95 hardcover, $10.95 paper). After Lennon’s murder in December 1980, Wiener, 40, wondered why no one was writing about Lennon’s involvement in the roiling antiwar politics of the Vietnam years. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the historian asked for copies of the government files on Lennon.
Wiener’s fishing expedition netted a whopping initial catch. The first package dealt solely with an all-out attempt by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to deport Lennon from the U.S. These documents weighed 26 pounds and told of how the INS had taken the lead in trying to ship the singer out of the country. The FBI was less generous in what it released: Of the 299 pages in Lennon’s main file, Wiener was told, 199 must remain sealed for national security reasons. But the persistent Wiener is now suing the government to obtain the full Lennon dossier. And that’s not all: He is also seeking release of other files reportedly compiled by no less an array of inquisitors than the CIA, the State Department and Army Intelligence.
The material already made available, says Wiener, suggests that there was a systematic campaign by the Nixon Administration to further intimidate and silence Lennon through the FBI. After all, the singer had fused the twin forces of antiwar protest and rock ‘n’ roll with such songs as Power to the People and Give Peace a Chance. The Feds were apparently fearful that Lennon planned to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, although the author found no evidence that the musician ever had such a plan.
“The files,” says Wiener, “tell you less about Lennon than about the FBI under the Nixon Administration and its conception of youth culture. They thought that young people could drive Nixon from office and that the person most likely to lead youth in this direction was John Lennon. In the files released so far, the FBI reported to H.R. Haldeman on their progress to have Lennon out of the way before the Republican National Convention. I assume there’s no reason to tell Haldeman unless he’s going to tell Nixon.”
The FBI’s surveillance intensified in the winter of 1971, after Lennon had performed at an anti-Nixon rally in Ann Arbor, Mich. and subsequently planned a string of similar rallies across the country with the likes of then-radical Jerry Rubin. “I’d open the door, there’d be guys standing on the other side of the street,” Lennon said in 1975. “They wanted me to see I was being followed.” Correct, says Wiener. Lennon was targeted for “tailgating,” a technique of conspicuous surveillance intended to foster paranoia.
The FBI was particularly anxious to assist in the Immigration Service’s campaign to cancel Lennon’s visa and send him back to Britain. Soon after Hoover’s death in May 1972, his successor, acting director Patrick Gray, was notified by a special agent in New York that the Lennon watch should pass to agents in Miami for the duration of the Republican Convention: “He [is] reportedly a heavy user of narcotics…this information should be emphasized to local law enforcement agencies…with regards to subject being arrested if at all possible on possession of narcotics charge. Local INS has very loose case in N.Y. for deporting subject…INS has stressed to Bureau that if Lennon were to be arrested in U.S. for possession of narcotics, he would become more likely to be immediately deportable.”
Yoko also put down this particular bit of plot hatching as much ado about nothing. “John and I did not go to the convention as we felt that would be actually interfering in local politics,” she said. “We considered ourselves citizens of the world and therefore wished to keep our work on the level of raising consciousness without taking any sides.”
Although the singer indeed did not go to Miami, the Bureau spent a further two months investigating the possibility that Lennon actually had been there and even that he had been arrested with 1,200 other demonstrators but somehow escaped recognition. At another point in his deportation struggle, the field agents managed to lose track of the famous Lennon, earning a terse order from headquarters to “promptly initiate discreet efforts to locate subject.”
The New York division came up with the astonishing information that Lennon was living at the “St. Regis hotel at 150 Bank Street.” Lennon was actually staying downtown in a two-room apartment on Bank Street and, as any Manhattan cabbie knows, the St. Regis is a landmark on 55th Street in mid-town. For several years Lennon lived under the strain of 60-day deportation orders and constant legal maneuvering. The INS also announced that it would try to nail him for perjury and for fraud over an alleged misreporting of income and would request mental examinations of both John and Yoko.
After Nixon was reelected in 1972, the FBI either was called off the Lennon case or perhaps dropped out for lack of real evidence. One of the last FBI reports on him reads: “Subj: John Winston Lennon, SMRA [Security Matter, Revolutionary Activities], in view of subject’s inactivity in revolutionary activities and his seemingly [sic] rejection by New York radicals…case is being closed in the New York division.”
Later the INS lost its fight to have Lennon deported; he got his permanent residency in 1976 and stayed.
Lennon never fully realized the extent of the government surveillance. And though he managed to outlast the FBI’s interest and beat the INS at its deportation game, no one may have understood, until now, the cost of his victory.
Says Jon Wiener: “I’m convinced that the constant harassment really wore him down. They beat him. He canceled his concert tour for ’72 and withdrew from political activity. I’m sure the Nixon Administration’s deportation campaign against him played a large role in his artistic and personal deterioration between ’72 and ’75. He didn’t merit this heavy a hand of government repression.”