What It Means to Be a Beatle: John Lennon, the FBI's Most Wanted
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What It Means to Be a Beatle: John Lennon, the FBI's Most Wanted

From 1971 to 1972, American President Richard Nixon violated Beatle John Lennon’s civil rights by authorizing the illegal wiretapping of his telephones because he believed Lennon had the power to sway the upcoming Presidential election. Now available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, these files can also be found in Jon Wiener’s book, Gimme Some Truth.

If you were on the streets of Greenwich Village in New York City during the summer of 1972, chances are you encountered a long-haired young man (or perhaps young woman in long braids), handing out leaflets for the Rock Liberation Front.

And while you may have initially been taken aback by the bold black & white skull and crossbones that dominated the logo, you were no doubt then informed that the “Front” (an arm of the National Committee for John and Yoko) was a group of young New York Hippies dedicated to helping John and Yoko fight deportation from the United States. A group, as it were, necessitated by the discovery that while John and Yoko were busy appealing to the US Government to be allowed to remain in the US, the FBI was busy bugging their phones, surveilling their activities, and investigating any and all their public and private contacts.

As it is now public record, shortly after John and Yoko arrived in New York City in 1971, the “Give Peace a Chance” spokesman was approached by a number of anti-war activists who had made President Nixon’s so-called “radicals and dissonants” list, including Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale, prompting the FBI to put John under twenty-four surveillance. Then using John’s 1968 “cannabis resin” conviction in England as leverage, the FBI proceeded to tap John’s phones, trying to find grounds for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport him.

At the heart of this illegal, unconstitutional action, President Richard Nixon had believed that John’s celebrity might empower him to sway the next election, convinced that his influence over the youth of America warranted a preemptive strike. In 1972, everybody knew that the youth of America represented the strongest anti-war constituency in the country, so the question in Washington became, “Will Lennon use his power as a celebrity to get young people into the political process?" 1972, of course, would be the first time eighteen-year-olds could vote and Nixon was certain John could easily assume the Pied Piper role and make them vote however he dictated--especially if prompted by the “radicals” John was spending time with.

Adding to the political fuel, in December of 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John and Yoko had headlined a political rock concert, the “Free John Sinclair” concert (Sinclair had been sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes) where fifteen thousand people spent six hours in Chrysler Arena listening not only to John and Yoko but Stevie Wonder, Commander Cody, the MC5, and speeches by William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. From Nixon’s perspective, John had only one thing in mind: to mobilize young people against him.

Considering that the youth of America were already feeling disenfranchised by American society--and particularly Nixon’s War Machine--getting Lennon out of the country was the strategic countermeasure to keep John from having the influence over young, potential voters. But at the same time, Nixon worried that young voters would vote against him simply for kicking John and Yoko out of the country--so Nixon set out to prove that they were involved in subversive, anti-American activities. Thus, wiretapping continued from 1971 through 1972, listening in to his personal, business, as well legal phone calls.

Finally deciding that they couldn’t risk John becoming even more influential, the INS moved forward and for much of 1972 and 1973, John was under a sixty-day-to-leave-the-US federal order. Fortunately he and Yoko were able to secure considerable support from a number of very high profile and influential attorneys who managed to get the deportation deadlines extended. It wasn’t until after Watergate--after Nixon left office--that the Ford administration finally agreed to grant John his green card--on very narrow and liberal legal grounds. But for two years, John had been under constant surveillance, and the last year, a virtual prisoner of his home due to his sixty-day order to leave the country.

After John was murdered in 1980, history professor Jon Wiener of the University of California-Irvine (a contributing editor to The Nation magazine) requested John’s FBI files pertaining to what the FBI and INS did to him between 1971 and 1972, under the Freedom of Information Act--beginning a fourteen-year battle to gain access to the secret files.

At first refusing to release many of the documents--citing that their release would endanger national security--they finally released three hundred pages spanning 1971--1972--many of which was blacked out by felt tip marker. Wiener finally had to take his Freedom of Information case to the Supreme Court--after which the FBI agreed to make all the files available.

In 2000, Jon Wiener released a book about the FBI files called Gimme Some Truth.  It opens with a memo from Senator Strom Thurmond to the Nixon White House about an upcoming Beatle tour of the United States, warning that John Lennon might combine rock music with politics and organize young people to vote against Nixon in the 1972 election. Thurmond suggested that terminating Lennon's visa might be an effective countermeasure, while the FBI proposed that if at all possible, “Lennon should be arrested on possession of narcotics charges"--which would make him more immediately deportable. These instructions were passed along by the FBI to all New York City law enforcement officials, along with a poster with a picture of Lennon--which included height, weight, eye color, and so on. (Weiner recently remarked that the strangest thing is that the picture isn't of John Lennon but of David Peel of the “Pope Smokes Dope“ fame.)

Subsequently, Wiener consulted on the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon (which features interviews with Gore Vidal, Angela Davis, Yoko Ono, and Walter Cronkite), his other books including Come Together: John Lennon in his Time and Historians in Trouble.

Today, two hundred forty-eight pages of files copied from FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and archived on CD-ROM covering John Lennon are available. Files include an investigation conducted when the FBI reportedly learned that John contributed $75,000 to a group believed to be planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention in 1972.  (This charge remains unsubstantiated.)






Thumb: http://celebritywonder.ugo.com/movie-publication/John_Lennon/html/2006_us_vs_john_lennon_001.html


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Comments (6)

The Beatles story was so sad. As a lot of kids at that time, I was enamored by them, but we didn't know anything of what was going on.

Ranked #1 in Music

Indeed, Pat, the way the US government treated the Beatles was shameful, especially John.

I remember bits and pieces of this.  It was so absurd that an idiot like Nixon (not to mention a higly exposed crook) treated Lennon like this.  It's a free country but Nixon didn't enforce that.

Ranked #1 in Music

Unfortunately, Sandy, "free" is a relative term in America.  Our rights come and go according to who is wielding the power.

I vaguley remember something of this ordeal, but I had no idea the extent to which Nixon used and abused his power.  As you say, "freedom" is a relative term.  Thanks for this very interesting article.  I will have to hunt down a copy of Gimme Some Truth for further reading.

An expert discussion.  It really helps to contextualise what I did know about this aspect of Lennon's life.  The new book sounds interesting.