THE BLOG

CIA-FBI Cooperation: The Case of John Lennon

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Jon Wiener Contributing editor, The Nation; professor of history, UC Irvine; author, 'How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America'

Today everyone agrees that cooperation between the CIA and FBI is a key to preventing future terrorist attacks. But what if CIA-FBI intelligence sharing isn't about terrorist threats? What if the CIA is telling the FBI about people who criticize the president and speak out against an unpopular war?

That's precisely what we found in the John Lennon FBI files, released in 1997 under the Freedom of Information Act. That took 15 years of litigation that went all the way to the Supreme Court (I was the plaintiff, represented by the ACLU of Southern
California
). Those files were assembled in 1972 when Lennon was living in New York City, campaigning against the Vietnam War, and Nixon was in the White House, trying to deport him - that story is told in the documentary "The US vs. John Lennon," which opens nationwide Sept. 29 (view the trailer here).

Several documents in the Lennon FBI files provide vivid examples of the wrong kind of "interagency cooperation" in the sharing of intelligence information. In one, from "Director, Central Intelligence Agency" (at the time, Richard Helms) to "Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation" (J. Edgar Hoover), dated Feb. 8, 1972, Helms told Hoover that Lennon had planned to lead "a caravan of entertainers, which will follow US election primaries" (see the document here).

The CIA was right about that: in 1972 Nixon was running for reelection, and Lennon had been talking about organizing a national concert tour where he and others would sing, antiwar leaders would speak, and young people would register to vote - and vote against Nixon that fall.

The CIA memo to the FBI concluded, "Project organizers are seeking to avoid publicity at present in order not to jeopardize the stay of John Lennon, who is in the United States on a one-month visa." A month later the INS refused to renew Lennon's visa and began deportation proceedings. Lennon then cancelled plans for the anti-war caravan.

Another document provides the source of the Agency's information: CIA Operation CHAOS. It was secret, illegal program of surveillance of domestic political dissent - a violation of the CIA charter. The Agency sent intelligence reports on antiwar activists first to President Johnson and later to Nixon, as well as to Henry Kissinger and John Dean. Under Nixon, the CHAOS program was expanded to 60 agents. Its existence was documented in 1976 by the Senate's "Church Committee," which investigated CIA and FBI misconduct and was headed by Idaho Senator Frank Church.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2000, when, according to the 9-11 Commission, the CIA had the names of two men who would become hijackers on 9-11 -- Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi -- but somehow the FBI failed to get the information and/or investigate them. The problem: how to get the CIA and FBI to share information about future al-Mihdhars, but stop the CIA and FBI from sharing information about future John Lennons?

The Church Committee Final Report, issued in 1976, addressed this problem in a way that is remarkably relevant today. Their basic conclusion: "intelligence activities have undermined constitutional rights . . . primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied." The problem is greater "in time of crisis," when "the distinction between legal dissent and criminal conduct is easily forgotten."

Yes, the Church Committee worked before the US became the target of terrorist attack. But they understood one key principle: "Unlike totalitarian states, we do not believe that any government has a monopoly on truth." Therefore challenging official policies and arguments is crucial to a democratic society. No one should have to "weigh his or her desire to express an opinion, or join a group, against the risk of having lawful speech or association used against him."

The Church Committee made 95 recommendations. Number one: Congress must "make clear to the Executive branch that it will not condone, and does not accept, any theory of inherent or implied authority to violate the Constitution."

When Lennon made plans for "a caravan of entertainers," he wasn't conspiring to engage in terrorism or other criminal acts. All he was saying was give peace a chance. Thirty years ago the Church Committee argued that Congress should create strong safeguards to prevent "interagency sharing of intelligence information" from violating fundamental rights. We need those safeguards today more than ever.

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Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI File, and historical consultant on the documentary "The US vs. John Lennon."