Heads Up: FBI Spying on John Lennon

While the subject could seem like something from yesterday, the current debate over domestic spying and the partisan climate make Adam Cohen’s column (TimesSelect) in Thursday’s New York Times seem very up-to-date.

During the 1971 Nixon campaign, the FBI began an exhaustive investigation into John Lennon, Yoko Ono which included following the location of Ono’s daughter from an earlier marriage and surveillance of a concert in the winter of 1971 in support of John Sinclair, a man imprisoned for 10 years for the possession of two joints.

What Lennon did not know at the time was that there were F.B.I. informants in the audience taking notes on everything from the attendance (15,000) to the artistic merits of his new song. (“Lacking Lennon’s usual standards,” his F.B.I. file reports, and “Yoko can’t even remain on key.”) The government spied on Lennon for the next 12 months, and tried to have him deported to England.

Nice to know they sent agents who were able to understand and relate to the music, if not the message. But reporting the results? That sounds a little dubious. I wonder how long it will take before Fox airs Americas Best Telephone Bloopers sponsored by the NSA and the FBI?

Perhaps even more worrying were the effects

The F.B.I.’s timing is noteworthy. Lennon had been involved in high-profile antiwar activities going back to 1969, but the bureau did not formally open its investigation until January 1972 — the year of Nixon’s re-election campaign. In March, just as the presidential campaign was heating up, the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to renew Lennon’s visa, and began deportation proceedings. Nixon was re-elected in November, and a month later, the F.B.I. closed its investigation.

If Lennon was considering actively opposing Nixon’s re-election, the spying and the threat of deportation had their intended effect. In May, he announced that he would not be part of any protest activities at the Republican National Convention, and he did not actively participate in the presidential campaign.

According to Cohen this surveillance is the subject of a new documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and the files collected in the book “Gimme Some Truth” by Jon Wiener.

I was never one for Beattlemania but Lennon’s death was a watershed moment at the end of my youth and his music has effected and still effects the world. It’s sad that the country that considers itself to be the bastion of democracy keeps using the tactics of dictatorships.

While one hopes that there are more John Lennons out there, let’s just hope they aren’t under surveillance.

Hat Tip: Laura Rosen 

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