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FBI to scholars: We want to hold your hand

By Steve Weinberg / February 17, 2000



GIMME SOME TRUTH: THE JOHN LENNON FBI FILES By Jon Wiener University of California Press 344 pp., $45

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When former Beatles lyricist John Lennon died from an assassin's bullet in 1980, history professor Jon Wiener did what a few smart scholars and journalists traditionally do after the death of any controversial figure. He requested Lennon's file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pursuant to the US Freedom of Information Act.

Congress enacted the FOIA in 1966, and has more or less supported its purpose ever since, which is to give requesters of information a window on federal agencies. (In its hypocritical wisdom, Congress exempted itself and the judicial branch of government from the disclosure requirements of the law. But Congress and the judiciary have traditionally been more open to public scrutiny than executive branch agencies.)

Wiener, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, received a response from the FBI. But most of it consisted of blacked-out paragraphs or no paragraphs at all. The FBI, citing the national security exemption to disclosure, told Wiener that many pages in the Lennon file could cause harm to the US government if released. With straight faces, FBI sources told Wiener, his lawyers, and judges that the agency's surveillance of Lennon, a British citizen, was a legitimate law enforcement activity rather than an abuse of power.

The FBI cited two other exemptions to disclosure (of nine total in the law) when replying to Wiener. Some documents might invade the privacy of individuals named therein. Furthermore, release of certain documents in full might compromise the identities of confidential sources.

The national security rationale seemed unlikely, Wiener thought. So he appealed the withholding within the agency, as required by law if further action is contemplated - to little avail. In 1983, frustrated and angry, Wiener sued the FBI with help from the American Civil Liberties Union. What should have been a no-brainer release of information turned into 14 years of litigation that reached the US Supreme Court, wasted precious time and dollars, and eroded the FBI's credibility.

After the various judicial rulings along the way, Wiener ended up with all but 10 of the documents originally withheld, and the FBI (via the taxpayers) shelled out $204,000 to the ACLU for attorneys' fees and court costs.

Optimists could read Wiener's compelling "Gimme Some Truth" as a saga of a determined individual prevailing over a ridiculously stubborn bureaucracy. Pessimists could read it as a saga of how bureaucracies will almost always delay granting the simplest FOIA request, so why even bother.

The best way to read this valuable book, however, is as a primer in legal maneuvering, persistence, and recognition of the public's right and need to know. In short, "Gimme Some Truth" is one of the most important books ever published about the FOIA. It wins bonus points for being delightful to read while being educational. The text, mostly chronological, runs 104 pages. Reproductions of the most important documents Wiener extracted from the FBI take up another 200 pages. The combination works beautifully.

Wiener conveys numerous tips for any person trying to extract information from the federal government. As a veteran user, I knew most of them, but found them excellent refreshers. Here are some examples:

Be reasonable when making a request to an agency. Wiener and his lawyers knew they would never see the names of confidential informants in the documents. So rather than going for all or nothing, they made it clear to the FBI that their request did not seek those names. As Wiener writes, "We were not seeking the names of informers, but we were seeking the information they provided."

Look for alternate routes. Wiener and his lawyers knew that judges had been reluctant to overrule the FBI or any other agency on national security grounds. But they also knew that the US president has the ultimate authority to determine what constitutes damage to national security. So, they consulted the presidential executive order explaining what national security documents could be declassified in the public's interest.

Wiener argued to the FBI that release of the Lennon files would benefit the public interest far more than it would harm the national interest. The language of the president's executive order became the alternate route to bypass the formidable blockage of the FOIA's national security language.

Even for readers who never intend to use the FOIA, this book is a great supplement to Wiener's 1984 biography, "Come Together: John Lennon and His Time."

*Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society