NEAL CONAN, host:
For 5 years the FBI held ten pages of secret files on John Lennon, classified on the grounds that exposure of their contents could threaten national security. Hundreds of other FBI documents on the former Beatle have long since been released, and this week the FBI finally made those final 10 pages public.
John Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California Irvine and a John Lennon scholar. He sued the FBI in 1993 for access to these documents. He joins us now from a hotel room in New York City where he's on vacation. Thanks, John, for taking the time to join us today.
Mr. JOHN WIENER (History, University of California Irvine): Great to be with you.
CONAN: And so what after all these time, is the explosive new information in these documents?
Mr. WIENER: Well, everything we learned here is about Lennon in 1971, what Lennon was doing in London. And it was all perfectly public information and perfectly legal. It says that he was interviewed by an underground newspaper in London called the Red Mole, that he met a French leftist named Regis Dubre(ph), and that anti-war activists in London hoped that Lennon would contribute money to open a leftwing book shop. None of this seems to be national security information.
CONAN: And the justification all of these years, was exposing this information would, well, violate classification agreements made with the people who provided this information, foreign governments.
Mr. WEINER: Yeah. Their argument has been that this is national security information provided by a foreign government under an explicit promise of confidentiality. Even today, we're not allowed to know the name of the foreign government that provided the information, although since it's all about London in 1971, it seems obviously, that it's Britain.
CONAN: And why would any of this constitute a security threat?
Mr. WEINER: Well, they look at this differently than most of the rest of us do. Britain has no Freedom of Information Act that applies to their MI-5, which is the corresponding agency to our FBI. So they do not have any policy of releasing documents ever, and apparently, our government felt obliged to honor their policy, even though the documents in this case aren't exactly about Osama Bin Laden.
CONAN: How did you get involved in this in the first place?
Mr. WEINER: Well, back - when Lennon was shot in December, 1980, I was an historian, a journalist, and a Lennon fan, and I wanted to write something about his engagement with the peace movement in the United States in 1972, when I knew that Nixon had tried to deport him.
I filed a freedom of information request for whatever files there might be on John Lennon with the FBI. I wasn't sure there would be anything. I didn't really think it would take 25 years to get these documents.
CONAN: And over all of that time, what have we learned? I mean, why did the FBI investigate John Lennon in the first place, and did they find out anything remarkable?
Mr. WEINER: Well, there really aren't any secrets about John Lennon anywhere in these documents. I think what's always been at issue here - it's more an issue of government secrecy and freedom of information.
The FBI, under four presidents, has claimed that they have the right to define what constitutes a national security secret. They don't seem to want the courts to tell them they're wrong about that, and they certainly don't want the ACLU telling them they're wrong about that.
I've been represented by the ACLU since 1983. The Freedom of Information Act, however, says something different that gives judges the power to order the FBI to release documents if they've been improperly classified, and apparently, that's what they feared in this case.
CONAN: The front page of the paper you may have gotten at your hotel room this morning, the New York Times, reports that as a new policy, government documents, all government documents, that have been classified will be released after 25 years, unless a specific government agency objects to something.
Given your experience with the FBI in this case, do you think that's going to change anything?
Mr. WEINER: You know, the Clinton administration had an openness initiative, back in the late ‘90s, that was supposed to do the same thing. Bureaucracies like to keep secrets. Whether it's a Republican president or a Democratic president, it's very hard to get information out of them, even innocuous information. And when it comes to information that they actually care about, I think it's going to continue to be a struggle.
CONAN: Are you going to write a new book?
Mr. WEINER: I would like to do a new edition of the book I did on this, because now there's a happy ending.
CONAN: Jon Weiner, good luck.
Mr. WEINER: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Jon Weiner, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a scholar of John Lennon. He sued the FBI for access to the Lennon files. And when we come back, cameras and Congress.