After twenty-three years of litigation, on December 19 the FBI agreed to release the last ten documents in its file on John Lennon. The Bureau had withheld them on the grounds that they contained “national security” information and that releasing them could cause “military retaliation against the United States.”

The Lennon FBI files, which I requested under the Freedom of Information Act in 1981, shortly after Lennon’s murder, document the Nixon Administration’s attempt to deport him from the United States after he said publicly that he planned to campaign against Nixon in the 1972 election.

The newly released documents contain only well-known information about Lennon’s ties to New Left leaders and antiwar groups in London in 1970 and 1971. The information was provided by a foreign government, obviously Britain, whose name remains classified. These reports describe an interview with Lennon published in 1971 in the Red Mole, a London underground newspaper, in which, according to the document, “LENNON emphasized his proletarian background and his sympathy with the oppressed and underprivileged people of Britain and the world.” Not exactly a national security threat–and not really secret; the interview was published in the United States as a cover story in Ramparts magazine under the title “The Working Class Hero Turns Red.”

The documents, posted on the Internet at LennonFBIfiles.com, did contain one bit of information that had previously not been public: Lennon promised to help “finance the establishment of a left wing bookshop and reading room in London.” It’s hard to see any national security threat there.

The documents emphasize Lennon’s ties to London New Left leaders Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, who were members of the International Marxist Group–again, not a secret. Today both are prominent intellectuals on the left. However, the British report concludes that Lennon had “apparently resisted the attempts of any particular group to secure any hold over him.”

So in the end this turns out to be a story not about Lennon but about excessive government secrecy. These reports were withheld under the national security exemption to the Freedom of Information Act by four Presidents–Reagan, Bush I, Bush II and also, notably, Bill Clinton–whose Justice Department under Janet Reno had agreed to release all the other Lennon documents in 1997, but withheld these.

Why did four administrations fight in court to prevent the release of information that was already public? Why did it take twenty-three years of litigation by the ACLU of Southern California (and attorney Dan Marmalefsky of Morrison & Foerster, working pro bono) to get the government to concede that these weren’t national security secrets, and that releasing them would not cause “foreign military retaliation”?

The answer, I think, has nothing to do with John Lennon. It has everything to do with the FBI and the Justice Department, and what they see as the principle they are defending: that they alone should define what constitutes a national security secret. They argued repeatedly in this case that the courts should defer to the FBI, which supposedly has expertise on national security that judges lack. The FBI and the Justice Department don’t want the courts telling them they are wrong about what constitutes a national security secret–and they certainly don’t want the ACLU telling them.

For the ACLU too, it’s not just about John Lennon, it’s also about a principle–but a different one: the principle of freedom of information. In a democracy, the government’s information belongs to the people; the people have a right to know the information in government files–and the FBI and the Justice Department do not get the last word in deciding what to release and what to withhold. That’s what the Freedom of Information Act says: It gives the people the right to appeal decisions to withhold documents; it gives federal judges the power to examine documents the FBI is withholding; and most important, it gives judges the power to order federal agencies to release documents they conclude have been improperly withheld. That’s the principle at the heart of the FOIA, and it’s at the heart of the Lennon FBI files case.