The headline in the Sunday Times of London was spectacular: Lennon Funded Terrorists and Trotskyists. It was also erroneous. ABC News and other US media presented their own garbled versions of the story. But behind the errors lies a fascinating and significant story about a renegade former intelligence officer for MI5, the British intelligence agency, named David Shayler. Shayler is one of those rare establishment whistleblowers; he went public in 1997 with his outrage over the abuse of power he saw while working for MI5.
One of the things he saw was an MI5 file on Lennon, and he told the Sunday Times–and anybody else who’d listen–what was in it: reports describing Lennon’s financial support for left-wing groups in Britain in the late sixties, along with a copy of the lyrics to Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero” written in what appeared to be Lennon’s own handwriting.
Shayler made these revelations along with a much more serious claim: that British intelligence plotted to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. Shayler was then forced to flee from Britain to avoid prosecution under that country’s draconian Official Secrets Act. The French government put him in prison while the British tried to extradite him; eventually he was freed, and he now lives in Paris. If he sets foot in Britain he will be jailed as a traitor (he has a website: www.shayler.com).
The Sunday Times somehow failed to consider the possibility that the MI5 files Shayler described contained erroneous information. Shayler says the files contained reports that Lennon made large contributions in the late sixties to the Irish Republican Army and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, whose best-known member was Vanessa Redgrave–the “terrorists and Trotskyists” of the headline. These reports are almost certainly false. Lennon never had anything to do with the WRP, widely regarded as the looniest group on the left. In the late sixties Lennon was friendly with the International Marxist Group, who published the underground Red Mole, edited by Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, which had a completely different political orientation from the WRP. A former member of the WRP executive committee, Roger Smith, told the London Observer the MI5 information was wrong: “There was absolutely no link between Lennon and us.”
Whether Lennon provided financial support to the IRA is a bit more complicated. Lennon was an outspoken supporter in the late sixties and early seventies of what he called “Irish civil rights.” He joined protest marches in London organized by the Troops Out movement and appears in a well-known photograph marching in a demonstration carrying a sign that said Red Mole/ For the IRA/Against British Imperialism. After British troops shot and killed thirteen people in Northern Ireland in 1972 on Bloody Sunday, Lennon wrote and recorded a song, “Luck of the Irish,” and sang it at a demonstration in New York. But Yoko Ono recently denied that he ever contributed money to the IRA. Even if he had, it was a lawful act at the time. It wasn’t until the British government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 that support for the IRA was criminalized.
Shayler’s description of MI5 information about Lennon is relevant to the Freedom of Information litigation here over the Lennon FBI file (I’m the plaintiff, represented by the ACLU of Southern California). In 1997 the Clinton Administration released all but ten documents from the Lennon file [see Wiener, “Give Peace a Chance,” October 20, 1997]. The FBI has told the courts that those ten contain national security information provided by a foreign government intelligence agency. The FBI refuses even to release the name of that government. Shayler recently provided a declaration for US courts describing the MI5 documents he has seen.
At a hearing in US District Court in Los Angeles on February 18, Judge Brian Robbins ordered the FBI to release two letters to the FBI from the unnamed foreign government–presumably Britain–requesting that the Lennon information it provided remain confidential. The FBI has twenty-eight days to comply or appeal. Justice Department attorney Thomas Caravallo says they are likely to appeal to defend the principle that national security documents from a foreign government should be kept secret.
In this case, however, because of David Shayler, we know the information being withheld. We know it consists of thirty-year-old reports on the political activities of a dead rock star. We also know that the information is erroneous, at least in part. Instead of legitimate national security issues, these pages–like the pages of the Lennon FBI file that have already been released–document an abuse of power by the government, engaged in illegitimate surveillance of dissidents engaged in lawful political activities.
Why is Lennon in the headlines after all these years? He personified the dreams of the sixties. “Imagine no more countries,” he sang. The establishment press in Britain, led by the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, seems intent on discrediting him. Apparently the battles of the sixties are not over.