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More on release of last FBI files on John Lennon

Here is a follow up to one of the stories in last week’s post (Government Openness and Government Secrecy).

Jon Wiener, who teaches history at University of California Irvine and who placed a FOIA request for FBI files on John Lennon in 1981 writes in the current issue of The Nation about what we learned from the release of the last few pages of these files.

Why did four administrations fight in court to prevent the release of information that was already public? … 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.

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