Truth be Told: Lessons from Lennon on Government Surveillance

It’s interesting to imagine what John Lennon might have said about a world in which government agencies – and others – monitor private conversations. Not much of a stretch, really, as he’d experienced it for himself. Lennon always was ahead of his time.

“All I want is the truth,” he might say. He’d phrased the challenge – directed at the “establishment” – in an early 1970s song about the lies that were being sold to the public: “Gimme Some Truth.”

Of course, an attitude like that helped make Lennon a target for governmental scrutiny. He had stood proud and loud with the anti-war movement that opposed Vietnam and President Richard Nixon. The government – realizing that pretty much an entire generation had placed Lennon on a pedestal of unprecedented influence – kept close and highly illegal tabs on John and Yoko soon after they had moved to New York.

“They were out to get him,” said author and satirist Paul Krassner, then publisher of underground newspaper The Realist. “It can be very spooky to be followed or wire-tapped.”

The drama took place in full view of the public, even if the public didn’t yet know the full story. Common knowledge at the time was that the non-hip suits and “squares” simply didn’t like him very much; especially his disgraceful promotion of peace, which for some reason wasn’t popular with the people in charge of the war.

The truth was stranger still. As told in The Walrus and The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution, it was thought that Lennon could “sway an election,” according to Nixon loyalist H.R. Haldeman. Deportation seemed in order, and they gathered information to help the case however possible or legal: Undercover cops staked out the streets; federal agents lingered near recording studios; telephone wires were compromised.

Lennon knew they were watching, and made no secret of it when asked. It was getting to him, he admitted, frustrated by the stealth nature of surveillance.

“I was so paranoid from them tappin’ the phone and followin’ me,” Lennon said. “How could I prove that they were tappin’ me phone?”

Lennon never was shy, and who better understood the power of multi-media in all forms? Lennon took his immigration blues public and – Nixon be damned – weighed in on a host of controversial causes. He played The Dick Cavett Show as a forum to address his Visa status in a slice of real-life TV; he sang about the deportation effort on Some Time in New York City, a quickly-produced-and-released album of political tunes; he saturated print and broadcast outlets via courthouse press conferences. Lennon could also work outside of the very business he’d mastered: when radio stations banned “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” a telephone number was set up for people to call and hear the song: on-demand media in the Seventies.

Give us some truth, Lennon echoed a generation’s cry. An old song, perhaps, but with a still-familiar chorus demanding government transparency: All we want is the truth.

“We had slogans in the Sixties,” said Krassner. “Lapel buttons that said ‘no secrets’ and ‘information is free,’ and those concepts are now becoming a reality.”

Some truths were made known, in time. Nixon’s secretive soldiers were – fittingly – defeated by technology and media, hoisted by their own paranoid petard, thanks to leaked information, unveiled communications and recordings made public.

Lennon also won, eventually. In 1975 he and attorney Leon Wildes proved that the president’s men practiced “selective prosecution” and had ordered illegal wire-taps based on political motivations. He finally got the truth, in the form a hard-earned green card.

Every generation worries about being secretly watched – by communists or enemy forces or something equally sinister, sometimes by the government itself. Lennon withstood “Big Brother” a dozen years before Orwell’s target date of 1984, decades before the National Security Agency began browsing the people’s inboxes.

The full story of today’s techno-domestic spying hasn’t been told just yet – and probably won’t for a while. But it will, as long as people demand the truth and keep an eye on those who watch. Whoever that might be and however they may be listening.

We don’t know what Lennon might have said about cyber-space or if even he could boil it down to a simple message, as he often did. “Just gimme some truth” seems to work.

(And so does the one about giving peace a chance, still and always a good idea.)