James Brown claimed that he was being spied on by the Central Intelligence Agency, which said it can neither confirm nor deny the reports, it has emerged.
The late singer made the allegation in his 2005 book "I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul" and while it may not have registered then, it is particularly relevant as the agency is forbidden by its charter from domestic spying on Americans, according to CNN reporter Thomas Lake.
The outlet stumbled upon Brown's claim during an investigation into the singer. CNN then sued the CIA earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain any files it has on Brown.
While the case is pending, the CIA told the outlet it could neither confirm nor deny having records on Brown. The agency then said in a court filing that disclosing whether it has records on Brown could "cause serious damage to U.S. national security," according to CNN.
In his book, Brown wrote of the interest he had allegedly sparked as a leading musician at the forefront of the music industry.
"There was a lot of suspicion, especially among the national police, the FBI, and the CIA about this so-called display of 'Black Power' on my part," Brown wrote via CNN. "Their thinking went something along the lines of, If he could stop a riot ... he could just as easily start one. From that moment I knew I was put under national security surveillance ... I could sense them watching me, spying on me, staking out my home."
One thing was certain though — Brown did catch the eye of a sitting president at around the time he fell under "national security surveillance," as his book would allege. The musician was invited to a White House dinner in May 1968, where he sat at President Johnson's table.
Lake noted that it came at a time just after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and with the government fighting the Viet Cong overseas "and an army of dissidents" at home, "prominent Americans could be assets to the government — as Brown was when he played for American troops in Vietnam that year — or perceived liabilities, if they raised their voices in protest," Lake wrote.
It was around this time that the CIA was working with the FBI to "sabotage two groups that were considered threats to national security: leftist antiwar protesters and Black militant factions," Lake explained. And, as a 1968 FBI document later revealed, one of the stated goals of this operation was to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could 'unify and electrify' the movement" of Black nationalism, Lake noted in his article for CNN.
Brown could easily have been one of those candidates as he gained prominence. However, being in the limelight meant he was scrutinized by the IRS, which pursued him for years over unpaid taxes, Lake explained. He sought help from President Gerald Ford and, when this was unsuccessful, from other countries.
Meanwhile, in 1975, Sen. Frank Church convened the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. The Church Committee also investigated the Special Service Staff, which was a division of the IRS that, according to Church, "had the task of investigating political activists" who would be "punished by the IRS for their political views." It was abolished in 1973.
In a Church Committee hearing, Church expressed puzzlement as to why certain individuals, including Brown, had been singled out by the IRS.
During the hearing, Sen. Walter Mondale complained that the misuse of the IRS "was just part of a broader, more basic project by which various agencies — the FBI, the CIA, and even the White House — decided that the criminal laws weren't adequate to deal with the threat to this nation and that therefore they needed a new tactic," according to CNN.
In pursuit of an answer as to whether or not the CIA could have any special interest in someone like Brown, Lake approached retired Navy Adm. Bobby R. Inman, former director of the National Security Agency and deputy director of central intelligence. And although he said he was not aware of a connection between Brown and the CIA, he did not rule out the possibility either.
"Well, you look at an organization that has existed since the '40s," he said, according to CNN.
"With a mission to try to track what's going on all over the world. In all variety. And their role in doing it is not electronically — their role is to do it by humans. And so they're constantly going to be on the outlook for anyone who might be able to provide useful information. Whether it's just an open exchange, whether it's a targeted — where you actually task them to do something, where they become an asset."
Adding to the speculation that perhaps Brown's claims were not that far-fetched, Lake pointed towards a 2019 phone interview with the musicians disputed fourth wife, Tomirae Brown, who said there were secret cameras in their house and indications that their phones were tapped. But was it an invasion of Brown's privacy or was he working with the government?
Tomirae reportedly said that Brown's advisers said he was a "government man" who would be protected by the CIA. Shana Quinones, who worked for Brown in the '90s, told Lake that "James used to always talk about the CIA" and once, upon seeing a helicopter, said to her, "There they are. They're watching over me," according to CNN.
And, in an interview for the documentary film "A Tale of James Brown," which was released around 2005 — a year before Brown died — he said, "I had seven airplanes. And the one I got now is out of L.A. because the government don't want me to use my own plane no more."
Brown added that "they want to know" where he was at all times and that they wanted to ensure he was "well-protected."
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