Newly declassified documents made public in the National Security Archive at George Washington University show how the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on Americans who were opposed to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This new documentation underscore the persistent, systemic abuses within the NSA on violating American citizens privacy.
In the summary of the declassified documents, "Disreputable if Not Outright Illegal": The National Security Agency versus Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Art Buchwald, Frank Church, et al., the archivists, Matthew Aid and William Burr, explain what type of Americans fell on secret NSA watch list programs in the past. They write:
The names of the NSA's targets are eye-popping. Civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Whitney Young were on the watch list, as were the boxer Muhammad Ali, New York Times journalist Tom Wicker, and veteran Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald. Also startling is that the NSA was tasked with monitoring the overseas telephone calls and cable traffic of two prominent members of Congress, Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Howard Baker (R-Tennessee).The NSA fought disclosure of this information for five years before being compelled by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) to declassify and release the information.
The archivists noted:
In its earlier release, the NSA declassified key elements of the story of its Vietnam War-era watch list and the MINARET program, but it held back details on the targets. ISCAP's decision to release the names of some of the prominent persons involved makes it even easier to understand why some NSA officials saw this operation as "disreputable if not outright illegal."The NSA watch list evolved into the MINARET program, which had its origin in efforts to watch "suspected threats to the president, for drug dealers, and then, according to the NSA history, for 'domestic terrorism.'"
It was these concerns that led Attorney General Elliot Richardson to close down the program in the fall of 1973, as the Nixon administration was beginning to unravel. MINARET and other abuse of power, such as NSA Operation SHAMROCK, contributed to the drive for Congressional intelligence oversight and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the mid-1970s.
President Johnson, angered by the criticism and prone to seeing conspiracies, wanted to know whether domestic anti-Vietnam War leaders and organizations had the support of hostile foreign powers ("Moscow gold").In their coverage of the release, The Guardian reported that the NSA "went to great lengths to keep its activities... from public view. All reports generated for Minaret were printed on plain paper unadorned with the NSA logo or other identifying markings other than the stamp 'For Background Use Only'."
The New York Times Magazine reported in 1976 that Martin Luther King, Jr. was spied upon by the NSA, so the information that he was a target was not new. However, the archivists note this is the first time the U.S. government declassified this fact. King was placed on the NSA's watch list when it was created in 1967. King was placed on the watch list, "presumably" because he was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam.
In addition to MLK, other Vietnam War critics were placed on the NSA watch list. Whitney Young, president of the Urban League, had good relations with the Johnson White House and served on the president's "civil rights cabinet", but his opposition in 1969 to the war likely made him a target.
During 1969, however, Young publicly turned against the Vietnam War by endorsing the October 15 Moratorium. The war, he argued, was "tragically diverting America's attention from its primary problem-the urban and racial crisis-at the very time that crisis is at [a] flash point." Whether that prompted some government official to add Young to the MINARET list remains to be seen.Sen. Church, a moderate critic of the war, was another NSA target. Church saw his support of the Tonkin Gulf resolution as a mistake and argued the United States was doing "too much" as Johnson began to escalate the war.
Church had been one of Johnson's Senate allies but the President was angry with Church and other Senate critics and later suggested that they were under Moscow's influence because of their meetings with Soviet diplomats. In the fall of 1967, Johnson declared that "the major threat we have is from the doves" and ordered FBI security checks on "individuals who wrote letters and telegrams critical of a speech he had recently delivered." In that political climate, it is not surprising that some government officials eventually nominated Church for the watch list.Sen. Church went on to head a select committee in the Senate that investigated abuses by American intelligence agencies in 1975-1976. Church said on "Meet the Press" in August 1975:
In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything — telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) were created following the recommendations from the committee. The PATRIOT Act of 2001 modified FISA to allow the government to have broad powers to spy upon targets including American citizens.
If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.
I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
The archivists were baffled to why Sen. Howard Baker became an NSA target. Baker was an ardent backer of the war in Vietnam and his criticism of the the war was inefficient and lack of clear objectives. However, "he consistently defended the Nixon administration's Vietnam policy."
Muhammad Ali was spied upon by the NSA probably because of his efforts to avoid the draft and his public opposition to the Vietnam War. When Ali refused induction in the military, he was sentenced to be imprisoned for five years. Ali's conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. How long he remained a NSA target is still unclear.
A couple of prominent newspaper columnists were the targets of NSA spying. Tom Wicker of The New York Times and Art Buchwald of the Washington Post were both targets. Wicker wrote columns "deeply critical" of the war and Buchwald's some humorist pieces "irritated someone enough" that he was placed on the watch list.
In their article in Foreign Policy, "Secret Cold War Documents Reveal NSA Spied on Senators", Aid and Burr wrote:
The NSA history does not say when these seven men were placed on the watch list -- or, more importantly, who decided to task the NSA to monitor their communications. But the simple fact that the NSA secretly intercepted the telephone calls and telegrams of these prominent Americans, including two U.S. senators, at the White House's behest is alarming in the extreme. It demonstrates just how easily the agency's vast surveillance powers have been abused in the past and can be abused even today.