Foreign Policy reports on newly declassified documents that show that the NSA spied on a whole range of people that the LBJ and Nixon administrations considered their political enemies, including at least two sitting U.S. Senators, Martin Luther King and even — for crying out loud — Art Buchwald.
As Vietnam War protests grew, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) tapped the overseas communications of prominent American critics of the war — including a pair of sitting U.S. senators. That’s according to a recently declassified NSA history, which called the effort “disreputable if not outright illegal.”…
The names of the NSA’s targets are eye-popping. Civil rights leaders 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. But perhaps the most startling fact in the declassified document is that the NSA was tasked with monitoring the overseas telephone calls and cable traffic of two prominent members of Congress, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.). As shocking as the recent revelations about the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping have been, there has been no evidence so far of today’s signal intelligence corps taking a step like this, to monitor the White House’s political enemies.
Isn’t that reassuring? We’re finding out 45 years later that the government committed this outrageous abuse of power under LBJ and Nixon, and we know now that the NSA is intercepting virtually every electronic communication on all of us, but there’s “no evidence so far” that they’re doing the same thing now. And there’s no way we would find out in 45 years that they did like we’re finding out now because Obama is a saint and would never do that, amirite?
Carried out between 1967 and 1973, the watch list of domestic critics had its origins in the paranoia that pervaded the White House during the administrations of Johnson and Nixon, as public discontent over the Vietnam War grew. The idea of the watch list, however, developed before the war in order to monitor narcotics traffickers and possible threats to the president. The NSA watch list began informally in the summer of 1967, prompted by Johnson’s belief that the growing number of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and race riots sweeping the United States were being covertly instigated and sustained by the Soviet Union and its allies. Most names placed on the first NSA watch list came from the FBI and the CIA, which wanted any intelligence concerning foreign governments’ involvement with American anti-war and civil rights organizations. In 1969, during Nixon’s administration, the watch list became formally known as Minaret.
Even back in those troubled days, it was highly unlikely that any federal judge would have approved any U.S. government request to wiretap the phones or intercept the cable traffic of these individuals. In most instances, there was no probable cause that these individuals had, or were, engaged in any form of criminal or seditious behavior other than exercising their constitutional rights to assembly and free speech. So the White House and the U.S. intelligence community went around this obstacle and got the compliant, unquestioning NSA to surreptitiously tap the overseas phone calls and intercept the overseas telegrams of targets, despite the fact that everything about the program, according to the NSA history, was “disreputable if not outright illegal.”
During Minaret’s six-year lifetime, the NSA secretly monitored the overseas telephone and cable communications of 1,650 U.S. citizens, most of them anti-war dissidents, civil rights leaders, and members of what the occupants of the White House at the time deemed to be extremist or subversive organizations.
The “good news” is that they don’t have to do that anymore because they just intercept all the overseas calls (and most of the domestic ones too), so they don’t have to target anyone specifically. That’s…progress?