Secret Cold War Documents Reveal NSA Spied on Senators

...along with Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, and a Washington Post humorist.

George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

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."

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."

For years the names of the surveillance targets were kept secret. But after a decision by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, in response to an appeal by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the NSA has declassified them for the first time. 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.

As the Vietnam War escalated during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, domestic criticism and protest movements abounded. Protesters surrounded the Pentagon in the fall of 1967 and two years later organized demonstrations and the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The scale of the dissent angered Johnson as well as his successor, Richard Nixon. As fervent anti-communists, they wondered whether domestic protests were linked to hostile foreign powers, and they wanted answers from the intelligence community. The CIA responded with Operation Chaos, while the NSA worked with other intelligence agencies to compile watch lists of prominent anti-war critics in order to monitor their overseas communications. By 1969, this program became formally known as "Minaret."

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.

Minaret’s notoriety in U.S. intelligence history is well deserved, even if details of the operation have faded from the public’s memory over the past 40 years. Minaret and its companion program, Operation Shamrock, were virtual progenitors of the now-notorious warrantless domestic eavesdropping program that George W. Bush’s administration ran from 2001 to 2004. Moreover, the 1975 disclosure of the programs’ existence by the Church Committee, chaired by a Minaret target himself, Sen. Frank Church, was one of the principal reasons that Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. An incredibly broad warrant, issued under that act, to monitor the call records of Verizon Business Network Services customers was the first of many documents leaked this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

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. A declassified document found at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while not mentioning the NSA, confirmed that from 1967 to 1973, the U.S. intelligence community monitored the foreign travel and overseas communications of anti-war activists such as David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin, and Robert Franklin Williams, as well as a number of prominent African-American militants, such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.

In addition, a number of prominent Americans appeared on the Minaret watch list precisely because their thinking dovetailed with the emerging Vietnam War protests. With the intelligence agencies under White House pressure to find out the alleged international connections of anti-war leaders, U.S. intelligence agencies cast a wide net in their efforts to meet the president’s wishes. Even the most unlikely names would become targets, perhaps because they were prominent and influential and had uttered subversive thoughts. Most, but not all, of the prominent Americans mentioned in the now-declassified NSA history fell into this category.

The Rev. Martin Luther King was almost certainly placed on the Minaret watch list by the FBI in 1967 for two principal reasons. First, one of King’s longtime top advisors, Stanley Levison, was a former member of the Communist Party USA, which the FBI and then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy used to justify tapping the civil rights leader’s telephones shortly after the 1963 March on Washington. Second, King had always been an outspoken critic of America’s participation in the Vietnam War, which almost certainly was why senior officials put him on the NSA watch list shortly after the operation began in 1967. The NSA apparently continued monitoring his overseas telephone calls and telegrams right up until the day he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

One of the most cautious of the major African-American civil rights leaders, National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young, had a good relationship with President Johnson and was frequently invited to the White House as a member of LBJ’s informal "civil rights cabinet." He initially avoided voicing any criticism of the Vietnam War and thus was not put under surveillance by the FBI. In October 1969, however, shortly after Nixon took office, Young publicly turned against the Vietnam War. 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 its flash point." This single act most likely prompted someone, most likely the FBI, to add Young to the Minaret watch list despite the fact that Young had never been accused of ever doing anything that could be described as illegal or subversive.

Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali probably became a Minaret target shortly after the program began in 1967 because of his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War. Since converting to Islam shortly after winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1964, Ali had made no secret of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1967, he refused to be drafted into the Army on religious grounds after his request for conscientious objector status was denied. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment for draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, and barred from boxing. Despite the fact that Ali posed no threat to national security, it seems likely that his name appeared on the NSA watch list at about this time, probably at the FBI’s request. The U.S. Supreme Court finally vacated Ali’s conviction in 1971, allowing him to resume his boxing career. But he probably remained on the NSA’s Minaret watch list until the program was terminated in 1973.

Someone was suspicious enough of Tom Wicker, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, to put him on the NSA watch list. Wicker, one of the United States’ most insightful observers of the Washington political scene, wrote a weekly column called "In the Nation" that frequently skewered Johnson and Nixon for their mishandling of the Vietnam War. Wicker’s columns infuriated Johnson, who believed that the Times "wanted him to lose the war." Wicker’s criticism of the war grew after Nixon became president in January 1969, leading the White House to put him on its "enemies list." Even so, it is frankly terrifying to think that the sole reason Wicker was placed under surveillance by the NSA was because he wrote some newspaper columns that rankled the Oval Office.

It is a mystery why the popular Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald was placed under NSA surveillance. Perhaps the FBI nominated him for inclusion of the Minaret watch list because of his satirical writing about the Vietnam War. As early as 1966, Buchwald had begun writing scathing columns about how the war in Vietnam was being handled, arguing in one column that instead of spending an estimated $332,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam, it would be cheaper and more cost-effective to offer Viet Cong defectors a $25,000 home, a color TV, education for their children, and a country club membership. It was probably this sort of satirical commentary that led to Buchwald’s appearance on the watch list, though one must wonder if the same happened to other humorists, political cartoonists, and stand-up comedians for daring to question the Vietnam War.

It is likely that presidential paranoia put Senator Church, a moderate critic of the Vietnam War, on the NSA watch list. Church, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch ally of Johnson, had voted for the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which the president used to justify the commitment of U.S. military forces in Vietnam. In the years that followed, however, Church became increasingly critical of the Vietnam War, believing that it was virtually unwinnable. His criticisms stung Johnson, and White House staffers described Church’s views as "irresponsible." Johnson even went so far as to suggest privately that Church and the other critics of his Vietnam policies in the Senate were under Moscow’s influence because some of them had met informally with Soviet diplomats. By the time Nixon moved into the Oval Office in January 1969, Church was a committed opponent of the war; by then most of his fellow Democrats in the Senate and even a significant number of Republicans had come to share his views.

The most inexplicable name on the watch list is Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1985, including a term as majority leader from 1981 to 1985. Unlike Church, Baker, the first Republican to ever be elected to the Senate from the state of Tennessee, was a fervent supporter of the U.S. military’s role in the Vietnam War. He was critical of the Johnson administration for not doing enough to win the Vietnam War, but he consistently defended the Nixon administration’s handling of the conflict, never wavering in his support despite the growing chorus of criticism of the conflict among his colleagues in the Senate. Baker hardly fits the profile of the other watch-list targets, so perhaps it was a matter of Nixon wanting to know what Baker was saying about him in some of the senator’s conversations.

The newly declassified NSA material does not divulge how many phone calls or telegrams the agency intercepted from these seven men (King, Young, Ali, Wicker, Buchwald, Church, and Baker), but the number must have been significant over the six years that Minaret operated. The NSA now admits that at the height of the Minaret program in late 1969, almost 150,000 telephone calls, telexes, and cables were being intercepted and analyzed at the NSA every month. The NSA history also doesn’t reveal what information about these targets the NSA extracted from these intercepts and sent on to the White House. According to declassified NSA documents, between 1967 and 1973 the agency issued approximately 1,900 intelligence reports pertaining to terrorism, executive protection, and foreign influence and/or support for U.S. groups deemed to be subversive, especially those groups described as "anti-war."

Clearly recognizing that Minaret was illegal, the NSA analysts working on the program printed all reports derived from these intercepts on plain bond paper without the NSA’s logo or any classification markings except for the marking "For Background Use Only" printed on the top and bottom of the report. They then had them hand-carried by NSA couriers to the very few individuals at the White House and elsewhere in Washington who were cleared to see these highly classified documents. What use Johnson’s and Nixon’s White House made of the information in these Minaret reports remains a mystery, but it is impossible to think of any positive contribution they could have made to strengthening U.S. national security.

Except for Ali and Baker, these targets of the NSA’s Minaret domestic surveillance operations are deceased. King was assassinated in 1968, and Young died in a drowning accident in 1971. Church died in 1984, Buchwald in 2007, and Wicker in 2011. Ali is still alive and active, but sadly can no longer speak because of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. And as for Baker, he retired from Senate in 1985 but went on to serve as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff from 1987 to 1988 and then ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005. He now lives with his wife, former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, in Huntsville, Tennessee, and is still active in the legal profession, serving as counsel with the law firm that his grandfather founded, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. Efforts to reach Baker for comment were unsuccessful.

The intelligence reforms of the 1970s were partly driven by the CIA and NSA abuses of the period, including Minaret, Chaos, and others. The purpose of oversight was to serve as a check on executive power, because it was the will of presidents that had driven the illegal activity. NSA programs since 2001, including Bush’s 2001-2004 warrantless wiretap programs and the activities revealed by Snowden, have suggested the weaknesses of present oversight arrangements and the degree to which the NSA has operated outside the law. The agency has not provided the public with any details about the number of U.S. citizens or organizations whose communications it has monitored, nor has it ever publicly identified any of the individuals whose telephone calls or emails it monitored. Such revelations, if they ever occur, could take decades to emerge.

Minaret Target Page

Matthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry, a history of the National Security Agency.

William Burr is the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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