NSA Spied on Political Enemies in Cold War

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?

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  • Michael Heath

    Public apathy enables such abuse of power. Apathy fueled by ignorance,

    “If I’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s in my interests the government broadly spy on everyone; that’ll increase the chances we’ll catch those who threaten us.”

    This position, which I observe as prevalent, fails to understand how this sort of intrusion of privacy effectively suppresses speech. Suppression that yields a less-informed public when it comes to abuses of power; and not just of our own government, but also that of both other governments or even political movements in general.

    An illustration of this was the NSA tapping calls coming into journalists and writers during the Iraq War (by tapping all inter-country transmissions coming into and out of the U.S.). Christopher Hitchens noted that his on-the-ground work in Iraq gave me a host of credible sources. But as the world began to understand the NSA was spying on all transmissions coming into and out of the U.S., Hitchens’ sources in Iraq clammed-up when he attempted to maintain contact with them when he was in the U.S.

    And as most reasonable people suspected during the initial stages of the Iraq War and knew for certain by its middle-stage, our government was lying about the state of the Iraq War as they presented their false narrative on Fox News, where difficulties getting independent and credible reports out of Iraq increased due to the NSA spying on transmissions.

  • D. C. Sessions

    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.

    You forgot that they also have a court to authorize the spying, even if it has to be after the fact.

  • Well I think it’s kind of calming knowing that there’s someone listening in. I, for one, sometimes pick up the phone and start talking without even dialing an number.

    I’m ever so lonely.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Well I think it’s kind of calming knowing that there’s someone listening in. I, for one, sometimes pick up the phone and start talking without even dialing an number.

    The NSA’s theme song:


  • caseloweraz

    Art Buchwald? He was the dangerous one, wielding the weapon dishonest politicians fear most: humor. Just consider his book titles. For example: “I Am Not a Crook” (1974) or “Beating around the Bush” (2005).

  • Before the NSA it was the FBI, before the FBI it was some ad hoc, off the books bunch at the Dept. of War or the Secret Service, before them, the Pinkertons…

    I think that it’s a safe bet that EVERY administration in every nation on the planet bends or breaks rules in order to spy on their opposition both political and extra-national. In the better, more decent countries, they don’t just make shit up and use it to attack those whom their spying has revealed to be good citizens–yeah, I’m lookin’ right the fuck at YOU, Jedgar.

  • stace

    I’m lookin’ right the fuck at YOU, Jedgar.

    Jedgar can’t defend himself, he’s too busy cross-dressing in hell right now.

  • @7:

    I think I gave them all away, but I had a series of anthologies by Sci-fi/fantasy writers that all had the word, “Hell”, in the title (Life is Hell, War is Hell, that sort of thing). One of them did have Jedgar hookin’ in some bar, in drag. Another one had Goering doing something similar.