Decades before Edward Snowden’s leaks the National Security Agency secretly monitored the communication of prominent Americans who were opposed to the Vietnam War, including at least two sitting US senators.
The six-year spying program known as Minaret, which lasted from 1967 to 1973, was disclosed in the 1970s but the identity of those who the government kept tabs on has been under wraps until now. A recently declassified history of the NSA quoted by Foreign Policy magazine deemed the surveillance “disreputable if not outright illegal.”
The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which helps determine which government documents should be declassified, agreed with an appeal from George Washington University’s National Security Archive that the information should be made public.
Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young were snooping targets, along with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Washington Post humorist Art Buchwald, and New York Times political reporter Tom Wicker. Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that the NSA monitored the overseas telephone conversations and cable traffic of Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Howard Baker (R-Tennessee).
The mammoth disclosure seems to indicate that, in keeping watch of Church and Baker, the NSA was specifically deployed against enemies of the White House, even if they were elected officials.
By the late 1960s US President Lyndon Johnson had allegedly become so thin-skinned in the face of criticism on the topic of Vietnam that biographers have suggested it was affecting his ability to make decisions. Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor, was elected in 1969 but had already spent more than two decades in Washington and had struggled with infamous levels of paranoia.
The declassified report does not specify the dates subjects were added to the Minaret list or the reasoning why, but a total of 1,650 US citizens (most of them anti-war activists, high profile and otherwise) were included.
It has long been known that Martin Luther King was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation through most of his years in the public eye, starting no later than when he delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech in the summer of 1963. Convinced King was under communist control, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally ordered surveillance on King and likely added the civil rights leader to the Minaret list early in its existence.
Muhammad Ali for his part had publicly declared himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, famously declaring in 1966 “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs.” He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight title.
Wicker, the Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Times, frequently lampooned the handling of the Vietnam War to the point where Johnson came to believe the Times “wanted him to lose the war.” Buchwald, once a humor columnist, became increasingly politicized and penned a famous column estimating it cost US taxpayers $332,000 to kill each enemy soldier.
“It has been proposed that instead of bombs, Americans planes drop new automobiles that have been called in for defects on the suburbs of Hanoi. Once enough cars have been dropped, the North Vietnamese would proceed to kill each other on their own highways,” Buchwald wrote in 1967.
“Another project that is being given close study is to drop pamphlets on North Vietnam and Viet Cong zones offering anyone who desserts to our side a $25,000 home, free education for his children, color television and a paid-up membership in the country club of his choice.”
Senator Church would go on to become chairman of the Church Committee in 1975. The committee investigated the intelligence-gathering methods employed by the NSA, FBI, and CIA in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
An early critic of the Vietnam War, Church would live on as a progressive icon who consistently warned of the dangers the NSA presented to American democracy. In a prediction that rings eerily true nearly 40 years later, Church warned in 1975 that if corrupt leaders took control of the US, the NSA “could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”
“That capability could be turned around on the American people,” Church said, as quoted by the New York Times, “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 secret passages released this week also show that on 9 August 1961, the NSA intercepted an East German Communist Party message reporting on plans to begin blocking all foot traffic between East and West Berlin.
The agency assessed at that time that it "might be the first step in a plan to close the border," which turned out to be correct and led to the construction of the wall on August 13th, 1961.
However, the warning failed to reach US President Kennedy who was “reportedly furious”, with the Berlin crisis being “regarded as an intelligence failure”, the documents stated.
“Kennedy denounced the Berlin Wall, and American-Soviet relations worsened.”
In addition, the documents reveal the significant role of the NSA in the biggest crises of the Cold War - the Cuban Missile Crisis - which is regarded as the moment the two superpowers came closest to launching nuclear strikes.
On 11 September 1962, weeks before the international community learned of the deployment of Soviet nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Cuba, the NSA detected that the USSR had put military forces on higher alert and stood down their strategic bomber fleet, the documents said. The alert lasted for ten days.
“The alert may have been called because Moscow suspected that [President John F.] Kennedy had found out about the [Soviet] missiles [in Cuba]."
The missiles were not discovered by the international community until the middle of October.
The NSA further disclosed information from the agency's history regarding its role in influencing the outcome of the negotiations leading to the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty.
The documents were published after the Security Classification Appeals Panel ruled in favor of researchers at George Washington University who had long sought of the release.