NSA: “Disreputable if Not Outright Illegal”: The National Security Agency versus Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Art Buchwald, Frank Church, et al.

25 September 2013 — National Security Archive

Newly Declassified History Divulges Names of Prominent Americans Targeted by NSA during Vietnam Era

Declassification Decision by Interagency Panel Releases New Information on the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Panama Canal Negotiations

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 441

Originally Posted – November 14, 2008

Edited by Matthew M. Aid and William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr 202/994 7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu
Matthew M. Aid mmaid@rcn.com

Washington, D.C., September 25, 2013 — During the height of the Vietnam War protest movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the National Security Agency tapped the overseas communications of selected prominent Americans, most of whom were critics of the war, according to a recently declassified NSA history.  For years those names on the NSA’s watch list were secret but thanks to the decision of an interagency panel, in response to an appeal by the National Security Archive, the NSA has released them for the first time. The names of the NSA’s targets are startling. 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 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).

What initially fueled the NSA watch list program was President Johnson’s angry reaction to the Vietnam War protests.  Convinced that hostile foreign powers, the Soviet Union or China, were aiding and abetting the protests, Johnson wanted the intelligence agencies to monitor antiwar critics and protest leaders to determine whether they had overseas communist support.  In 1967, the National Security Agency begun a watch list of suspected individuals based on information from the CIA and the FBI.  President Richard Nixon had similar suspicions about the anti-war protests and the program continued, under the code-name MINARET.  In 1973, the Justice Department closed down the program, partly at the instigation of NSA officials who saw the program as “disreputable, if not outright illegal.”

The watch list targets were named in an NSA history, American Cryptology during the Cold War, a multi-volume study that covers the intersection of secret communications intelligence with Cold War history.  In 2008, in response to numerous excisions in the NSA release, the National Security Archive filed an appeal with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).  In July 2013, ISCAP declassified the watch list targets and other previously redacted details.

The ISCAP release protected many NSA secrets, such as its role in arms control verification and most of the coverage of sensitive communications intelligence (COMINT).  Nevertheless, ISCAP declassified some new and surprising information:

* An August 1961 intercept provided advance warning information of the East German decision to close the intra-Berlin borders, the action that led to the Berlin Wall.

* Weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, NSA detected that the Soviets put military forces on higher alert and stood down their strategic bomber fleet. Apparently Moscow was worried that the United States had discovered the missile deployments.

* Wiretaps on Panama’s president Omar Torrijos during the 1970s gave U.S. diplomats a significant advantage in the negotiations that produced the Panama Canal Treaty, according to the NSA history.

The National Security Archive has been filing declassification requests for background on the NSA watch list program, including the 1,600 names mentioned in the declassified history.  Once more information becomes declassified, it will be featured on the Archive’s Web site.

Check out today’s posting at the National Security Archive website – http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB441/

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Unredacted, the Archive blog – http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

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