Document Surfaces Showing NSA Intercepted Communications Of Prominent Americans During Vietnam War
from the if-it's-available,-it-can-be-abused dept
The NSA’s abuse of American citizens isn’t solely limited to the current revelations. A recently uncovered document shows the NSA intercepted the communications of over 1,000 American citizens in the late 60s and early 70s. Some very notable names are on the list of those surveilled under this program, formally referred to as “Minaret.”
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.
It wasn’t just activists and militants being stalked by the NSA under this program. It was also prominent DC politicians and civil rights leaders.
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.).
This program, which apparently operated at the behest of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, was noxious enough that the NSA’s current representatives referred to it as “disreputable if not outright illegal” when asked to comment.
Most of the citizens targeted by Minaret were strongly anti-war. Some were just merely anti-establishment. Others, like humor columnist Art Buchwald and Sen. Baker are a bit more of a mystery. Frank Church, whose Church Committee exposed widespread wrongdoing within American intelligence agencies, appears to have been “investigated” during the course of his investigations, albeit most likely for his anti-war stance, rather than his investigative work.
The most surprising aspect is the surveillance of members of Congress, something the agency doesn’t seem to be doing at this point in time, although it certainly has the capability. The fact that it has done so in the past isn’t very comforting. (And the fact that past presidents utilized the intelligence agency to keep tabs on personal “enemies” lists isn’t very comforting either, but at least Nixon’s downfall gave us the heads up that such lists existed.)
It’s no surprise the agency was tasked with watching activists and civil rights leaders. The FBI had been doing this for years under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, and the Vietnam War/ Cold War created a low-level resurgence of the Red Scare. Even those on relatively good terms with the White House found themselves added to the Minaret list if they stepped out of line (or simply experienced a regime change in the White House).
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.
Journalist Tom Wicker, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, was likely surveilled because of his critical reports detailing Johnson and Nixon’s mishandling of the Vietnam War. If Johnson didn’t add Wicker, then Nixon definitely did, seeing as Wicker also made Nixon’s personal “enemies” list. Humor columnist Art Buchwald also criticized the war and his addition to Minaret’s tracking shows these administrations weren’t too amused with his jabs at their foreign policies. (Not that Buchwald’s work couldn’t be as scathing as any “straight” article.)
FP’s Matthew Aid and William Burr find Sen. Baker’s appearance on the list strangest — perhaps only explainable by Nixon’s wide-ranging paranoia.
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.
When the program hit its peak (1969), the NSA was collecting over 150,000 communications each month and passing its findings on to the White House. The NSA knew the program operated in a very gray area (the page acquired here mentions that the program is “almost certainly illegal”), and sent each report via an agency courier. The reports themselves were stripped of any identifiable information — well, anything identifiable that would trace the document back to the NSA. Reports were issued on plain bond paper, completely devoid of logos or any other NSA-related markings.
When defenders of the NSA like Michael Hayden claim that the agency’s employees are “bound” by the limits of the law and would not exceed their “authority,” he’s obviously just plain wrong, if not simply lying. This program alone shows the NSA is perfectly willing to work outside the legal limits, especially when granted the “authority” to do so by its superiors.
The current NSA may have issued a statement distancing itself for its past work, but the fact remains that as long as the capabilities are present, the authority to bypass the law may present itself. While we’d all like to believe that Nixon’s actions were an anomaly, seeing that Lyndon Johnson acted just as vindictively towards his enemies indicates that any president can wield this power for his own ends.
No evidence has been produced that a Minaret-esque program currently exists, but the machinery is already in place. All it needs is for someone to flip the switch.