Past as prologue? Vietnam-era spying by NSA comes to light

Newly declassified info details the NSA's surveillance of US antiwar figures. Meanwhile, present-day critics of the agency speak of misuse of powers, and the NSA's director defends his people.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Ed is a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world who enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
5 min read
Martin Luther King during a march in 1967. King was among those spied on by the NSA during the Vietnam War era. AFP/Getty Images

As the present-day NSA draws fire from critics worried about contemporary abuses of power, new details have surfaced about the secretive agency's efforts -- during the Vietnam War era -- to spy on prominent antiwar figures on behalf of the White House.

Newly declassified materials reveal that the US National Security Agency spied on two prominent Congressmen -- Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker -- along with high-profile figures such as civil rights leader and antiwar voice Martin Luther King and heavyweight champ and would-be conscientious objector Muhammad Ali. New York Times journalist Tom Wicker and Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald were also surveillance targets.

The revelations come after the National Security Archive -- an independent research institute founded by journalists and scholars to push back against government secrecy -- petitioned the National Archives to compel the NSA to release the material. They make their appearance against the backdrop of this year's highly charged, and continuing, document dump from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden regarding the agency's Internet era activities.

Specifically, the research institute filed an appeal with the National Archives' Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel -- set up to let the public challenge the classification of certain government documents -- and the NSA subsequently declassified secret passages in its official history of its Cold War surveillance efforts.

As reported in a detailed Foreign Policy article -- co-authored by a senior analyst at the National Security Archive -- the surveillance was carried out as part of a program called Minaret, set up by then President Lyndon Johnson and continued under his successor in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon. Foreign Policy notes that both Johnson and Nixon were angered by the scale of antiwar protests: "As fervent anti-communists, they wondered whether domestic protests were linked to hostile foreign powers, and they wanted answers from the intelligence community."

In its history, the NSA itself calls the Minaret program "disreputable if not outright illegal," according to Foreign Policy, which goes on to discuss the significance of the newly public material:.

The NSA history does not say when these...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.

Fears of abuse
In the wake of leaks by Snowden, critics of the NSA's more recent surveillance programs have been raising this general issue -- and the issue of targeting those with different viewpoints.

On Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists to whom Snowden passed his cache of secret NSA documents, published an article in the Guardian discussing how some of the Snowden documents shed light on the NSA's views on what it calls "propaganda campaigns" against the use of unmanned drones to kill terrorists (and innocent civilians -- the aircraft have done both).

"These latest documents suggest that such themes are pervasive in national security agencies of the US government, where at least some officials view drone opponents as propagandists and adversaries of the United States," Greenwald writes, adding later that "the US has previously denounced drone opponents as US adversaries and even terrorist sympathizers."

Greenwald outlines how a Yemeni activist affiliated with the group Reprieve, which has been critical of US drone strikes, was recently detained by UK authorities at an airport outside London, and how the activist was threatened with further detention when he "objected that his political views had no relevance to security concerns."

Greenwald also mentions an incident from last year, when the US government denied a visa to a Pakistani who had made a short film highlighting "the pain and havoc wreaked on surviving children and other relatives of drone victims." The student reportedly wanted to travel to Seattle to pick up the Audience Award for Best International Film at a film fest there.

And a Pakistani lawyer also working with Reprieve -- who's suing the US government on behalf of family members of victims killed by US drones -- was also denied a visa. According to Reprieve, Greenwald reports, the denial means the lawyer can't accept an invite from members of the House to testify in Congress next week on the CIA drone program.

Defending the NSA
An article in the Guardian on Thursday about the just-declassified Minaret information, notes that the newly public materials "also disclose the more acceptable face of the agency's work that played an important part in some of the biggest crises of the Cold War":

Its signals tracking of the Soviet Union uncovered evidence in September 1962 that the USSR was put on high alert -- a full month before the discovery of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles on Cuban soil provoked the Cuban missile crisis."

A year earlier, the NSA similarly picked up early warning signals that indicated the East German Communist Party was considering blocking all crossing by foot over the border between East and West Berlin -- a presage of the building of the Berlin Wall.

NSA Director Keith Alexander said Wednesday that the agency's current mass collection of phone-call data is playing an important part in the battle against terrorists. In remarks made during a cybersecurity summit at the National Press Club, Alexander said the agency's database is the only way to "connect the dots" between targeted phone numbers in foreign countries and numbers in the US.

"Somebody who has a database that can look at the foreign and the domestic numbers can...get the information back quickly and can tell you where there's a threat and where there's not," The Washington Post quotes Alexander as saying.

And in a recent letter to family members of NSA employees, Alexander and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis responded to concerns about the agency going rogue:

Some media outlets have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA...your loved ones. It has been discouraging to see how our Agency frequently has been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.