NSA spied on Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, members of Congress during Vietnam War

The last large-scale scandal at the NSA came after the exposure of its Minaret program, which conducted illegal domestic surveillance during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.  Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) largely in response to the NSA’s espionage on Americans, but up to now the NSA’s targets had not been confirmed. Today, declassified documents show that the NSA targeted Vietnam War protesters of the highest profile — as well as members of Congress:

The National Security Agency eavesdropped on civil rights icon Martin Luther King and heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali as well as other leading critics of the Vietnam War in a secret program later deemed “disreputable,” declassified documents revealed.

The six-year spying program, dubbed “Minaret,” had been exposed in the 1970s but the targets of the surveillance had been kept secret until now.

The documents released Wednesday showed the NSA tracked King and his colleague Whitney Young, boxing star Ali, journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and two members of Congress, Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.

One name in particular stands out.  Senator Frank Church chaired the committee that prompted Congress to pass the FISA laws with an investigation into how US intelligence agencies operated at home.  Until now, his personal stake in that probe wasn’t entirely clear, although Church must have either known or at least suspected that he was a target.  He had become a vocal opponent to the Vietnam War by 1970.  Baker, on the other hand, would probably have been shocked to discover it, and he’s still around to give a reaction; it will be interesting to see what that would be.

Spying on the media will be news, at least in having it confirmed forty years later.  I’d expect to see some reaction at the Times and the Post today on this revelation.  Regardless of how one feels about either or both of those outlets, it’s a good reminder about the dangers of government snooping, as sources that might expose these abuses of power could have been stopped before they could effectively blow the whistle, or perhaps be intimidated by the suspicion that the government has and uses that capability.  That’s something to remember when Eric Holder is signing court documents accusing James Rosen of abetting espionage in order to get surveillance approved by a court, or with the NSA’s broad collection of phone data.

Lastly, the inclusion of King and Ali among the targets just shows how insane this project got.  Both had been watched by the FBI, too, so government surveillance isn’t exactly a surprise here.  Even apart from the obvious violations of privacy, though, the NSA wasted valuable resources and time surveilling Americans who didn’t represent a threat to national security rather than spend those sources on real threats to our national security.  Without effective oversight, the NSA could easily slip back into those patterns, and having high-ranking intel figures like James Clapper and Keith Alexander mislead Congress on NSA activities doesn’t exactly give high confidence that those days won’t return.

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