Secret cold war files reveal US spied on Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr

Declassified documents reveal National Security Agency put anti-war critics on a watch list

The United States has another secret eavesdropping scandal on its hands, but this time it goes back to the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, a time, it now seems, when paranoia about foreign governments allegedly stoking the anti-Vietnam War movement was rife.

Historical archives reluctantly released to researchers at George Washington University show that under a programme dubbed ‘Minaret’, the National Security Agency, NSA, was monitoring the overseas phone calls and cables of several figures of note still now, including heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The papers, which the NSA was forced to release to the researchers at the university’s National Security Archive following an appeal to the Security Classification Appeals Panel, show that even the NSA’s own lawyers later concluded the eavesdropping was far from above board.  Reviewing the activities, an agency lawyer stated “the people involved seemed to understand the operation was disreputable if not outright illegal”.

That would seem to go beyond anything being levelled at the current-day NSA which is still contending with the political repercussions of the release of a torrent of classified information about its existing surveillance programmes by the fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is now in hiding in Russia.

The documents, discussed by the researchers Matthew Aid and William Burr in an article in Foreign Policy, show that over a period from 1967 to 1973, others added to the “watch list” for monitoring also included two sitting members of Congress, Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and another Senator, Howard Baker of Tennessee, who oddly had mostly been supportive of the war.

But also on the list were two prominent journalists, including Tom Wicker, a Washington-based columnist for the New York Times who frequently berated President Lyndon Johnson for escalating the Vietnam War and also Art Buchwald, a humourist at the Washington Post.

The researchers note Buchwald may have landed on the list for sardonically noting in one piece that instead of “spending an estimated $332,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam, it would be cheaper and more cost-effective to offer Viet Cong defectors a $25,000 home, a color TV, education for their children, and a country club membership”.

While the existence of Minaret, which was shut down in 1973 when the Watergate scandal was engulfing President Richard Nixon, was previously known, the NSA managed to keep details of it and who was targeted secret.  That may not be surprising given the prominence of those now identified and the implication that at least in some cases they were singled out on orders of two presidents convinced foreign powers were behind the anti-war movement.

“As shocking as the recent revelations about the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping have been, there has been no evidence so far of today’s signal intelligence corps taking a step like this, to monitor the White House’s political enemies,” Burr and Aid note.

The authors surmise it was probably the FBI that asked for Ali to be included. The boxer, who converted to Islam, refused to be drafted as a conscientious objector, a stand that led him to being convicted of draft evasion and jailed for five years. The conviction was later vacated by the Supreme Court. Before his assassination in 1968, King was also a critic of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there