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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?