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?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent