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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Business Adviser - Sales and Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a desire to help sm...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Support - Helpdesk Analyst

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a customer focu...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Learning & Development Manager - North London - £53,000

£45000 - £53000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: Learning & Develo...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn