Published time: September 26, 2013 02:05
US President Richard Nixon, 1973 (AFP Photo)
Decades before Edward Snowden’s leaks the National Security Agency secretly monitored the communication of prominent Americans who were opposed to the Vietnam War, including at least two sitting US senators.
The six-year spying program known as Minaret, which lasted from
1967 to 1973, was disclosed in the 1970s but the identity of
those who the government kept tabs on has been under wraps until
now. A recently declassified history of the NSA quoted by Foreign
Policy magazine deemed the surveillance “disreputable if not
The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which
helps determine which government documents should be
declassified, agreed with an appeal from George Washington
University’s National Security Archive that the information
should be made public.
Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young
were snooping targets, along with boxing legend Muhammad Ali,
Washington Post humorist Art Buchwald, and New York Times
political reporter Tom Wicker. Perhaps the most shocking
revelation was that the NSA monitored the overseas telephone
conversations and cable traffic of Senators Frank Church
(D-Idaho) and Howard Baker (R-Tennessee).
The mammoth disclosure seems to indicate that, in keeping watch
of Church and Baker, the NSA was specifically deployed against
enemies of the White House, even if they were elected officials.
By the late 1960s US President Lyndon Johnson had allegedly
become so thin-skinned in the face of criticism on the topic of
Vietnam that biographers have suggested it was affecting his
ability to make decisions. Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor,
was elected in 1969 but had already spent more than two decades
in Washington and had struggled with infamous levels of paranoia.
The declassified report does not specify the dates subjects were
added to the Minaret list or the reasoning why, but a total of
1,650 US citizens (most of them anti-war activists, high profile
and otherwise) were included.
It has long been known that Martin Luther King was targeted by
the Federal Bureau of Investigation through most of his years in
the public eye, starting no later than when he delivered the “I
Have A Dream” speech in the summer of 1963. Convinced King was
under communist control, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally
ordered surveillance on King and likely added the civil rights
leader to the Minaret list early in its existence.
Muhammad Ali for his part had publicly declared himself a
conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, famously declaring in
1966 “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs.” He was
eventually sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion
and stripped of his heavyweight title.
Wicker, the Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Times,
frequently lampooned the handling of the Vietnam War to the point
where Johnson came to believe the Times “wanted him to lose
the war.” Buchwald, once a humor columnist, became
increasingly politicized and penned a famous column estimating it
cost US taxpayers $332,000 to kill each enemy soldier.
“It has been proposed that instead of bombs, Americans planes
drop new automobiles that have been called in for defects on the
suburbs of Hanoi. Once enough cars have been dropped, the North
Vietnamese would proceed to kill each other on their own
highways,” Buchwald wrote in 1967.
“Another project that is being given close study is to drop
pamphlets on North Vietnam and Viet Cong zones offering anyone
who desserts to our side a $25,000 home, free education for his
children, color television and a paid-up membership in the
country club of his choice.”
Senator Church would go on to become chairman of the Church
Committee in 1975. The committee investigated the
intelligence-gathering methods employed by the NSA, FBI, and CIA
in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
An early critic of the Vietnam War, Church would live on as a
progressive icon who consistently warned of the dangers the NSA
presented to American democracy. In a prediction that rings
eerily true nearly 40 years later, Church warned in 1975 that if
corrupt leaders took control of the US, the NSA “could enable
it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight
“That capability could be turned around on the American
people,” Church said, as quoted by the New York Times,
“and no American would have any privacy left, such is the
capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations,
telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to