NSA spied on King, Ali and Buchwald in Vietnam era

WASHINGTON — Amid raging anti-Vietnam War protests that bedeviled two presidential administrations, snoops at the National Security Agency tapped the overseas communications of war critics including Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and even Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald, according to newly declassified NSA documents released Wednesday.

Oddly, another senator, Howard Baker, R-Tenn. – an ardent supporter of the war – also was put on the NSA “watch list” that authorized the interception of the surveillance targets’ overseas phone calls, telexes and cable traffic. The list, which grew to more than 1,600 names, was active from 1967 to 1973, covering the terms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, the documents say.

Government spying and domestic eavesdropping on 1960s and ’70s civil rights leaders, prominent war protesters and political opponents is well-known. But a new portion of a declassified NSA history, released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, brings context to more recent revelations about the agency’s monitoring of Americans’ communications.

Basically, it’s been going on for awhile.

In 1967, “the country appeared to be going up in flames,” the NSA internal history notes. Johnson wanted to find out whether the domestic antiwar movement was “receiving help from abroad,” the document says. The CIA and Army initially were involved in checking into the president’s concerns, and the FBI contributed names for the list. The eavesdropping job went to the NSA, which officially dubbed the program Minaret in 1969.

The documents – part of a four-volume internal NSA history – provide just seven names on the list: King and fellow civil rights leader Whitney Young, head of the Urban League; heavyweight boxing champion Ali, who famously refused to be drafted; Church and Baker, both influential legislators; Buchwald and New York Times columnist Tom Wicker.

“I have no idea why they went after Tom Wicker and Artie Buchwald,” said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian who specializes in the NSA. “Since when did journalists become legitimate intelligence targets?”

An NSA lawyer who later reviewed the Minaret program “stated that the people involved seemed to understand that the operation was disreputable if not outright illegal,” the account says.

Buchwald, who died in 2007, wrote some scathing columns about the Vietnam War, said Aid and William Burr, an analyst with the archive. In an article in Foreign Policy posted Wednesday, they linked to one column in which Buchwald noted a Post story saying it cost $332,000 to kill an enemy soldier in Vietnam. Buchwald argued that “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,” they noted.

“Maybe Nixon didn’t like his satire, but why did they put him on an NSA watch list?” Aid said Wednesday. “If they didn’t like his column, they could have TP’d his lawn.” He laughed.

But Buchwald, who had complained because he never made Nixon’s Enemies List, must be pleased. At least he made the NSA list.

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