Documents Show the NSA Spied on Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and … Art Buchwald

Art Buchwald: national security threat?

Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images

It’s long been suspected that Martin Luther King was a target for NSA surveillance during the 1960s. Now newly declassified documents have confirmed it for the first time—revealing how the civil rights leader was monitored under a domestic spy program that also ensnared members of Congress, high-profile journalists, and even the boxer Muhammad Ali.

The previously top-secret papers were published on Wednesday, after a government panel ruled in favor of George Washington University researchers who have been seeking their release for years. Details about the NSA surveillance program, codenamed “Minaret,” were first disclosed in the 1970s. But information about specific targets has been previously withheld by the government. The newly released documents include an explosive passage that reveals a few of the high-profile names the NSA had on its “watch list”. It states:

The watch list eventually contained over 1,600 names and included such personages as [Washington Post] columnist Art Buchwald, [New York Times] journalist Tom Wicker, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Whitney Young, the boxer Muhammad Ali, and even politicians such as Frank Church and Howard Baker. Virtually all the names were provided by government organizations. However, NSA did add thirteen names, all but two of them Agency employees who were acknowledged spies. …

The surveillance was justified as necessary to identify “domestic terrorist and foreign radical suspects.” But it appears to have been directed primarily at eavesdropping on government critics—opponents of the Vietnam War, for instance, such as Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, Whitney Young, and Muhammad Ali. The Washington Post’s Art Buchwald, who was humor columnist for the newspaper, apparently got on the list because the government didn’t like his satirical jokes. Martin Luther King may have been targeted for his opposition to Vietnam but also for his civil rights activism and because one of his chief advisers was a former Communist Party member. (The FBI is separately known to have targeted King for surveillance and also tried to discredit him, apparently because he was seen as some kind of threat by the feds.)

The controversial Minaret spy program lasted some six years. It was initiated under President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 but continued after Richard Nixon was elected in 1969. It was not shut down until the fall of 1973. The declassified documents say that an NSA lawyer “who first looked at the procedural aspects” believed that the people involved in the spying “seemed to understand that the program was disreputable if not outright illegal.” The full list of 1,600 names on the watch list still has not been made public.

Somewhat ironically, one of the senators targeted in the Minaret spy program would later go on to lead a groundbreaking review of domestic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. In 1975, Sen. Church chaired a committee that recommended sweeping reforms of surveillance laws, leading to the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Church warned at the time that “the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny.”  Almost 40 years later, the same concern is again at the forefront of Americans’ minds, after recent leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have exposed the U.S. government’s sprawling surveillance infrastructure.

Correction, Sept. 27, 2013: The headline for this blog post originally and incorrectly said that the spying took place in the ‘70s. It ran from 1967-1973.