Questionable and unconstitutional surveillance is nothing new at the National Security Agency, as recently declassified documents show. Decades ago, the NSA spied on US senators, prominent journalists, boxer Muhammad Ali and even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Vietnam War.
Although it wasn’t eavesdropping on average Americans yet, the NSA monitored the phone conversations of all sorts of famous people during the 1960s and 70s. Documents just declassified  by the National Security Archive contain a list of famous Americans whose communications were intercepted. Very few of those individuals could be construed as a threat to national security.
“Disreputable if Not Outright Illegal”
“Disreputable if Not Outright Illegal” is how staffers for the privately funded National Security Archive describe the spying. Some of the individuals whose communications were being tapped in during the Vietnam War included:
- Art Buchwald, who wrote a famous humor column for The Washington Post.
- Whitney Young, the president of the Urban League and a friend and advisor to President Lyndon Johnson.
- Actress Jane Fonda.
- Fonda’s then-husband Tom Hayden who later became a California state legislator.
- Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
- Tom Wicker, the Washington DC bureau chief for The New York Times during the 1960s.
- US Senator Frank Church (D.-Idaho), an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the intelligence community.
- Muhammad Ali, who opposed the draft and converted to Islam in the 1960s.
- Senator Howard Baker  (R.-Tennessee), an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration.
- Radicals Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, known then as African American militants.
Were Americans Placed Under Surveillance for their Beliefs?
Many of the individuals mentioned, such as Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, were apparently placed under surveillance because of their opposition to the Vietnam War. Tom Wicker and Art Buchwald were apparently watched because their journalism was embarrassing Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Others such as Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden were placed under surveillance because of their political beliefs. Fonda is the only person on the list who was an open and public supporter of Communist regimes such as that in Hanoi. Yet Fonda and Hayden had a First Amendment right to their beliefs — no matter how reprehensible they were.
There is no apparent reason for the surveillance of people like Whitney Young, Frank Church and Howard Baker.
The White House used NSA Surveillance to Gather Information about Political Opponents
These documents could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to surveillance. A National Security Archives press release about the declassified documents states: “during the 1960s and the early 1970s the NSA had a practice of reporting to Presidents Johnson and Nixon what prominent Americans were saying and doing abroad.”
In other words, systematic surveillance was already going on and being used for political purposes during this time. The capabilities allegedly created for national security were being used to satisfy the whims of the president.
The documents even state that Lyndon Johnson specifically ordered the NSA to spy on people who were critical of his policies in Vietnam. Johnson wanted to see if there were links between Vietnam War opponents and the Kremlin, probably in an attempt to discredit them.
Whose emails and Tweets is the NSA reading these days? Are standup comedians being spied on for making jokes about the president? Perhaps in 40 years we’ll be reading declassified documents showing how the NSA intercepted Glenn Greenwald’s email and hacked Rush Limbaugh’s iPhone?