The NSA Used to Spy on MLK — and the Senator Who Forced It to Reform

For those inclined to be sympathetic toward the NSA, a declassified document outlines the agency's unsympathetic past — including spying on politicians, reporters, and Martin Luther King.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

For those inclined to be sympathetic toward the public appeal made by NSA chief Keith Alexander on Wednesday — that the NSA stops terror attacks like the one in Nairobi — there's a declassified document that outlines the agency's unsympathetic past, which includes spying on politicians, reporters, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

That spying took place more than four decades ago, years before the Church Committee reforms of the late 1970s that revised the agency's role, and before the clear delineation that the National Security Agency was prohibited from surveilling people in the United States. At that time, the NSA apparently had few qualms about keeping an eye on those the government considered "domestic terrorist and foreign radical" threats. George Washington University's National Security Archive obtained the documents and provides an overview.

During the height of the Vietnam War protest movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the National Security Agency tapped the overseas communications of selected prominent Americans, most of whom were critics of the war, according to a recently declassified NSA history. For years those names on the NSA's watch list were secret, but thanks to the decision of an interagency panel, in response to an appeal by the National Security Archive, the NSA has released them for the first time. The names of the NSA's targets are eye-popping.

One previously redacted section of the document is below. The "Frank Church" that is mentioned is the senator that would later chair the committee reforming the NSA's practices.

At the National Press Club on Wednesday, Alexander suggested that the agency's current role — with its even-more-sweeping collection of data pertaining to Americans — is critical to national safety, The Hill reports.

"If you take those [surveillance powers] away, think about the last week and what will happen in the future," he said. "If you think it's bad now, wait until you get some of those things that happened in Nairobi."

He said the United States is fortunate to be able to have "esoteric" discussions because the NSA and other agencies are effective in stopping terrorists.

Among those who find the discussions somewhat concrete are a group of four senators that only a few hours later unveiled a package of reforms aimed at limiting the sort of data collection Alexander insists keeps us from experiencing mass killings — at malls, anyway. Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, Rand Paul, and Richard Blumenthal unveiled a package that will be discussed at the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, restricting the ability of the NSA to search its databases for citizens' information and ending the bulk collection of phone metadata.

The ultimate fight over the NSA's practices, though, will likely occur at the Supreme Court. Speaking to a group in Northern Virginia, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the high court would eventually tackle the privacy issues at the heart of the agency's work. (The court tossed a lawsuit earlier this year, finding that the plaintiffs didn't have standing.) Scalia figured his body would hear the case — but he wasn't excited about it. The Hill:

"The consequence of that is that whether the NSA can do the stuff it’s been doing...which used to be a question for the people...will now be resolved by the branch of government that knows the least about the issues in question, the branch that knows the least about the extent of the threat against which the wiretapping is directed," Scalia said.

(The issue of the court's technological prowess has come up before.) It's hard not to wonder how Scalia would feel if he were to learn that he, too, had been subject to the gaze of the NSA. (One former analyst claimed he "held in my hand" information pertaining to Justice Samuel Alito.)

Sen. Church's advocacy for change, it's worth noting, was independent of knowing that he was being watched. (He was not the first choice to lead the committee, which originally didn't include the NSA in its scope.) But Church certainly came away with a better understanding of the agency's abilities. From the new documents:

The capabilities that. NSA now possess[es] to intercept and analyze communications are awesome. Future breakthroughs in technology will undoubtedly increase that capability. As the technological barriers to the interception of all forms of communication are being eroded, there must be a strengthening of the legal and operational safeguards that protect Arnericans.

Sounds like something Ron Wyden might say.

Photo: Church, left, holds a CIA dart gun during a committee hearing. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.