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Senators, Muhammad Ali, MLK and journalists landed on NSA watch list during Vietnam War

From left, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. AP file, Getty Images file

At the height of the Vietnam War, the National Security Agency secretly monitored the overseas communications of two U.S. senators -- as well as those of boxer Muhammad Ali, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and prominent journalists -- as part of a secret surveillance program, a newly declassified document revealed Tuesday

The disclosures about "Operation Minaret" -- the code name of the NSA program that targeted anti-war critics-- were contained in a previously classified paragraph of an internal history of the agency. It was made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by historian Matthew Aid and the National Security Archive, a group that advocates for public disclosure about the intelligence community.

The paragraph identifies for the first time seven individuals who were on the NSA's "watch list" of 1,650 U.S. citizens whose overseas phone calls and cables were monitored under Operation Minaret: Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald, civil rights leaders King and Whitney Young and Ali.

It was not immediately known why those seven names were singled out in the account written by NSA historian Tom Johnson. Many of those listed were critics of the war, but Baker was a supporter of the conflict.

"None of the seven people who are on the list could in any way, shape or form be considered a threat to national security," said Aid, who has fought for years to have the list declassified.

The existence of Operation Minaret was first disclosed by the Senate committee headed by Church in 1975. The committee’s disclosures about intelligence agency abuses lead to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required warrants by a special national security court before the NSA could intercept the communications of U.S. citizens.

According to the secret NSA history, Minaret grew out of concerns by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson that the anti-Vietnam War movement was receiving assistance from overseas. He tasked the intelligence community to find evidence of this, and the FBI provided most of the names for the secret NSA watch list. The NSA added 13 names-- including those of two spies and an Air Force analyst who had leaked names about surveillance activities to journalists.

The secret history by Johnson said NSA officials understood at the time that the program was "disreputable if not outright illegal."

The disclosure of some names on the watch list came as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in defense of NSA surveillance programs recently revealed by former government security contractor Edward Snowden.

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