A National Security Agency history of intelligence activities during the Cold War has been further declassified. For the first time, the names of a few of the people who were on a watch list operated by the NSA have not been withheld. The history also contains various details that are exceptionally relevant to the debate around US intelligence and privacy that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden ignited.

The National Security Archive (NSA) is responsible for the declassification of the history. The Archive has one of the biggest nongovernmental collections of declassified US documents and is committed to expanding public access to government information.

The organization recounted its effort to have the multi-volume history released:

The National Security Archive filed the initial mandatory declassification review request for the histories in 2006. The next year, when the NSA denied significant information from the histories the Archive filed an appeal. The Agency declassified more information in 2008 and the Archive posted the first three volumes on its Web site in 2008, with commentary by Matthew Aid. The NSA had denied so much, however, that the Archive filed a final appeal with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) that same year. Book I remains under appeal. Five years after the Archive’s appeal, the ISCAP has compelled the NSA to release more information from Books II and III.

ISCAP is set up to provide an avenue for the further review of classification decisions by the government. The panel was established in 1995. After filing an appeal with the agency that made decisions not to declassify certain information, the party pushing for declassification can take a mandatory classification review appeal before ISCAP.

In Chapter 16, “Cryptology and the Watergate Era,” in Book III, a section reads:

…With FBI as the prime source of names, NSA began expanding the watch list to include domestic terrorist and foreign radical suspects. The watch list eventually contained over 1,600 names and included such personages as columnist Art Buchwald, 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 other government organizations. However, the NSA did add thirteen names, all but two of them Agency employees who were acknowledged spies, such as Martin and Mitchell. One of them was the aforementioned Percy Fellwock… 

The history indicates that the project called Minaret “employed unusual procedures.” For example, the NSA did not use the “usual serialization” to distribute the reports. The reports were made to look like human intelligence reports instead of signals intelligence reports. Readers were unable to find the “originating agency.”

According to the history, “Years later, the NSA lawyer who first looked at the procedural aspects stated that the people involved seemed to understand that the operation was disreputable if not outright illegal.”

Though already known, Minaret was ultimately discontinued after a federal judge ruled “in a case involving leading Weathermen (SDS radical wing) that all federal agencies, including NSA, must disclose any illegal wiretaps of the defendants.”  The NSA director at the time, Lew Allen, also felt it “appeared to be a possible violation of constitutional guarantees,” wrote to Attorney General Elliot Richardson and requested that he “authorize the retention of all individuals by name on the list.” In other words, give what the agency had been doing a veneer to make it seem the targeting of individuals had been done legally.

The watch list contained names of people who might pose a threat to the president. It later expanded to people suspected of narcotics trafficking and then to people suspected of involvement in “domestic terrorism.”

As noted, “There is no stark line between ‘foreign intelligence’ and domestic law enforcement. The phrases, which appear to be watertight, actually leak into each other at many points.” Does not that remain true today?

The history also contains summaries on the multiple efforts at reform that sprouted, which is relevant as Congress slowly begins attempts to reform programs and procedures exposed by Snowden.

The NSA was not a target of the committee investigation head by Sen. Church. Two Senate staffers uncovered “Defense paperwork relating to domestic wiretaps which referred to NSA as the source of the request.” These staffers leaked the material to Representative Bella Abzug of New York. Church fired the staffers, but the Church Committee “reluctantly broadened its investigation” to include the NSA, according to the history.

NSA director Lew Allen was “very nervous” about testifying in an “open hearing” before the committee. He pleaded that “the cost of exposure of Minaret could be very high.” (The declassified history notes the “Watch List” was a “byproduct of NSA’s operation to monitor” international commercial communications but further details on the operation were withheld from public release.)

Representative Otis Pike of New York organized an investigation that became known as the Pike Committee. His investigation was, unlike the Church Committee, which focused on the CIA, chartered to “review the entire intelligence apparatus.” The history recounts how NSA officials viewed committee staff as “hostile.” They questioned “procedures for handling classified material” and officials thought they were unwilling to learn about the NSA. “Pike staffers” also “objected to having NSA officials in the room when NSA employees were being questioned,” and one staff interrogation “degenerated into a shoving match.” [Who was being interrogated was withheld from the declassified history.]

Abzug, who chaired the Government Information and Individual Rights Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, seized upon on what the history says was “sensational information relating to Shamrock and Minaret.”

The historical summary on the work of this investigation reads:

…The climate for a full investigation of NSA was right. The press had picked up some of the themes resonating in the Church and Pike hearings. An article in the September 8 edition of Newsweek described the “vacuum cleaner” approach to ILC collection and referred to NSA as “Orwellian.” This was counterbalanced by a statement that “the NSA intends nothing like tyranny – it is probably the most apolitical agency in Washington.” But the fourth estate had clearly discovered the technological advances that permitted NSA to cast a very broad net, and characterized it as a potential threat to individual liberty…

The above is similar to how current NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander has accused the press of “sensationalizing” Snowden’s disclosures on the NSA and not reporting accurately.

Both the Church Committee and Pike Committee were future-focused. Rather than what the NSA happened to actually be doing, Church made the noteworthy conclusion:

The capabilities that NSA now possess 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 Americans.

Pike recommended that “NSA’s existence be authorized through congressional legislation and that ‘further, it is recommended that such congressional legislation specifically define the role of NSA with reference to the monitoring of communications of Americans.”

An executive order that apparently terminated NSA activities in support of law enforcement and intended to prohibit the interception of communications “made from, or intended by the sender to be received in, the United States” was adopted by the NSA to “preempt more restrictive legislation.” This is what is likely to happen today to avoid the kind of reform people like Senator Ron Wyden have proposed.


The declassified history contains additional revelations that the NSA apparently “bent over backwards” to not prosecute Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and journalist Jack Anderson for violating Section 798, which makes the disclosure of classified information concerning communications intelligence activities. (Though, this may be—as Director for National Intelligence James Clapper might say—a least untruth statement. Former New York Times counsel James Goodale, who argued the newspaper had a right to publish the Pentagon Papers, recently recalled how the NSA lied about how the Pentagon Papers would “disclose the secret that the US had broken the North Vietnamese communications code.”)

According to the National Security Archive, “NSA wiretaps on Panama’s president Omar Torrijos during the 1970s may have given U.S. diplomats an advantage in the negotiations that produced the Panama Canal Treaty.” (The Archive said ISCAP’s decision to declassify this information was an “unexpected move.”)

Furthermore, there are a few aspects of the declassified history that may not be revelations necessarily, however, to a reader, they are interesting.

General Robert J. Wood conducted a study for the NSA (“Wood Study”) that looked at how money could be saved by closing signals intelligence sites. The study also looked at whether sites were politically vulnerable and a chart below shows how long it was believed sites could survive political pressures:

From the “Wood Study,” which assessed the political vulnerability of signals intelligence sites in countries housing US operations

“Nationalist sensitivity” — the sort of outrage Brazil is displaying today in response to revelations on NSA spying — is what resulted in the “outright abandonment” of countries.

One statement on the sites reads, “SIGINT sites were generally acceptable as long as they were invisible to the local population.” That is a stunning statement, kind of like saying when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.

The relationship between the NSA and British intelligence agency, GCHQ, has been a source of controversy. The declassified history states, “As for the American-British relationship, the two SIGINT operations had become virtually inseparable by 1970.”

There are some details on the NSA and antiwar demonstrations in the declassified history. One paragraph marked “TS TK,” which likely stands for “top secret crypto” information, recounts:

For a time, cryptology was a bystander in this turmoil, but the antiwar demonstrations eventually touched NSA’s business. In 1966, Stanford University students picketed Stanford Electronic Laboratories, where Lockheed Missile and Space Corporation (LMSC) was designing the P-ll SIGINT satellite payloads. When students occupied the building, James DeBroekert of LMSC smuggled one of the payloads out of the building, through Moffett Naval Air Station and over to Building 190 where the rest of the Lockheed SIGINT satellite effort resided. This very close call for the cryptologic payload had a happy ending only because the students never really knew what they were picketing.

In the next paragraph, according to the history claims, a Students for a Democratic Society chapter at Princeton University “discovered the existence on campus of the Communications Research Division of the Institutes for Defense Analyses,” which was established in the late 1950s to “help NSA with difficult cryptanalytic problems.” SDS believed it was linked to the Defense Department and sought to force the campus to evict the operation.

The history says on May 4, 1970, which was a major day of demonstrations at Princeton, “students broke through police lines and vandalized the inside of the building.” Days later, a student tried to set fire to the building and was arrested. Princeton eventually asked the division to move off campus. The division relocated in 1975. [Note: It is hard to find this history in any of the accounts of demonstrations at Princeton in 1970. One would think this kind of alleged vandalism and an arrest of a student allegedly intent to set fire to a building would have been included.]

Finally, there are entire pages in some cases that remain classified. Who knows if they will ever be public. And multiple examples of the absurdity of secrecy pop out when glancing through.

For example:

The Archive is now trying to get the names of the 1,600 people targeted by the Minaret program declassified. Also, for analysis from the Archive on why people like Sen. Baker, Buchwald, King or Ali may have been included on the watch list, go here.