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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Mertze Dahlin   

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January 12, 2014

MLK: Also a victim of NSA surveillance

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Martin Luther King Jr. day is being celebrated on January 20th 2014 amid heated debate on massive dragnet surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). Ironically, he was himself a victim of NSA surveillance as unveiled by the declassified documents in September last year. Dr. King's status as an NSA target has been known since the 1970s; nevertheless, this was probably the first time that the U.S. government had declassified it.

Dr. King, an outspoken opponent of the US war in Vietnam, was apparently monitored up until his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. He 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.

When the watch list was created in 1967, King was already an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He had become the target of FBI wiretaps not long after the 1963 March on Washington; Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved the wiretaps because of allegations about King's connections with the Communist Party. One of King's chief advisers was former Communist Party member Stanley Levinson, who had been under the Bureau's scrutiny for years. But even after King began keeping distance from Levinson the wiretaps continued and expanded, part of a generalized FBI effort to destroy King's effectiveness as a civil rights leader. Presumably his name appeared on the watch list in 1967, around the time it was created, because King was already speaking out against the Vietnam War. [1] 

 The NSA worked with other spy agencies to draw up 'watch lists' of anti-war critics and to tap their overseas phone calls.

Minaret Espionage Program

Details about the NSA surveillance program, codenamed “Minaret,” were first disclosed in the 1970s. The controversial Minaret spy program lasted some six years. But information about specific targets had been previously withheld by the government. The newly released documents revealed a few of the high-profile names the NSA had on its watch list eventually containing over 1,600 names.

It 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 two prominent members of Congress, Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Howard Baker (R-Tennessee). Senator Church had been one of Lyndon Johnson's Senate allies but the President was angry with Church and other Senate critics and later suggested that they were under Moscow's influence because of their meetings with Soviet diplomats.

The 1975 disclosure of the NSA program, along with other domestic spying on Americans, caused public outrage and one of the senators who had been tapped, Church, led reforms that created stricter limits on surveillance and spy agencies. Senator Church chaired a committee that recommended sweeping reforms of surveillance laws, leading to the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

Church said on "Meet the Press" in August 1975: "If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology."

Almost 40 years later, Americans are facing the same concern in the aftermath of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the massive NSA surveillance.

To borrow Carl Messineo, Director of Partnership for Civil Justice Fund Legal, "Democracy is premised on the notion that the government operates with the consent of the people, and its authority derives from the people, and its operations serve the people as the people democratically define their interests. Today, government targets the people as “adversaries.”"

Counter Intelligence Program - COINTELPRO

Besides the NSA surveillance, the FBI's COINTELPRO program targeted Dr. Luther King for surveillance and also tried to discredit him, apparently because he was seen as some kind of threat by the feds.

COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations.

According to Brian Glick, author of War at Home, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide and replace him "in his role of the leadership of the Negro people" with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to Reagan's cabinet). [WAR AT HOME - COINTELPRO in the 60s  by Brian Glick published by South End Press, Boston MA.]

Days after his historic August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the FBI Director Edward Hoover circulated a memo that said, “In light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech yesterday, we must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”

The U.S. Senate report of 1976 on COINTELPRO, the “Church Committee” Reports [2], found:

The FBI’s campaign against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began in December 1963, four months after the famous civil rights March on Washington, when a nine-hour meeting was convened at FBI Headquarters to discuss various “avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.”  Following the meeting, agents in the field were instructed to “continue to gather information concerning King’s personal activities … in order that we may consider using this information at an opportune time in a counterintelligence move to discredit him.” 

About two weeks after that conference, FBI agents planted a microphone in Dr. King’s bedroom at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. 58 During the next two years, the FBI installed at least fourteen more “bugs” in Dr. King’s hotel rooms across the country. Physical and photographic surveillances accompanied some of the microphone, coverage.

The FBI also scrutinized Dr. King’s tax returns, monitored his financial affairs, and even tried to determine whether he had a secret foreign bank account.

In late 1964, a “sterilized” tape was prepared in a manner that would prevent attribution to the FBI and was “anonymously” mailed to Dr. King just before he received the Nobel Peace Prize.  Enclosed in the package with the tape was an unsigned letter which warned Dr. King, “your end is approaching . . . you are finished.” The letter intimated that the tape might be publicly released, and closed with the following message:

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . . 

Dr. King’s associates have said he interpreted the message as an effort to induce him to commit suicide.

Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI operated COINTELPRO, for Counter Intelligence Program. Its purpose was to interfere with the activities of the organizations and individuals who were its targets or, in the words of long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” them. The first target was the Communist Party of the United States, but subsequent targets ranged from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organizations espousing women’s rights to right wing organizations such as the National States Rights Party. [3]

A well-known example of COINTELPRO was the FBI’s planting in 1964 of false documents about William Albertson, a long-time Communist Party official, that persuaded the Communist Party that Albertson was an FBI informant. Amid major publicity, Albertson was expelled from the party, lost all his friends, and was fired from his job. Until his death in an automobile accident in 1972, he tried to prove that he was not a snitch, but the case was not resolved until 1989, when the FBI  agreed to pay Albertson’s widow $170,000 to settle her lawsuit against the government. [4]

COINTELPRO was eventually halted by J. Edgar Hoover after activists broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971, and released stolen documents about the program to the press. [5]


Dr. King’s movement won the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other far reaching legislation in spite of the FBI’s vicious campaign against him, America needs a similar movement to dismantle the surveillance state as disclosed by Edward Snowden.

Dr. King devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and opportunity for all and voiced that everyone has a role to play making America what it ought to be. By serving on MLK day and throughout the year we honor Dr. King and help realize his dream of equality and opportunity for all. Let us not forget what he said about the responsibility of the individuals in uplifting the society:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter- He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."


[1] For the FBI's war against Dr. King, see David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, 1986). See also "After Martin Luther King's 1963 Speech, FBI Began Spying on Civil Rights Leader," The Washington Post, 26 August 2013. (Cited by The National Security Archive.)

[2] Final report of the select committee to study governmental operations with respect to intelligence activities. APRIL 26, 1976

[3] 500 Years of History Shows that Mass Spying Is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent by Washington's Blog - Global Research, January 10, 2014

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.