Find a Security Clearance Job!

Intelligence


Minaret

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. But this never became an issue until the Watergate period. In the collection of foreign intelligence, cryptologists often came across unrelated communications, which were routinely destroyed because of their irrelevance. But when items of importance to the FBI came available, they were normally passed on. This was done without much thought given to the boundaries between foreign intelligence and law enforcement, which were by law to be kept separate. The practice began in the 1930s and continued through the war years and into the 1950s.

In 1962, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the White House wanted to know who was traveling to Cuba (which had been made illegal but for exceptional cases). This involved passing on American names and violated customary SIGINT rules by which information on American citizens was to be ignored. It was clearly related to law enforcement, however, and it was the origins of the so-called "Watch List" which became known as the Minaret program.

The idea proved to be irresistible. In 1965, as a result of the conclusions of the Warren Commission, the Secret Service asked NSA to be on the lookout for certain people who might be a threat to the president. The first list was composed almost entirely of Americans, but NSA complied because of the obvious implications of not providing such important information. In 1973 the Agency asked that the Americans be removed from the list and hung onto that position despite anguished protests from the Secret Service.

The Watch List expanded in the 1960s to include people suspected of narcotics trafficking, and at one point most of the names on the list were individuals suspected of narcotics-related activity. The list was formally documented by USIB in 1971.

But by far the most controversial expansion of the list occurred in 1967, and it involved domestic terrorism. In 1967 the country appeared to be going up in flames. Vietnam War protests were becoming common, and "ghetto riots" in America's urban centers had virtually destroyed sections of Detroit and Los Angeles. President Johnson wanted to know if the domestic antiwar movement was receiving help from abroad, and he commissioned Richard Helms at CIA to find out. CIA came up with very little, but in the process of mobilizing the intelligence community, the Army was tasked with monitoring communications for the purpose of answering Johnson's question. On October 20, Major General William P. Yarborough, the Army chief of staff for intelligence, informed NSA of the effort, in which ASA was involved, and asked for help.

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. The project, which became known officially as Minaret in 1969, employed unusual procedures. NSA distributed reports without the usual serialization. They were designed to look like HUMINT reports rather than SIGlNT, and readers could find no originating agency. 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.

ASA's monitoring of domestic radical communications was almost certainly illegal, according to the legal opinions of two different groups of government lawyers. Even worse, it had come to public notice in 1970 when NBC aired a program alleging that ASA had monitored civilian radios during the Democratic Convention of 1968. ASA quickly closed it down and went out ofthe civil disturbance monitoring business.

Minaret was quite another matter, and it did not depend on ASA for its existence. Lew Allen had been director for less than two weeks when his chief lawyer, Roy Banner, informed him of Minaret - it was the first the new director had known of the program. Banner noted a recent court decision on wiretaps that might affect the Watch List. A federal judge had ruled in a case involving leading Weathermen (SDS radical wing) that all federal agencies, including NSA, must disclose any illegal wiretaps of the defendants. NSA's communications monitoring, although not technically a wiretap, could be construed as such by recent court decisions. Although the Weathermen in question might not he on the Watch List, the time was not far off when a court case would expose the list.

This operation did not pass the "smell test". According to Allen, it appeared to be a possible violation of constitutional guarantees. He promptly wrote to Attorney General Elliot Richardson to request that Richardson himself authorize the retention ofall individuals by name on the list. This was in September 1973. The Watergate hearings in Congress had just wrapped up, and the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had subpoenaed the presidential tapes. The executive department was in chaos. Richardson's predecessor, Richard Kleindeinst, had been forced out under pressure, and his predecessor, John Mitchell, was almost sure to go to jail. In that atmosphere, the attorney general was not going to permit the continuation ofan operation of such doubtful legality. He requested that NSA stop the operation until he had had a chance to review it. With that, Minaret came to a well-deserved end.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list