American Surveillance: Abuses and Excesses in Cold War-era

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Post WWII, many unwarranted, and often illegal, activities were undertaken by the American intelligence community in its anti-communist fervor. We can see this historical vision as hysteria, motivated by fear. Let’s look at some examples and, perhaps, we can learn some lessons for today.

Man walking in the shadows.
Post WWII, Americans were afraid of communism and vigorously defended themselves against the slightest hint of it. (Image: Alex Linch/Shutterstock)

First Incidents Come to Light

In 1970, Christopher Pyle—a former army captain—disclosed a domestic spying program that was conducted by the army itself. And, in 1974, Seymour Hersh, a reporter for The New York Times, exposed CIA activities ranging from covert efforts to subvert foreign governments to intelligence activities within the United States, aimed at political opponents of the executive branch.

These revelations, and others, led the House and Senate independently chartering two select committees for thoroughly examining how America’s intelligence and law-enforcement communities had conducted themselves.

Committees to Examine Surveillance Excesses

Long Island Congressman Otis Pike chaired the House committee, while Idaho Senator Frank Church chaired the parallel committee in the Senate.

In addition, in 1975, President Gerald Ford asked Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to lead an internal investigative review by the executive branch, an inquiry known as the Rockefeller Commission.

Over the course of the next two years, these three panels worked at a frenetic pace. Here are some of the things we now know about surveillance in America. This is just a representative sample. It is, by no means, comprehensive and doesn’t even include many of the non-surveillance activities that were also uncovered.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

HTLINGUAL: Surveillance through Mail

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the CIA and the FBI ran a program known as HTLINGUAL, which continued operation until 1973. HTLINGUAL operated as a mail cover program—a system by which the government records all of the information on the outside of an envelope or package.

Mail programs like this are almost certainly lawful, and constitutional, and have operated in the United States for more than 100 years. But HTLINGUAL was different because it went beyond reviewing the outside of the mail envelopes.

The program involved the opening of mail without a warrant to read the contents of the letters inside the envelope. The CIA, under HTLINGUAL, illegally opened more than 215,000 pieces of mail.

When the CIA Influenced Propaganda

Another significant CIA program was dubbed Operation Mockingbird. It involved efforts by the CIA to influence press coverage and plant propaganda through journalists.

It’s said that at the height of the program, as many as 25 journalists participated with the CIA as cooperators.

In March 1967, a muckraking magazine known as Ramparts published a story titled, “NSA and the CIA”, where—in this instance—the acronym NSA didn’t stand for the National Security Agency but rather for the National Student Association.

According to former Ramparts Editor Sol Stern, who was the principal author of the article, the CIA was funding the association, and using it as a front organization for advancing its views on campuses across the country. Perhaps more to the point, the CIA’s efforts to control propaganda over some of the American press allowed it to soft-pedal, or downplay, unflattering stories about CIA activities.

Operation Mockingbird

Evan Thomas, in his book on the CIA titled, The Very Best Men, said that by employing Mockingbird, the CIA was able to dissuade The New York Times from covering the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán—a coup that was the result of a covert CIA operation.

Here is how the Church Committee summarized Operation Mockingbird in its 1976 report:

The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred individuals around the world who provide intelligence to the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda.

These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.

It was not until 1976 that newly appointed CIA director George H.W. Bush announced that it would never again have a contractual relationship with any news correspondent.

Learn more about why the CIA secretly funded groups of Americans at home in the United States.

COINTELPRO: The Most Notorious Surveillance Program?

Perhaps the most infamous program of the era was COINTELPRO, conducted by the FBI. Its purpose was to surveil, infiltrate, disrupt—and, at times, discredit—domestic political organizations that were thought to be un-American.

It operated in conjunction with an NSA program, known as MINARET, which targeted the personal communications of civil rights leaders, antiwar activists and the like.

As an aside, one of the delightful—or chilling—ironies of this entire story is that among the subjects of surveillance under Project MINARET was none other than Senator Frank Church himself.

Also subject to COINTELPRO scrutiny were antiwar groups, including the Students for Democratic Society, and several other liberal organizations, like the National Lawyers Guild and members of the women’s rights movement. A small portion of the scrutiny was directed at white hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Learn more about some of last century’s infamous spies

Surveillance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A photo of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Many prominent personalities came under surveillance, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Image: Various (National Archives) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]/Public domain

The scrutiny of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the most notorious, or infamous, COINTELPRO activity. William Sullivan, the agent in charge of COINTELPRO, wrote the following about King after his 1963 march on Washington. This is according to an account by The New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, in his book, Enemies: A History of the FBI.

In light of King’s powerful demagogic speech…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 attempts to pressure, and discredit, King grew so great that a large file on his sexual peccadillos was assembled. Shockingly, the FBI ended up sending him a note that invited King to commit suicide as a way of preventing his own exposure. It read, in part: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.…You are done. There is but one way out for you. Better take it before your filthy abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

A Wide Net of Surveillance

Of course, King was not the only individual target of COINTELPRO. A host of prominent names were also targeted, including authors such as David Halberstam and Ernest Hemingway, and the actress Jean Seaberg.

And as the revelations grew, public concern became acute, action was taken, and the entire structure of federal covert operations was transformed as we know it today.

Common Questions about Abuses and Excesses of American Surveillance in the Cold War-era

Q: What was HTLINGUAL?

The HTLINGUAL was a surveillance program that involved the opening of mail without a warrant to read the contents of the letters inside the envelope.

Q: What was the purpose of the COINTELPRO program?

A surveillance program by the FBI, the purpose of COINTELPRO was to surveil, infiltrate, disrupt—and, at times, discredit—domestic political organizations that were thought to be un-American.

Q: What was Project MINARET?

Run by the NSA, Project MINARET was a surveillance program that targeted the personal communications of civil rights leaders, antiwar activists and the like.

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