The KGB thus began “active measures” against King, seeking to discredit him by portraying him as an Uncle Tom figure beholden to Lyndon Johnson. As intelligence historian Christopher Andrew points out, King was therefore probably the only major American political leader to be spied on by both the FBI and the KGB.

COINTELPRO continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s, seeking to disrupt radical movements and at times endorsing police violence against its targets. Such was the case with Fred Hampton, a young and charismatic Black Panther whose organization was infiltrated by a COINTELPRO informant.

The informant reportedly provided a layout of Hampton’s headquarters in Chicago to the Chicago police department and drugged Hampton’s drink to ensure he would not wake up when the CPD came in through the front door. While the official record of the COINTELPRO-assisted police raid isn’t entirely clear on the events, we do know the CPD shot Hampton while still in bed.

COINTELPROs were occasionally targeted at organizations on the far right as well as the left. At Johnson’s urging, Hoover launched a COINTELPRO operation against the Ku Klux Klan in 1965, following the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1965. The infiltration of the white power movement was reportedly quite successful. According to FBI agent Joseph Rucci, “There would be a Klan meeting with ten people there, and six of them would be reporting back [to the FBI] the next day.”

Nixon and Watergate

The legal framework surrounding intelligence gathering that evolved from Theodore Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson (under the shaping hand of J. Edgar Hoover), foundered following its encounter with Richard Nixon. In Nixon, the surveillance community finally found an executive who both went too far with internal surveillance and was foolish enough to entrust his own intelligence gathering operation to incompetent men while leaving reams of incriminating evidence in his wake.

Nixon’s relationship with Hoover began the way it had with other presidents: Hoover fed Nixon useful political information. However, following a break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, which threatened to expose the full scope of the FBI’s COINTELPRO activities, Hoover shut the program down to protect the FBI.

Their relationship soon frayed; at the time of Hoover’s death in May 1972, Nixon was looking to replace him. Without Hoover’s political intelligence, Nixon set up his own inside-the-White House intelligence unit headed by former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. The “plumbers,” as they were called, broke into the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in 1972 and caused the Watergate Scandal.

Nixon’s relationship with the CIA also deteriorated. Helms, who had enjoyed a long career in the CIA prior to becoming its director, wanted to refocus the agency away from covert operations and towards more pedestrian intelligence gathering and analysis. Ironically, Helms would become the first DCI to be indicted for lying to Congress after being ordered to facilitate Nixon and Kissinger’s efforts against Salvador Allende in Chile and denying the activity in testimony on Capitol Hill.

However, Helms refused to play ball with the Nixon administration during the investigation into Watergate. Nixon wanted Helms and his deputy, Vernon Walters, to tell the FBI not to investigate the break-in due to a fictional connection between the break-in and the CIA, which both men refused to do. Nixon forced Helms out of the CIA.

The prolonged agony of Watergate revealed something of the shadowy world that had grown up to fight the Cold War. More was revealed when Hersh released, in December 1974, his story on Operation CHAOS. Further controversy came when Gerald Ford, in some spectacularly ill-chosen comments, argued that the CIA should not be investigated to avoid, among other things, details of assassinations.

The Church Committee: A Watershed in Law and Technology

In 1975, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called the Church Committee after its chairman Frank Church (himself a subject of NSA surveillance), revealed the “family jewels” of the CIA. These included its domestic activities, some of its efforts to overthrow foreign governments, and several of its attempts to assassinate world leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

Nothing like the investigative scale of the Church Committee had occurred before. Unlike previous slaps on the wrists, the CIA after the Church Committee would find itself under continual Congressional observation.

The Church Committee curbed the wildest excesses of the FBI, CIA, and NSA, such as the break-ins, unofficial infiltrations, disregard for Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections, and the disruption efforts against domestic political groups. For the FBI, legal avenues for the use of informants and undercover agents were expected to be the norm.

Methods of gathering intelligence were already changing dramatically by the time of the Church Committee, however. In the course of investigating the actions of the NSA, the Committee became concerned that electronic intelligence collection, by forgoing the need for physical penetration, could more easily circumvent the law and violate Americans’ right to privacy.

The Church Committee sought to establish some protections of civil liberties through the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, which set up the FISA Court to provide a check on the wiretapping activities of the intelligence community. The FISA Court made keeping watch lists of specific individuals illegal; warrants issued by the Court would be required.

Located on the sixth floor of the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Department building until 2009, the court’s goal was to clarify the divisions between foreign and domestic intelligence. It was meant to ensure that various agencies of the intelligence and law enforcement communities could cooperate in monitoring potential threats to the United States while protecting civil liberties of Americans.

The FISA Court is only concerned with foreign intelligence gathering where it might intersect with domestic activities. The court was to demand “minimization” procedures from the general counsel seeking a surveillance warrant, meaning procedures to reduce the possible interception of the communications of U.S. citizens. Once someone leaves the United States, they lose FISA protections.

FISA represents a “compromise” between Congress and the intelligence community; although, with the secretive procedures of the FISA Court, it is not one that has much balance. Since 1978, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, FISA has heard over 17,000 requests and denied a total of 11. Such lopsided numbers, however, do not include times when the Court has demanded revision of a request before granting a warrant.

From September 11 to Snowden

In the 1980s and 1990s, the FISA Court, and the issue of domestic surveillance more generally, did not command much attention. That changed after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Just as the threat of anarchists and communists had inspired earlier regimes of domestic surveillance, so too did the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Passed shortly after the attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act granted wide legal authority to the intelligence community. Among those new powers, included in Article 215, is the right to obtain business records, while imposing a gag order on the party holding those records. This law remains the bedrock behind the current NSA phone metadata collection campaign.

In addition to these lawful actions, the NSA also began a campaign of warrantless wiretaps, eventually revealed by the New York Times in 2005. Attorney General John Ashcroft was skeptical about this program. When Ashcroft was hospitalized, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales went to his bedside and attempted to get a weakened Ashcroft to sign off on the program. Ashcroft refused, though the warrantless wiretapping campaign did not end until 2007. Gonzales became attorney general himself during George W. Bush’s second term.

What grew to replace the warrantless wiretaps after 2007 was the series of programs revealed this summer by Edward Snowden. The NSA began to run some of its operations through the FISA Court.

Declassifications after Snowden’s revelations show that in 2011, the FISA Court found the NSA had acted illegally in intercepting U.S. digital traffic through the Prism program in addition to foreign activity. Some 56,000 domestic communications were collected each year in the three years Prism operated before 2011.

In its collection of metadata, however, declassified records have shown that not only has the Court generally supported the NSA, no telecommunications company has challenged the order to hand over their records. As telephone service has transformed and the internet has grown, the NSA has apparently proven adept at using those telecommunications as an unprecedented intelligence gathering tool.

Additionally, more recent revelations indicate that at times the NSA circumvented the FISA Court entirely. In addition to its court orders for telecommunications records, for example, the NSA, in conjunction with British intelligence, also broke into the main communication links between Yahoo and Google data centers. Since many of these centers are overseas, the NSA could potentially access the data of American citizens through foreign surveillance, a consequence of the international nature of telecommunications infrastructure.

Aside from questions of their legality, however, the ultimate utility of these programs is unclear. The NSA claims its programs have disrupted more than 50 terror attacks. However, the FBI reportedly calls the leads generated by the NSA “ghost-chasing.” The FBI’s current director, Robert Mueller, apparently complained to NSA director Keith Alexander that the NSA’s leads were “a time suck” for his agency. This observation would suggest that, unlike previous domestic intelligence efforts, the FBI is not cooperating with the NSA in an extralegal domestic campaign.

The fact that this information is known through the FISA Court, and that the FISA Court rejected as illegal some of the NSA’s activities, is proof for some that the FISA system works. Benjamin Wittes, recently writing in The New Republic, argues that, as all U.S. courts are not investigative agencies, the fact that it ruled on NSA activities at all demonstrates that the NSA has been keeping it informed.

The Future of Domestic Surveillance

That the NSA was found to have violated the law at times is not surprising in the context of previous domestic surveillance programs. Under pressure from existential threats both real and perceived, and under the control of the executive, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have pushed to the very limits of the law and beyond in pursuit of their goals.

The NSA’s wire-tapping program before 2007, and its continued collection of domestic U.S. intelligence, represents a more technologically advanced form of the kind of wire-tapping carried out as far back as World War I.

The NSA’s current activities also dwarf previous domestic surveillance programs. Rather than focus on specific individuals or groups, the NSA has taken a mass approach. Every day, the NSA intercepts some 1.7 billion various communications, ranging from telephone calls to emails to tweets. Some of the programs revealed this summer were not actually conducting surveillance, but rather were designed to search through the oceans of data collected.

Beyond its scale, the current NSA program is particularly noteworthy within the history of domestic surveillance because it has developed under a specific legal regime. That regime has been criticized as being weak and lacking oversight; even under its generous provisions, the NSA has occasionally blatantly violated the law since September 11.

Yet, this more legal footing is still a considerable change from earlier campaigns, and stems from the exposure of many of those earlier activities in the 1970s. Though at times frustratingly opaque, the FISA Court provides at least some level of control previously lacking in domestic intelligence affairs. Whether Congress, in its current state, could organize something akin to the Church Committee seems unlikely.

The NSA programs of today do not appear to be matched domestically by the kind of action seen by the FBI and the CIA in the 1960s, such as the infiltration of suspect groups that were perceived to be political threats to the United States. There is apparently nothing of the violence and illegality of COINTELPRO.

Regardless of the ultimate fallout of these recent revelations, however, something like the NSA’s activities will almost certainly continue so long as there is the perception of an existential threat against America—a threat that the government believes intelligence agencies must be directed against.