Project MINARET started in 1969 to work on watch lists that required more attention to detail than Shamrock missions since individuals, domestic citizens and foreign nationals, were targeted and required extensive surveillance. National Security Agency officials said the project was not originally created for domestic spying until their “customers” requested American citizens be placed on the watch list. NSA customers are considered any governing body requesting information from the agency including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the White House, and the Attorney General. The requests were typically veiled in ambiguous wording to avoid explicitly asking for records on American citizens by stating, for example, that they are searching for “indications that foreign governments … are controlling or attempting to control or influence the activities of U.S. [citizens or groups].” Similar requests were made for other U.S. citizens such as anti-Vietnam demonstrators, black power group members, and individuals and organizations who have come in contact with foreign governments. The subjects of these requests, including actress Jane Fonda and Dr. Martin Luther King JR,were placed on the NSA’s “civil disturbance” list.
Project MINARET’s “civil disturbance” list was extremely sensitive since the subject matter dealt with the President’s safety, terrorism, and intelligence sources could have risked death or imprisonment if exposed. The communication records obtained from the subjects were no longer limited to messages sent to or received from foreign sources. Instead, officials intercepted citizen-to-citizen communications. The Director of the FBI in the 1970’s said in a memo, in order to justify domestic spying, that racial extremist groups and other political organizations should be considered allies of foreign enemies since they want to destroy the U.S. government. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs issued a similar memo requesting all intelligence on what appeared to be illegal drug trafficking which lead to the establishment of the “drug watch” list. At this point in time, the NSA’s Shamrock and MINERAT projects were explicitly in violation of the Fourth Amendment for warrantless eavesdropping. No longer were they intercepting messages between citizens and foreign parties, they were spying on communications between Americans which cannot be justified without a warrant in the court of law.
The Church Committee was responsible for uncovering Project MINARET’s unlawful activities in 1974. The project disbanded after multiple NSA officials testified in court admitting to unlawful spying.