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Context of 'June 19, 1972: Supreme Court Holds Warrantless Wiretapping of US Citizens Unconstitutional'

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Henry Kissinger.Henry Kissinger. [Source: Library of Congress]Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, determined to prove to President Nixon that news stories about the secret Cambodian bombings are not being leaked to the press by liberals in the National Security Council offices, urges FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap several of Nixon’s top aides, as well as a selection of reporters. Kissinger will later deny making the request. [Werth, 2006, pp. 169] In March 1973, W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s famous “Deep Throat” background source, will confirm the wiretappings, saying: “In 1969, the first targets of aggressive wiretapping were the reporters and those in the administration who were suspected of disloyalty. Then the emphasis was shifted to the radical political opposition during the [Vietnam] antiwar protests. When it got near election time [1972], it was only natural to tap the Democrats (see Late June-July 1971 and May 27-28, 1972). The arrests in the Watergate (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) sent everybody off the edge because the break-in could uncover the whole program.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 271] Felt will tell Woodward that two of the reporters placed under electronic surveillance are Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith. Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg will leak the Defense Department documents to Sheehan (see March 1971). Eventually, future FBI director William Ruckelshaus will reveal that at least 17 wiretaps are ordered between 1969 and 1971. The logs of those wiretaps are stored in a safe in White House aide John Ehrlichman’s office. In all, 13 government officials and four reporters are monitored. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 313] The FBI will send Kissinger 37 letters reporting on the results of the surveillance between May 16, 1969 and May 11, 1970. When the surveillance is revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee, it will be shown that among those monitored are Nixon speechwriter and later New York Times columnist William Safire; Anthony Lake, a top Kissinger aide who will later resign over the secret bombings of Cambodia; and the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, whom Kissinger regards as a political enemy. [Woodward, 2005, pp. 21-22]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry A. Kissinger, Hedrick Smith, Anthony Lake, Melvin Laird, Neil Sheehan, William Safire, W. Mark Felt, National Security Council, William Ruckelshaus

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

July 26-27, 1970: Nixon Rejects Huston Plan

After President Nixon approves of the so-called “Huston Plan” to implement a sweeping new domestic intelligence and internal security apparatus (see July 14, 1970), FBI director J. Edgar Hoover brings the plan’s author, White House aide Tom Charles Huston (see June 5, 1970), into his office and vents his disapproval. The “old ways” of unfettered wiretaps, political infiltration, and calculated break-ins and burglaries are “too dangerous,” he tells Huston. When, not if, the operations are revealed to the public, they will open up scrutiny of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and possibly reveal other, past illegal domestic surveillance operations that would embarrass the government. Hoover says he will not share FBI intelligence with other agencies, and will not authorize any illegal activities without President Nixon’s personal, written approval. The next day, Nixon orders all copies of the decision memo collected, and withdraws his support for the plan. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 236-237] W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI, later calls Huston “a kind of White House gauleiter over the intelligence community.” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward will note that the definition of “gauleiter” is, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “the leader or chief officoal of a political district under Nazi control.” [Woodward, 2005, pp. 33-34]

Entity Tags: W. Mark Felt, Tom Charles Huston, J. Edgar Hoover, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

The US Supreme Court, in what becomes informally known as the “Keith case,” upholds, 8-0, an appellate court ruling that strikes down warrantless surveillance of domestic groups for national security purposes. The Department of Justice had wiretapped, without court warrants, several defendants charged with destruction of government property; those wiretaps provided key evidence against the defendants. Attorney General John Mitchell refused to disclose the source of the evidence pursuant to the “national security” exception to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The courts disagreed, and the government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower courts’ rulings against the government in a unanimous verdict. The Court held that the wiretaps were an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment, establishing the judicial precedent that warrants must be obtained before the government can wiretap a US citizen. [US Supreme Court, 6/19/1972; Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259] Critics of the Nixon administration have long argued that its so-called “Mitchell Doctrine” of warrantlessly wiretapping “subversives” has been misused to spy on anyone whom Nixon officials believe may be political enemies. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259] As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. [John Conyers, 5/14/2003]
Opinion of Justice Powell - Writing for the Court, Justice Lewis Powell observes: “History abundantly documents the tendency of Government—however benevolent and benign its motives—to view with suspicion those who most fervently dispute its policies. Fourth Amendment protections become the more necessary when the targets of official surveillance may be those suspected of unorthodoxy in their political beliefs. The danger to political dissent is acute where the government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect ‘domestic security.’ Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent.” [US Supreme Court, 6/19/1972]
Justice Department Wiretapped Reporters, Government Officials - In February 1973, the media will report that, under the policy, the Justice Department had wiretapped both reporters and Nixon officials themselves who were suspected of leaking information to the press (see May 1969 and July 26-27, 1970), and that some of the information gleaned from those wiretaps was given to “Plumbers” E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy for their own political espionage operations. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259]
Conyers Hails Decision 30 Years Later - In 2003, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) will say on the floor of the House: “Prior to 1970, every modern president had claimed ‘inherent Executive power’ to conduct electronic surveillance in ‘national security’ cases without the judicial warrant required in criminal cases by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Then Attorney General John Mitchell, on behalf of President Richard Nixon sought to wiretap several alleged ‘domestic’ terrorists without warrants, on the ground that it was a national security matter. Judge [Damon] Keith rejected this claim of the Sovereign’s inherent power to avoid the safeguard of the Fourth Amendment. He ordered the government to produce the wiretap transcripts. When the Attorney General appealed to the US Supreme Court, the Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith. The Keith decision not only marked a watershed in civil liberties protection for Americans. It also led directly to the current statutory restriction on the government’s electronic snooping in national security cases.” [John Conyers, 5/14/2003]

Entity Tags: Lewis Powell, US Supreme Court, John Mitchell, E. Howard Hunt, US Department of Justice, G. Gordon Liddy, ’Plumbers’, Damon Keith, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

US District Court Judge W. M. Byrne, Jr dismisses all charges against “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see March 1971) and Ellsberg’s co-defendant, Anthony Russo. [New York Times, 5/11/1973] Byrne was shocked to learn that Watergate burglars G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt had supervised the burglary of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (see September 9, 1971). The source of the information was probably White House counsel John Dean. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 307] Initially, government prosecutors had insisted that Ellsberg had never been wiretapped, but FBI director William Ruckelshaus found that Ellsberg had indeed been recorded, during a conversation with former Kissinger aide Morton Halperin, who had been wiretapped (see June 19, 1972). Ruckelshaus tells the court that Halperin had been monitored for 21 months. It is the first public acknowledgement that the Nixon administration had used wiretaps against its political enemies (see June 27, 1973). Additionally, the government had broken the law when it failed to disclose the wiretap to Ellsberg’s defense lawyers. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 313] Byrne cites “improper government conduct shielded so long from public view” and an array of governmental misconduct in dismissing the charges. “The conduct of the government has placed the case in such a posture that it precludes the fair, dispassionate resolution of these issues by a jury,” Byrne rules. Ellsberg and Russo were charged with theft, conspiracy, and fraud in the case. The government’s actions in attempting to prosecute Ellsberg and Russo “offended a sense of justice,” he says. One of the governmental actions that Byrne decries was the wiretapping of Ellsberg’s telephone conversations by the FBI in 1969 and 1970, and the subsequent destruction of the tapes and surveillance logs of those conversations. Byrne is also disturbed by the burglary of the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist by government agents (see June 30-July 1, 1971 and September 9, 1971), and the apparent involvement of the FBI and the CIA in the prosecution of the case at the “request of the White House.” Referring to the burglary, Byrne says, “We may have been given only a glimpse of what this special unit did.” After the trial, Ellsberg is asked if he would disclose the Pentagon documents again, and he replies, “I would do it tomorrow, if I could do it.” [New York Times, 5/11/1973]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Anthony Russo, Daniel Ellsberg, Morton H. Halperin, W. M. Byrne, Jr, US Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

August 16, 1972 front page of the Washington Post, reporting on Nixon’s address.August 16, 1972 front page of the Washington Post, reporting on Nixon’s address. [Source: Southern Methodist University]President Nixon delivers his second prime-time televised speech about Watergate to the nation. He says that both the Senate investigations have focused more on trying to “implicate the president personally in the illegal activities that took place,” and reminds listeners that he has already taken “full responsibility” for the “abuses [that] occurred during my administration” (see April 30, 1973). But in light of the increasing evidence being revealed about the Watergate conspiracy, Nixon’s speech is later proven to be a compilation of lies, half-truths, justifications, and evasions.
'No Prior Knowledge' - He again insists that “I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in; I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities; I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics. That was and that is the simple truth.” He says that in all the Senate testimony, “there is not the slightest suggestion that I had any knowledge of the planning for the Watergate break-in.” He says only one witness has challenged his statement under oath, referring to former White House counsel John Dean (see April 6-20, 1973) and June 25-29, 1973), and says Dean’s “testimony has been contradicted by every other witness in a position to know the facts.” Instead, says Nixon, he insisted from the outset that the investigation into the Watergate burglary be “thorough and aboveboard,” and if there were any evidence of “higher involvement, we should get the facts out first.” A cover-up would be unconscionable, he says. He again insists that he was told in September 1972 that an FBI investigation, “the most extensive investigation since the assassination of President Kennedy… had established that only those seven (see June 17, 1972) were involved.” Throughout, Nixon says, he relied on the reports of his staff members, Justice Department, and FBI officials, who consistently reassured him that there was no involvement by anyone in the White House in the burglaries. “Because I trusted the agencies conducting the investigations, because I believed the reports I was getting, I did not believe the newspaper accounts that suggested a cover-up. I was convinced there was no cover-up, because I was convinced that no one had anything to cover up.”
Internal Investigation - He didn’t realize that those assurances were wrong until March 21, when he “received new information from [Dean] that led me to conclude that the reports I had been getting for over nine months were not true.” He immediately launched an internal investigation (see August 29, 1972), initially relying on Dean to conduct the investigation, then turning the task over to his senior aide, John Ehrlichman, and to the Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst. The results prompted him to give the case to the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, ordering the complete cooperation of “all members of the administration.” He never tried to hide the facts, Nixon asserts, but instead has consistently tried “to discover the facts—and to lay those facts before the appropriate law enforcement authorities so that justice could be done and the guilty dealt with.”
Refusal to Turn over Tapes; 'Privileged' Communications - Nixon says he is resisting subpoenas to turn over the secret recordings he has had made of White House and other conversations (see July 13-16, 1973) because of “a much more important principle… than what the tapes might prove about Watergate.” A president must be able to talk “openly and candidly with his advisers about issues and individuals” without having those conversations ever made public. These are “privileged” conversations, he says, similar to those between a lawyer and his client or “a priest and a penitent.” The conversations between a president and his advisers, Nixon says, are “even more important.” The conversations on those tapes are “blunt and candid,” made without thought to any future public disclosure, and for future presidents and their advisers to know that their conversations and advice might one day be made public would cripple their ability to talk freely and offer unfettered opinions. “That is why I shall continue to oppose efforts which would set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations between them and those they look to for advice,” he says. “This principle of confidentiality of presidential conversations is at stake in the question of these tapes. I must and I shall oppose any efforts to destroy this principle.”
'Hard and Tough' Politics - Watergate has come to encompass more than just a burglary, Nixon says, but has brought up issues of partisan politics, “enemy lists” (see June 27, 1973), and even threats to national security. Nixon has always run “hard and tough” political campaigns, but has never stepped outside the law and “the limits of decency” in doing so. “To the extent that these things were done in the 1972 campaign, they were serious abuses, and I deplore them,” he says. The “few overzealous people” involved in the Watergate burglary should not reflect on his administration or the political process as a whole. He will “ensure that one of the results of Watergate is a new level of political decency and integrity in America—in which what has been wrong in our politics no longer corrupts or demeans what is right in our politics.”
Legal Wiretapping to Protect the Nation - The measures he has taken to protect the security of the nation have all been within the law and with the intention of protecting the government from possible subversion and even overthrow, he asserts. The wiretaps he authorized had been legal, he says, until the 1972 decision by the Supreme Court that rejected such wiretaps as unlawful (see June 19, 1972). Until then, Nixon says, he—like his predecessors—had implemented such wiretaps “to protect the national security in the public interest.” Since the Supreme Court decision, he says, he has stopped all such surveillance efforts. But the law must be mindful of “tying the president’s hands in a way that would risk sacrificing our security, and with it all our liberties.” He will continue to “protect the security of this nation… by constitutional means, in ways that will not threaten [American] freedom.”
The Fault of the Radicals - He blames the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s as encouraging “individuals and groups… to take the law into their own hands,” often with the praise and support from the media and even from “some of our pulpits as evidence of a new idealism. Those of us who insisted on the old restraints, who warned of the overriding importance of operating within the law and by the rules, were accused of being reactionaries.” In the wake of this radical, anti-government atmosphere, the country was plagued by “a rising spiral of violence and fear, of riots and arson and bombings, all in the name of peace and in the name of justice. Political discussion turned into savage debate. Free speech was brutally suppressed as hecklers shouted down or even physically assaulted those with whom they disagreed. Serious people raised serious questions about whether we could survive as a free democracy.” That attitude permeated political campaigns, to the extent that “some persons in 1972 adopted the morality that they themselves had tightly condemned and committed acts that have no place in our political system… who mistakenly thought their cause justified their violations of the law.”
Looking Forward - It is time to put Watergate behind us, Nixon says, to abandon this “continued, backward-looking obsession with Watergate” and stop “neglect[ing] matters of far greater importance to all of the American people.… The time has come to turn Watergate over to the courts, where the questions of guilt or innocence belong. The time has come for the rest of us to get on with the urgent business of our nation.” [White House, 8/15/1973; White House, 8/15/1973; White House, 8/15/1973; AMDOCS Documents for the Study of American History, 6/1993; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, John Dean, Richard Kleindienst, Richard M. Nixon, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Ehrlichman, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The Sixth US Court of Appeals in Cincinnati unanimously rejects the Bush administration’s claim for blanket secrecy regarding immigration court proceedings (see September 21, 2001). In a 3-0 ruling, the court rules in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft that the administration’s secret deportation-hearing policy goes too far in restricting the public’s right to know what the government is doing. Selectively closing individual deportation hearings for national security reasons might be justifiable, the court rules, but the government cannot simply sequester all such hearings. Appeals court judge Damon Keith, a Carter appointee, writes: “In an area such as immigration, where the government has nearly unlimited authority… the press and the public serve as perhaps the only check on abusive government practices.… The executive branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately in deportation proceedings. When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightly belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation. The Framers of the First Amendment did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us. They protected us against secret government.” Keith is well known for his widely cited ruling of 30 years before against a government program of warrantless wiretapping (see June 19, 1972). [Savage, 2007, pp. 95] Another appeals court will rule in favor of the Bush administration in a separate lawsuit on the same issue (see October 2, 2002).

Entity Tags: Damon Keith, US Department of Justice, Detroit Free Press

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In his State of the Union address, President Bush insists that his authority to wiretap Americans’ phones without warrants (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) is validated by previous administrations’ actions, saying that “previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have.” He fails to note that those presidents authorized warrantless wiretaps before court orders were required for such actions (see June 19, 1972 and 1973). Since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed (see 1978), no president except Bush has ever defied the law. Law professor David Cole calls Bush’s assertion of authority “either intentionally misleading or downright false.” Fellow law professor Richard Epstein predicts that the Supreme Court will strike down any such assertions, if it ever addresses the issue. “I find every bit of this legal argument disingenuous,” he says. Even many conservatives refuse to support Bush, with columnist George Will calling his arguments “risible” and a “monarchical doctrine” that is “refuted by the plain text of the Constitution.” David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, says the legal powers claimed by Bush and his officials can be used to justify anything: “Their argument is extremely dangerous.… The American system was set up on the assumption that you can’t rely on the good will of people with power.” Conservative activist Grover Norquist says flatly, “There is no excuse for violating the rule of law.” And former Justice Department official Bruce Fein says Bush and his officials have “a view that would cause the Founding Fathers to weep. The real conservatives are the ones who treasure the original understanding of the Constitution, and clearly this is inconsistent with the separation of powers.” Even former George H. W. Bush official Brent Scowcroft says that Bush’s interpretation of the Constitution is “fundamentally in error.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203-204]

Entity Tags: David D. Cole, Brent Scowcroft, American Conservative Union, Bruce Fein, Richard Epstein, Grover Norquist, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, David Keene, George Will, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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