1965 June 30

President Johnson Bans Wiretapping – Sort Of


President Lyndon Johnson on this day issued a confidential memo to all the heads of federal agencies forbidding them to engage in wiretapping. Johnson began by writing, “I am strongly opposed to the interception of telephone conversations as a general investigative technique.” He added that “in my view, the invasion of privacy of communications is a highly offensive practice that should be engaged in only where the national security is at stake.” Importantly, the memo mentioned the national security exception in three places. The memo allowed for some “interceptions,” but they had to have the approval of one of the parties involved and also to be approved by the Attorney General in advance. Johnson’s directive was a memorandum rather than an executive order, however, and did not carry the same force of law. Johnson followed up with a memo to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, clarifying some of the details of this memo, on June 16, 1967, which further limited wiretapping, and he then proposed a federal law prohibiting wiretapping.

Johnson is the only president to publicly oppose wiretapping as a basic law enforcement tool (although he always allowed for a national security exception). Title III of the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control Act authorized wiretapping for the first time in American history. Johnson signed the crime bill into law on June 19, 1968 because it contained many provisions he thought were extremely important. His signing statement, however, contained a strong statement opposing the wiretapping provision: “But the Congress, in my judgment, has taken an unwise and potentially dangerous step by sanctioning eavesdropping and wiretapping by Federal, State, and local law officials in an almost unlimited variety of situations.” 

Johnson was an extremely complex and contradictory person, however, and despite these public positions, he ordered wiretapping was familiar with what the FBI was doing in several other instances. He ordered surveillance of civil rights activists at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention (August 25, 1964), was aware of FBI wiretaps on Rev. Martin Luther King (October 10, 1963), and directed the CIA to spy on anti-Vietnam War activists (August 15, 1967).

Read LBJ’s Memo: Athan Theoharis, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (pp. 146–47) (1991)

On the contradictions in LBJ’s record on wiretapping and other forms of surveillance: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama (2012)

And more about the history of wiretapping: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-wiretapping-new-kind-search-and-seizure

Read the Senate Church Committee report on the history of FBI wiretapping (pp. 271–351): http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

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