The memo, signed Dec. 19, 1974, was issued just one month before the Senate established an 11-member panel, known as the Church Committee, to investigate government surveillance programs. The Church Committee would ultimately uncover other unconstitutional spying activities, such as that conducted by the National Security Agency under the rubric of Operation Shamrock. Two days after the memo was signed, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, writing in The New York Times, disclosed a covert government spying program that focused on monitoring political activists in the U.S.
Ford became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate spying scandal, and he later supported passage of the pro-privacy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which placed restrictions on wiretapping and required law enforcement to obtain permission from a special court to conduct domestic intelligence surveillance.
But according to the recently released top-secret memo, just two years earlier, Ford had secretly authorized Attorney General William B. Saxbe “to approve, without prior judicial warrants, specific electronic surveillance within the United States which may be requested by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” […]
Ford’s order authorized surveillance for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes, and would have involved spying on Americans or foreigners in the U. S. who were suspected of spying for foreign countries or foreign-based political groups. The open-ended surveillance authority could only be revoked by Ford or by order of a future president.
It’s not known to what extent the surveillance might have involved U.S. citizens or whether there was a specific incident or investigation that prompted the memo. […]
The National Archives obtained the memo, which it shared with the Center for Investigative Reporting, based in California. A previous, slightly redacted version of the memo was released in 2006.
Here’s more on the Church committee’s Congressional investigations into domestic surveillance program COINTELPRO, which revealed that the FBI built dossiers on groups (including the NAACP) that were suspected of having a Communist ideology even though they had not engaged in crimes, and that the agency burglarized political groups to gather data on them.