A new report based on documents provided by Edward Snowden has identified five American Muslims, including the leader of a civil-rights group, as having been subjected to surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA).
The disclosure of what were described as specific domestic-surveillance targets by The Intercept online magazine was a rare glimpse into some of the most closely held secrets of counterespionage and terrorism investigators.
The article raised questions about the basis for the domestic spying, even as it was condemned by the government as irresponsible and damaging to national security.
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The report was based on what The Intercept described as a spreadsheet of 7,485 email addresses said to have been monitored from 2002 to 2008, and one of its writers was Glenn Greenwald, a primary recipient of the trove of documents leaked by Snowden, a former NSA contractor.
The document is titled “FISA Recap,” suggesting the eavesdropping took place under the process authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Among the five identified by The Intercept as having been subjected to surveillance are Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers University professor who is the president of the American Iranian Council, a public-policy group that works on diplomatic issues regarding relations with Iran; and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a civil-rights organization.
Also named: Asim Ghafoor, a defense lawyer who has handled terrorism-related cases; Faisal Gill, a former Department of Homeland Security lawyer who later did some legal work with Ghafoor on behalf of Sudan in a lawsuit brought by victims of terrorist attacks; and Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, which supports Muslim political candidates.
The documents did not say what prompted suspicions about the five. Because the spreadsheet stops in spring 2008, it also does not indicate whether any such surveillance continued after FISA was amended that year, in part to restrict the George W. Bush administration’s use of wiretaps, or after President Obama took office in January 2009.
In interviews Wednesday, several of the men denied wrongdoing, and Ghafoor said he believed his Muslim faith was a factor in his being monitored.
“I try not to play the race card,” he said. “But there’s really no other explanation.”
Amirahmadi, a dual citizen of the United States and Iran, said he understood why the U.S. government might want to investigate him in an era of heightened nerves; such surveillance is used not just to investigate people suspected of being terrorists, but also those suspected of being foreign agents trying to influence American policy.
Describing himself as a secular Muslim peace activist, Amirahmadi noted he had tried to run for president of Iran and organized meetings between prominent Americans and Iranian leaders. But he said he had always been open about his views.
“I am not surprised. I’m not angry,” he said, adding: “I’m honored to say that after years of looking closely at me, they have found nothing.”
No crime involved
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues about 1,800 orders annually for domestic surveillance. To obtain a court order to wiretap an American under that law, the government must convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe the target is engaged in a crime on behalf of a foreign power; non-Americans need only be agents of a foreign power without a suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.
None of the five has been charged with a crime in connection with the apparent monitoring.
The government refused to confirm whether or why any of the five had been monitored. Several dozen rights organizations sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday expressing concerns about the potential for “discriminatory and abusive surveillance,” but also acknowledged that “we do not know all of the facts,” and asked for “the information necessary to meaningfully assess” the report.
Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with CAIR, called the apparent surveillance of its executive director an outrage.
“It’s but the latest indication that the NSA is spying on Americans based on the exercise of their constitutional rights,” Abbas said.
In a joint statement, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence strongly denied such accusations, pointing to the court oversight. It added: “On the other hand, a person who the court finds is an agent of a foreign power under this rigorous standard is not exempted just because of his or her occupation.”
In 2007, the Justice Department named CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator in its prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity later convicted of providing material support for terrorism by funneling money to Hamas. A redacted screenshot suggests that Awad’s email was monitored from Nov. 9, 2006, to Feb 1, 2008.
James McJunkin, a former assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, declined to comment on any particular target. But in general, he said, the FISA process allowed the government to follow up on accusations that an organization might be involved in aiding a terrorist group.
“We’ve got to determine whether that is in fact true,” he said. “If you’re targeting an individual for FISA collection, you are doing so because you believe he has specific intelligence that can either prove or disprove a linkage to terror financing.”
Abbas, the CAIR lawyer, said: “We have been subject to intensive scrutiny for years and that scrutiny has resulted in nothing other than smears.”
Training had slur
The Intercept reported that the spreadsheet contained a column headed “Nationality” and that 202 of the email addresses belonged to “U.S. persons,” while 1,782 belonged to “non-U. S. persons” and 5,501 were listed as “unknown” or left blank.
It also identified email addresses for two other Americans on the list whose ties to a terrorist organization are well-known: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both of whom were killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
The Intercept report, which suggested that anti-Muslim prejudice contributed to the surveillance, also published what it said was part of a 2005 training document about how to format a memo seeking permission under FISA to wiretap someone. In the example, it used an anti-Muslim slur.
The Obama administration said it had ordered a review, and Vanee Vines, an NSA spokeswoman, said: “NSA has not and would not approve official training documents that include insulting or inflammatory language.”
Gill, the former Homeland Security lawyer, said he had reviewed his old emails, looking to see what the government had collected about him, but could not find anything that explained it. He said his security clearance was never suspended, and The Intercept said other lawyers who did legal work for Sudan were not on the monitoring list.
Gill said that as a government lawyer, he had faith in the legal process required before surveillance is approved, but now, knowing he was monitored, “it just calls the process into question.”
Greenwald said in an online discussion on Reddit that he had named only five people because they were the ones who agreed to go public.
“My email inbox has been full of people literally pleading not to be” named, he said.
Material from the Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.