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N.S.A. Records Detail Surveillance of American Muslim Leaders

Jul 9, 2014

NY Times

N.S.A. Records Detail Surveillance of American Muslim Leaders


WASHINGTON — A new report based on documents provided by Edward J. 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.

The disclosure of what were described as specific domestic surveillance targets by The Intercept, published by First Look, was a rare glimpse into some of the most closely held secrets by 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.

The report was based on what it described as a spreadsheet of email addresses said to have been monitored between 2002 and 2008, and was co-written by Glenn Greenwald, a primary recipient of the trove of documents leaked by Mr. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.

The document is titled “F.I.S.A. Recap,” suggesting that the eavesdropping took place under the process authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Among those identified by First Look as having been subjected to surveillance were 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, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or C.A.I.R., a Muslim civil rights organization.

Also named were Asim Ghafoor, a defense lawyer who has handled terrorism-related cases; Faisal Gill, a former Department of Homeland Security lawyer who First Look said later did some legal work with Mr. Ghafoor on behalf of Sudan in a lawsuit brought by victims of terrorist attacks; and Agha Saeed, the national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, which supports Muslim political candidates.

In its report, First Look said that the documents did not say what the suspicions or the evidence was against the men that justified the surveillance, acknowledging that “it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance.”

In video clips posted by First Look, several of the men denied wrongdoing and said they suspected their religion contributed to any targeting.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has issued about 1,800 orders each year for surveillance or physical searches on American soil. To obtain a court order to wiretap an American under that law, the government must persuade 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 American Muslims named by First Look has been charged with a crime in connection with the apparent monitoring.

The government refused to confirm whether any of the five had indeed been subjected to surveillance or, if so, what the basis for it was. A group of several dozen civil liberties and rights organizations sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday expressing concerns about the potential for “discriminatory and abusive surveillance,” but also acknowledged that “we don’t know all the facts,” and asked for an explanation.

“We cannot trust government assurances of fairness and legality when surveillance is being conducted without sufficient public oversight,” it said. “As a first step, we urge you to provide the public with the information necessary to meaningfully assess the First Look report.”

Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with C.A.I.R., called the apparent surveillance of its executive director an outrage.

“It’s but the latest indication that the N.S.A. is spying on Americans based on the exercise of their constitutional rights,” he said. “In this case, what has been revealed makes very clear that Americans’ faith as well as their political activism is what the N.S.A. uses as the basis for its targeting practices.”

In a joint statement, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence strongly denied such accusations, pointing to the standards that a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court must agree have been met before the government may eavesdrop on an American under F. I. S. A..

“It is entirely false that U.S. intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights,” they said, adding: “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.”

First Look, which profiled the five men, pointed to some possible reasons they might have attracted suspicions.

In 2007, for example, 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 Mr. Awad’s email was monitored from Nov. 9, 2006, to Feb 1, 2008.

James McJunkin, a former assistant director of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism division, declined to comment on any particular target. But in general, he said, the F.I.S.A. process allowed the government to respond to reporting, either by another part of the intelligence community or by a foreign partner, that an organization might be involved in raising money for ostensibly charitable purposes that is used abroad to train equip a terrorist group.

“We’ve got to determine whether that is in fact true, and that’s why you may have individuals in leadership positions who are targeted for F.I.S.A. collection,” he said. “You can’t target the head of a civil rights organization for that. If you’re targeting an individual for F.I.S.A. collection, you are doing so because you believe he has specific intelligence that can either prove or disprove a linkage to terror financing or material support.”

He added: “Reporting this type of information on national security cases is highly irresponsible and damaging to national security.”

Mr. Abbas, the C.A.I.R. lawyer, said: “We have been subject to intensive scrutiny for years and that scrutiny has resulted in nothing other than smears. Our record is clear and it’s public. We are a Muslim civil rights organization. We defend the civil liberties of Americans in court in the media and we empower American Muslims to participate in our democracy.”

First Look 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. Many of the emails appeared to involve foreigners overseas suspected of links to terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, it said.

First Look also identified email addresses for two other Americans on the list whose ties to a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are well known: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both of whom had propagandized in favor of Islamist violence and were killed by an American drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. American officials accused Mr. Awlaki of having evolved into an operational terrorist, and said he was the specific target of the strike, while Mr. Khan was a bystander.

The First Look 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 F.I.S.A. to wiretap someone. In the example, it used the fake name “Mohammed Raghead.”

Asked to respond, Vanee Vines, an N.S.A. spokeswoman, said: “N.S.A. has not and would not approve official training documents that include insulting or inflammatory language. Any use of racial or ethnic stereotypes, slurs, or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with N.S.A. policy and core values.”

And Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said, “The administration takes all such allegations extremely seriously, and upon learning of this matter the White House immediately requested that the director of national intelligence undertake an assessment of intelligence community policies, training standards or directives that promote diversity and tolerance, and as necessary, make any recommendations changes or additional reforms.”