Glenn Greenwald revealed Wednesday what the journalist described as the biggest Snowden story yet from the cache of classified intelligence documents leaked from the National Security Agency: The targeting of five prominent Muslim American leaders under terrorist surveillance authority.
Both the NSA and FBI spied on law-abiding Muslim-American citizens including academics, civil rights activists, lawyers and a political candidate under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authority intended for terrorists and foreign spies.
Out of the thousands of target emails listed on an NSA spreadsheet, the Intercept identified five: Bush administration Department of Homeland Security Advisor Faisal Gill, former California State University political science professor and civil rights activist Agha Saeed, Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Nihad Awad, Rutgers University Professor Hooshang Amirahmadi and Asim Ghafoor, a lawyer with a history of representing clients with alleged terrorist connections.
Seven-thousand four-hundred and eighty-five email addresses were monitored from 2002 to 2008, 202 of which were directly indentified as belonging to Americans, while 5,501 were marked as nationality “unknown” or left blank. The document is titled “FISA recap” in reference to the FISA Act, which authorizes surveillance of American citizens only if they are suspected agents of foreign governments or terrorist organizations, and actively participate in or abet espionage, sabotage or terrorism.
Surveillance authority under FISA must be renewed by the FISA Court every 90 days for American citizens, and the documents leaked by Snowden show ongoing surveillance beyond a 90-day window, raising the possibility that some surveillance could have been conducted illegally. The FBI was named as the “responsible agency” for monitoring the five targets.
Reasons for surveillance of the targets were not disclosed in the documents, though the targets themselves speculated on why they were chosen.
“I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India, I traveled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage,” the lawyer told the Intercept.
According to Greenwald, the surveillance evidenced in the Snowden files is heavily prejudiced against Muslim-Americans, and similar to the anti-Communist “hysteria of the McCarthy era.” An American Civil Liberties Union official familiar with the story said last week that Muslim-Americans were “subject to the kind of surveillance that Hoover did on Martin Luther King.”
Representatives from the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) assert Americans cannot be subjected to surveillance based solely on First Amendment activities, like those engaged in by the targets, and such surveillance cannot be authorized without a warrant “except in exceptional circumstances.”
The ODNI along with the Justice Department released a joint statement Wednesday in response to the Intercept story, which said, “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.”
Greenwald and Intercept writer Murtaza Hussain’s article is not specifically mentioned, and the statement does not deny the targets named were surveilled.
The leaked intelligence spreadsheet obtained and cited by the Intercept reportedly marks the first proof of direct domestic surveillance of specific U.S. citizens, possibly without warrants, and could give the targets legal standing to take action against the federal government.