At least five Muslim-Americans, including prominent lawyers, a civil rights leader and academics, were targeted for years-long surveillance by the FBI and the National Security Agency, according to new revelations contained in documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Among the targets were the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations—the top civil rights organization in the United States—and a former Bush Administration official who worked for the Department of Homeland Security and held a top-secret security clearance during the time he was under surveillance.
Also among the American targets was an attorney for the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation who famously discovered in 2004 that he and his clients were under surveillance after the Treasury Department mistakenly released to him a document listing calls he’d made to his clients. All of them appear to have been targeted because of their Muslim backgrounds and their activities either defending Muslim clients or on behalf of various causes, and not because they were suspected of committing a crime. Six years after the period the document covers, none of them has been charged with a crime related to the surveillance.
The startling revelations were published Tuesday night by Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept in a long-awaited article that Greenwald planned to publish at least twice before but delayed. The most recent delay occurred after a media partner working with The Intercept obtained information from government officials that appeared to contradict previous government statements, according to Greenwald, who spoke with WIRED before publication of his story.
The new revelations provide confirmation for the first time that the government targeted the attorney and other Americans—possibly without warrants—and giving targets of the domestic surveillance legal standing to sue the government.
The new revelations differ from ones disclosed in a Washington Post article last week, which focused on the incidental collection of people, including Americans, who are not targeted for surveillance but whose communications get caught up in the government’s bulk collection of other data.
The five American targets appeared on a lengthy spreadsheet leaked to Greenwald last year by Snowden, which identifies 7,485 email addresses that were targeted for surveillance between 2002 and 2008. Although the targets are not listed by name, The Intercept was able to identify some of the targets based on their email addresses.
Most of the email addresses on the list appear to belong to foreigners, but under a column with the heading “Nationality,” the government tagged 202 of the addresses as belonging to U.S. persons. Another 5,501 were designated as nationality “unknown” or were left blank.
The five identified Americans—all with Muslim-American backgrounds, include: Faisal Gill, who served as a top advisor for the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush Administration; Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney for Al Haramain and other clients involved in national security cases; Nihad Awad, executive director of the leading Muslim civil liberties group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers University professor; and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University and champion of Muslim civil liberties.
Confirmation that Ghafoor was directly targeted by the government for surveillance, brings his case and the issue of government surveillance full circle. As noted, Ghafoor first learned that his phone calls with clients were under surveillance only by mistake after the government unintentionally released a call log listing his communications with clients. Ghafoor, and another attorney whose calls were also on the list, were forced to return the classified document to the government without ever knowing if they themselves had been under surveillance or if they simply had been caught up in surveillance of their clients.
Ghafoor had sued the government over the issue and was awarded a judgment and attorney fees; but the judgment was later overturned. The Snowden document confirms that the attorney himself was targeted, even though the government has insisted in the past that it doesn’t target lawyers for surveillance.
It’s unclear what authority the government used to conduct the surveillance or whether the FBI obtained warrants to conduct the surveillance. It’s also unclear in some cases how long the surveillance continued, since the spreadsheet only covers surveillance of the targets until 2008, in some cases indicating in a notation at the time that the surveillance had been approved to continue.
The government can conduct such electronic surveillance of U.S. persons under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act only after obtaining an order from the FISA Court. To obtain the court order, the government must show that there is probable cause to believe the individual being targeted is a foreign power or an agent, officer or employee of a foreign power and that the individual is or may be engaged in espionage, sabotage or terrorism.
Although there are some Americans on the list who have been accused of terrorism, the five highlighted in The Intercept piece have all led what appear to be upstanding lives.
To be continued…