Newly disclosed documents reveal that the National Security Agency and FBI have spied on the emails of at least five high-profile Muslim-Americans apparently guilty of no wrongdoing through a surveillance program meant for foreign terrorists.
Those five citizens, identified in a new report from The Intercept, include Faisal Gill, a former adviser at the Homeland Security Department during the Bush administration; Asim Ghafoor, a lawyer; Hooshang Amirahmadi and Agha Saeed, both university professors; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The names of those U.S. citizens were gleaned from a government list of more than 7,000 email addresses tracked between 2002 and 2008, which include 202 labeled as likely belonging to "U.S. persons," and more than 5,000 that are blank or listed as unknown.
While most of the email accounts do not contain a corresponding name, many are believed by the government to have belonged to foreigners with ties to al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah. The five identified Muslim-Americans, however, confirmed that their emails were on the list.
"All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny," The Intercept reports. "Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments."
The files, exposed by Edward Snowden and reported on by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, demonstrate a system of NSA surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that "affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens," according to The Intercept. In addition, "blatant prejudice against Muslim-Americans is also documented in the Snowden archive."
The bombshell leak is likely to reignite a simmering debate in Congress over how to properly reform the government's spy agencies, and it could amount to the most incendiary disclosure since the initial revelations last June.
Greenwald had long been hinting that a story of this scope was on the horizon. During his book tour in May, he repeatedly suggested it would be the beginning of the "biggest" and "most important" reveal yet from Snowden's trove of documents, which he downloaded last year before fleeing to Hong Kong and eventually Russia, where he remains under temporary asylum. A new report in Russian media Wednesday morning suggests that Snowden is now asking to extend his stay in the country.
Wednesday's Intercept report is the first to identify the names of Americans who have been subject to the government's sweeping surveillance programs. The five Americans may now possess legal standing to sue the government. Because the government has not declassified its reasons for spying on the five Muslim-Americans, it is currently "impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance," according to The Intercept.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department flatly denied in a joint statement that U.S. spy 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."
"Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone's communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion," the statement reads. But it added that no citizen who is suspected of being a spy or a terrorist is "exempted just because of his or her occupation."
But privacy, civil liberties, and Muslim groups were swift in their condemnation of the targeted surveillance.
"This report confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: The federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage," said Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy group, in a statement. "The report clearly documents how biased training by the FBI leads to biased surveillance."
The Center for Constitutional Rights likened the spying to the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights activists in the 1960s.
The new documents will likely reinforce beliefs that the government has made the profiling of Muslim-Americans a common practice since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One file from 2005 shows a target's unknown name being filled in with a placeholder of "Mohammed Raghead."
John Guandolo, a former FBI counterterrorism official who has been repeatedly called out by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his anti-Muslim and conspiracy views, told The Intercept that he was involved in the investigations of some of the email accounts provided in the file.
"Echoing the 'red under every bed' hysteria of the McCarthy era, Guandolo believes that 'hundreds' of covert members of the Muslim Brotherhood are active in the United States, that some of them have succeeded in infiltrating the Pentagon, and that CIA Director John Brennan is a secret Muslim," The Intercept reports. Guandolo resigned amid investigations of misconduct.
Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported on new Snowden leaks claiming that the vast majority of Internet accounts monitored via a foreign-intelligence program do not belong to overseas targets but instead to ordinary Internet users whose communications directly with those targets are incidentally collected. Some of The Post article's findings did not align fully with a report released just days earlier from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the president's independent watchdog panel, which declared the program legal and effective.