Snowden Leaks Reveal List of 5 Americans the NSA and FBI Have Spied On

A new disclosure names five prominent Muslim-Americans targeted for surveillance who deny any affiliation to terrorist organizations.

The new NSA Data Center on October 8, 2013 in Bluffdale, Utah.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
July 9, 2014, 3:49 a.m.

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.

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