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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2960

Letter from America: NSA’s Spying of American Muslims

By Habib Siddiqui

The Intercept, an investigative outlet co-founded by Greenwald, has lately reported that the National Security Agency spied on five American citizens - all Muslims - despite a lack of any finding that they posed a threat to national security. They were targeted for surveillance between 2002 and 2008 because of their political activity.

According to documents provided by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the list of Americans monitored by their own government includes:

• Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush;

• Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases;

• Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University;

• Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights;

• Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.

The names were included in documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. and
Greenwald obtained the consent of all five before publishing their names, he told Huff Post. "I have long viewed this as one of the most important stories in the Snowden archive because it puts a face on the NSA's surveillance overreach and illustrates, yet again - that domestic spying abuses usually target minorities, marginalized groups, and dissidents," Greenwald told Huff Post.

The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public and exemplary lives. 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 by the government and the press. Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments.

It is outrageous to think that even a U.S. citizen like Faisal Gill, who served his country both in the armed forces and in the White House, was spied on by his own government. “I was a very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican,” he says. “If somebody like me could be surveilled, then [there are] other people out there I can only imagine who are under surveillance.

“I went to school here as a fourth grader – learned about the Revolutionary War, learned about individual rights, Thomas Jefferson, all these things,” he continues. “That is ingrained in you – your privacy is important. And to have that basically invaded for no reason whatsoever – for the fact that I didn’t do anything – I think that’s troubling. And I think that certainly goes to show how we need to shape policy differently than it is right now.”

The individuals appear on an NSA spreadsheet in the Snowden archives called “FISA recap”—short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that law, the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to believe that American targets are not only agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also “are or may be” engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism. The authorizations must be renewed by the court, usually every 90 days for U.S. citizens.

The spreadsheet shows 7,485 email addresses.

The vast majority of individuals on the “FISA recap” spreadsheet are not named. Instead, only their email addresses are listed, making it impossible in most cases to ascertain their identities. Under the heading “Nationality,” the list designates 202 email addresses as belonging to “U.S. persons,” 1,782 as belonging to “non-U.S. persons,” and 5,501 as “unknown” or simply blank. The Intercept identified the five Americans placed under surveillance from their email addresses.

It is unclear whether the government obtained any legal permission to monitor the Americans on the list. The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment for this story. During the course of multiple conversations with The Intercept, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence urged against publication of any surveillance targets. “Except in exceptional circumstances,” they argued, surveillance directly targeting Americans is conducted only with court-approved warrants. Last week, anonymous officials told another news outlet that the government did not have a FISA warrant against at least one of the individuals named here during the timeframe covered by the spreadsheet.

The FISA process was enacted in 1978 in response to disclosures that J. Edgar Hoover and a long line of presidents from both parties had used U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on dissidents and political enemies. Intended to allow authorities to covertly investigate suspected spies or terrorists on U.S. soil, the surveillance is often used simply to gather intelligence, not to build a criminal case. The law was revised in 2008—in part to place limits on the controversial program of warrant-less wiretaps initiated by George W. Bush after 9/11, and in part to legalize the program’s warrant-less eavesdropping on Americans when they speak with foreign surveillance targets.

Under current law, the NSA may directly target a “U.S. person” (an American citizen or legal permanent resident) for electronic surveillance only with a warrant approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Because the FISC operates in complete secrecy—only the Justice Department and the FBI are permitted to attend its proceedings on domestic surveillance—it is impossible to assess how the court applies the standard of “probable cause” in cases of suspected terrorism or espionage. But its rulings are notoriously one-sided: In its 35-year history, the court has approved 35,434 government requests for surveillance, while rejecting only 12.

The government’s ability to monitor such high-profile Muslim-Americans—with or without warrants—suggests that the most alarming and invasive aspects of the NSA’s surveillance occur not because the agency breaks the law, but because it is able to exploit the law’s permissive contours. “The scandal is what Congress has made legal,” says Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU deputy legal director. “The claim that the intelligence agencies are complying with the laws is just a distraction from more urgent questions relating to the breadth of the laws themselves.”

Government agencies have invoked a host of legal theories over the years to justify spying on Americans without obtaining individual FISA warrants. Prior to mid-2008, for example, the NSA could target Americans when they were located on foreign soil simply by obtaining an authorization from the attorney general. The NSA also relies on the so-called “FISA backdoor” to read the emails of Americans communicating with foreign targets without obtaining a warrant, and engages in the bulk collection of “metadata” from Internet service providers without individual warrants. In other cases, it can obtain a warrant against an entire organization—and then monitor the emails of individuals allegedly associated with the group.

While the NSA documents do not prove that the government has been systematically monitoring the communications of political dissidents, Jaffer notes that some of the most abusive surveillance practices carried out by the FBI during the 1960s were arguably legal at a time when many Americans believed that the groups targeted by Hoover’s FBI—including anti-government activists on the left and right—posed a threat to the country.

“Some of the government’s surveillance practices today are reminiscent of those earlier abusive practices,” Jaffer says. “Today’s American-Muslim activists occupy the same position that civil-rights and anti-war activists occupied during the 1960s.”

The FBI—which is listed as the “responsible agency” for surveillance on the five men—has a controversial record when it comes to the ethnic profiling of Muslim-Americans. According to FBI training materials uncovered by Wired in 2011, the bureau taught agents to treat “mainstream” Muslims as supporters of terrorism, to view charitable donations by Muslims as “a funding mechanism for combat,” and to view Islam itself as a “Death Star” that must be destroyed if terrorism is to be contained.

In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: “Mohammed Raghead.”

Asked about the document that refers to a potential target of FISA surveillance as a “raghead,” an NSA spokeswoman said the agency “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 NSA policy and core values.”

The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story of the Intercept, or for clarification about why the five men’s email addresses appear on the list. But in the weeks before the story was published, The Intercept <.i> learned that officials from the department were reaching out to Muslim-American leaders across the country to warn them that the piece would contain errors and misrepresentations, even though it had not yet been written.

The bitter fact is in Obama’s America, the ghosts of Bush-Cheney-Rice-Gonzales still roam freely. When it comes to Bush-era tactics, hardly anything has changed for the better! As a matter of fact, in certain highly controversial areas, it has become worse. So, if the Obama administration is genuinely serious about changing its tarnished image it must walk the talk, and not just talk hypocritically.

- Asian Tribune -

Letter from America: NSA’s Spying of American Muslims
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