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Snowden leaks latest: NSA, FBI g-men spied on Muslim-American chiefs

US Navy veteran? Lawmaker? Academic? You're all POTENTIAL TERRORISTS

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

New documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden confirm that the NSA and the FBI spy on Muslim-American leaders, including Republican Party politicians and military veterans.

The Intercept reports that the Feds are using tactics and techniques intended for catching terrorists and spies to monitor the email accounts of prominent Muslim-Americans.

A spreadsheet leaked by Snowden and titled “FISA recap” contains 7,485 email addresses apparently monitored between 2002 and 2008. Email addresses on the list include accounts owned by five high-profile Muslim-Americans, according to the Intercept. The famous five are:

  • 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 lawyer who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases.
  • Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University. He sought to be a candidate in the 2013 Iranian presidential elections, campaigning on a platform of improving relations with the US, but was rejected by the country's ruling Guardian Council.
  • Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who campaigns for Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights.
  • Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the US.

FISA (the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) provides a mechanism for the US government to obtain warrants to run surveillance ops on Americans, providing agents testify there is a probable cause to believe that subjects could possibly be acting as "agents of a foreign power", engaged in terrorism, etc. It should be noted that "foreign power" is a wide term under FISA, and can include any "foreign-based political organization, not substantially composed of United States persons". The "foreign intelligence information" that federal operatives are supposed to be trying to obtain under a FISA court order is also loosely defined, and may not be aimed at building a criminal case against anyone at all - it could instead be gathered for the purpose of strengthening the USA's hand in diplomatic manoeuvres, or for various other purposes.

The leaked documents, analysed during a three-month investigation by The Intercept, suggest that the secret court considered that surveillance was justifiable in the case of the five individuals named above - or at any rate in the case of people they were communicating with.

"The five Americans spied on by the NSA have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives," according to the Intercept. "All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none has been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press."

"I just don't know why," says Gill, whose AOL and Yahoo! email accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. "I've done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community – I've done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do."

The surveillance against Muslim-American leaders has already spawned awkward questions for webmail providers about their apparent unwillingness to contest FISA requests. There's also a potential historical parallel between recent surveillance against Muslim-Americans and spying against civil rights and anti-war activists during the 1960s.

According to one of the leaked files, purportedly dated from 2005, the term "Mohammed Raghead" was used as a placeholder in a 2005 government document instructing staffers on how to make surveillance requests. Amnesty International expressed concern that this represented "good reason to be concerned that anti-Muslim bias tainted the process".

"Any surveillance conducted on the basis of religion, rather than probable cause to believe that the defendant violated the law, would constitute discriminatory interference with the right to privacy, prohibited by both the Constitution and international human rights law," it said. ®

Bootnote

The feds, of course, would argue that it's by no means unusual for even the most outwardly patriotic Americans - with Navy service and secret clearances all complete - to turn out to be wrong 'uns, and that they have carried out surveillance against plenty of such people in the past with good reason. - Ed

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