The National Security Agency and FBI have covertly monitored the emails of prominent Muslim-Americans—including a political candidate and several civil rights activists, academics, and lawyers—under secretive procedures intended to target terrorists and foreign spies.
According to documents provided by NSA whistleblower 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 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 listed as monitored between 2002 and 2008. Many of the email addresses on the list appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Among the Americans on the list are individuals long accused of terrorist activity, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
But a three-month investigation by The Intercept—including interviews with more than a dozen current and former federal law enforcement officials involved in the FISA process—reveals that in practice, the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.
The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly 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.
Today, Saeed suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, making communications difficult. Via email, he told The Intercept that he believes he was placed on the NSA list because of his political activism and his friendship with controversial figures such as Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor and activist who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to aid the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a case that many civil libertarians regard as prosecutorial overreach motivated by anti-Muslim hysteria.
“The government is always looking for a pretext to surveil people who are critical of policy,” Saeed said by telephone, with the help of an interpreter who can decipher his muffled speech. “Now it has become common to accuse people of Islamist ties to do this; before, it was communism and leftists. The FBI has questioned me over both these things in my lifetime. In the 1980s they were suspicious of me over my opposition to arming Afghan Islamists; now they accuse me of being an Islamist.”
Amirahmadi, who does not self-identify as a Muslim and describes himself as an atheist, believes that the NSA surveillance was motivated by his diplomatic work, not his religious heritage. [Update: Although Amirahmadi used the word “atheist” to describe his religious identity to The Intercept, in a HuffPost Live interview on Wednesday, he said he prefers to be called a “secular Muslim.”] While he considers the surveillance to be illegal and has no objection to it being made public, he declined to comment further on the matter.
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.”
The “FISA recap” spreadsheet offers a revealing if incomplete glimpse into the murky world of government surveillance. Each email address is accompanied by a date that appears to denote the beginning of surveillance, and another that indicates when it was set to expire. A column called “Collection Status” indicates whether the surveillance was “terminated,” “sustained,” or “pending” as of a particular date. In some cases, the spreadsheet also names the federal agency that requested the surveillance, and a terrorist group, target, or foreign power affiliated with the email address. In addition, each address has a corresponding “Case Notation” code beginning with the prefix “XX.SQF”—a designation that, according to other documents in the Snowden archive, is assigned to all “FISA accounts” as a unique identifier.