For a little while now, Glenn Greenwald has been promising the next big scoop from the Snowden files, and it came out last night, with detailed reporting on how the FBI was directly spying on a bunch of prominent American politicians, lawyers and civil rights activists… who happened to be Muslim.
- 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.
This certainly harkens back to the days of spying on Martin Luther King and other human rights activists — the kind of thing that was supposed to have stopped decades ago. In fact, the driving reason for setting up the FISA Court was to prevent this kind of thing. As Greenwald’s report notes, these individuals were on a list of folks who the DOJ had convinced the FISA Court that there was “probable cause” were engaged in terrorism.
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.
Reading through the report, it becomes quite clear that the main reason these individuals on the list are solely because they’re Muslim. Of every lawyer who has helped represent defendants in terrorism-related cases, the only one on this list just happens to be Muslim. As the article reminds us, a few years back, Spencer Ackerman did some great reporting, revealing how the FBI was being trained to believe all Muslims were “violent” and “radical” and the impact of that ridiculous training appears to be clear in what this latest report finds. Perhaps the most chilling example of this anti-Muslim attitude is found in a training document revealed in this new report, showing intelligence community members how to “identify” targets for the FISA court. The “placeholder” name says it all:
Later in the report, the government tries to deny that there was a FISA Court order concerning at least one of the individuals listed above, even though they were in the spreadsheet. But that level of confusion only suggests that the process is even more of a mess. Whether or not this complied with the law is a distraction. The law shouldn’t allow this kind of thing.
A former Justice Department official involved in FISA policy in the Obama Administration says the process contains too many internal checks and balances to serve as a rubber stamp on surveillance of Americans. But the former official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about FISA matters, acknowledges that there are significant problems with the process. Having no one present in court to contest the secret allegations can be an invitation to overreach. “There are serious weaknesses,” the former official says. “The lack of transparency and adversarial process—that’s a problem.”
Indeed, 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.”
Much of the rest of the story involves a detailed look at the men listed above, all of which are worth reading, demonstrating just how ridiculous it was to be spying on their communications. The video of Faisal Gill is really worth watching: