When the first reports based on the Snowden leaks were published last year, the layperson could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what to make of the surveillance programs they revealed. Words like “metadata” and “upstream collection” made the whole affair seem impersonal, quarantined off from our real lives by some trick of technical language. The sheer scale of data collection should have been alarming, but it also blurred the implications.
The ways in which the NSA’s surveillance programs touch individual lives has come sharply in focus in the past week. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that nearly half of conversations in a cache intercepted and stored by the NSA involved US citizens. Some of those digital files reportedly contained medical records, résumés, exchanges about religion and politics, photos of women in their underwear and children on swings.
A report published Wednesday by The Intercept tightened the focus still further, to the faces of five US citizens: Hooshang Amirahmadi, Nihad Awad, Asim Ghafoor, Faisal Gill and Agha Saeed. According to the report, e-mail addresses belonging to those five individuals appear on a spreadsheet of surveillance targets that the NSA monitored between 2002 and 2008, under a program intended to target foreigners and terrorism suspects. Among the five is a former Homeland Security official in the Bush administration with a top-secret security clearance; the executive director of a prominent Muslim civil rights organization; and a defense lawyer who handled terrorism cases.
None has been charged with a crime. Though the report cautioned that “it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance,” what links the five men is their Muslim heritage and their civil liberties work. Several told The Intercept they believed they were targets because of their faith and their activism, which are protected under the First Amendment.
Muslim Advocates, a law firm, said the 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.” The Center for Constitutional Rights likened the surveillance of one target, Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the FBI’s spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
The article also describes institutionalized Islamophobia within the NSA, summed up in a template for an internal memo that uses “Mohammed Raghead” as a substitute for John Doe.
Forty-four groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Islamic Society of North America to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the Presbyterian Church called on the Obama administration to account for the surveillance of the five Americans, and to overhaul Department of Justice guidelines against racial profiling to bar wider forms of discrimination, including on the basis of religion.