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.
“While we do not know all of the facts of the individual reported cases, we believe the government has an obligation to explain the basis for its actions. Moreover, we cannot presume that the government acted without prejudice or bias,” reads their letter. “Too often, both in the past and in the present, we have observed the government engaging in patterns of discriminatory and abusive surveillance.”
As the letter notes, the allegations made in the Intercept article arise in a “broader context” of federal and local agencies singling out Muslims and other minorities for extra scrutiny. For years the New York Police Department monitored and infiltrated mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and Muslim student groups, without generating any leads. In San Francisco, the Federal Bureau of Investigation spied on mosques and Muslim organizations under the pretense of “community outreach” activities. The FBI continues to target Muslims in sting operationsinvolving informants, while individuals who refused to work as informants themselves report that the agency punished them by adding their names to the no-fly list.
The fact that the NSA, too, targeted Muslim Americans, particularly prominent lawyers and activists, is not surprising. It is, nonetheless, outrageous. The Intercept report lends specificity to fears, voiced soon after the first stories based on the Snowden leaks were published, that the NSA’s surveillance programs and the legal framework they rest on could facilitate politically motivated spying on American citizens. The report also has critical legal implications: for the first time, individuals have confirmation that the government used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to target their communications specifically, giving them standing to sue.
The political reaction to the report has mostly centered on the damning “Mohammed Raghead” detail. White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told The Guardian that the administration was taking the reported use of the slur “very seriously,” and has ordered the director of national intelligence to conduct “an assessment of intelligence community policies, training standards or directives that promote diversity and tolerance, and as necessary, make any recommendations changes or additional reforms.” This is not the first time the Obama administration has investigated the use of anti-Muslim materials within the intelligence community; it did so in 2011, after the disclosure of offensive counterterrorism training documents that, among other things, characterized “mainstream” Muslims as terrorists.
However, the administration pushed back aggressively on the allegation that well-documented Islamophobia within the intelligence community has led to discrimination in practice. “It is entirely false that US intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights,” reads a joint statement from the Director of National Intelligence and the DOJ. “Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone’s communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”
At least one lawmaker isn’t convinced that a dearth of political correctness at the NSA is the extent of the problem. “I share the concerns of many Americans who feel the NSA has violated their civil liberties by monitoring them without cause,” Representative Keith Ellison said in a statement. “The Intercept report is particularly troubling because it suggests that Americans were targeted because of their faith and civic engagement. Unfortunately, the NYPD’s spying on Muslims with the CIA’s help and the FBI’s use of hateful anti-Muslim training materials makes this concern legitimate.”