Detail from The Intercept's latest reporting based on NSA documents leaked from Edward Snowden

Detail from The Intercept's latest reporting based on NSA documents leaked from Edward Snowden

(Image: The Intercept)

NSA 'Bombshell': Agency Spied on Prominent American Citizens

Government covertly monitored email accounts of five high-profile Muslim-Americans—including a political candidate and several civil rights activists, academics, and lawyers

According to new reporting published by The Intercept at midnight on Tuesday, the National Security Agency has used its massive surveillance apparatus to directly target and spy on American citizens who have absolutely no ties to criminal or terrorist activities.

"I'm outraged as an American citizen that my government, after decades of civil rights struggle, still spies on political activists and civil right activists and leaders." --Nihad Awad, CAIR

In what was anticipated as a 'bombshell' revelation concerning some of the targets of NSA surveillance, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain show how the NSA 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."

The reporting follows a three-month investigation by The Intercept that began with information contained in internal NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden last year and introduces five American citizens -- all of whom are Muslim and of Middle Eastern or Asian descent -- who were listed as targets of the government for ongoing and prolonged surveillance. As reported by The Intercept, they 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 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.

According to The Intercept, these five men "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."

The Intercept journalists describe how their investigation used emails contained in a NSA spreadsheet to identify the individuals who were approved for targeting. Due to the high level of secrecy that surrounds the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or FISC), one of the main tenets of the reporting is the extent to which this kind of surveillance is being done with ambiguous legal authority and almost no public oversight.

"I was a very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican," said one of the targets, Faisal Gill. "If somebody like me could be surveilled, then [there are] other people out there I can only imagine who are under surveillance."

"I went to school here as a fourth grader - learned about the Revolutionary War, learned about individual rights, Thomas Jefferson, all these things," he told The Intercept. "That is ingrained in you - your privacy is important. And to have that basically invaded for no reason whatsoever - for the fact that I didn't do anything - I think that's troubling. And I think that certainly goes to show how we need to shape policy differently than it is right now."

CAIR's Nihad Awad used stronger language to describe his feelings about being targeted and spoke specifically about how the Muslim community has been treated in the U.S. in recent years.

"I'm outraged as an American citizen that my government, after decades of civil rights struggle, still spies on political activists and civil right activists and leaders," he said. "I'm really angry that despite all the work that we have been doing in our communities to serve the nation, we are treated with suspicion."

And, Awad added: "I think all Americans should be worried about NSA surveillance and the targeting of American Muslims. Because if it is American Muslims today, it is going to be them next. "

While Greenwald and Hussain acknowledge the "documents do not prove that the government has been systematically monitoring the communications of political dissidents," the people they interviewed, including civil liberties experts and the targets themselves, say the evidence that these individuals were monitored raises serious Constitutional questions about such practices.

Indeed, write Greenwald and Hussain,

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."

In fact, according to the reporting, one of the reasons Snowden himself said that leaking this specific document was important was so that challenges could finally be raised in court because to date, no individuals who think they might be under illegal surveillance by the government have been able to prove standing. These documents, and this reporting, may change that dynamic.

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