Revealed NSA Surveillance of Muslim-Americans Focuses Attention on Islamophobia in Security Agencies

Detail from The Intercept's latest reporting based on NSA documents leaked from Edward Snowden. (Image: The Intercept)

Revealed NSA Surveillance of Muslim-Americans Focuses Attention on Islamophobia in Security Agencies

Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept have published a much-anticipated story revealing five prominent Muslim-Americans the National Security Agency and FBI spied upon. The surveillance, which primarily appears to have involved monitoring their emails, was conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The five individuals are: Faisal Gill, a former member of President George W. Bush's administration and a Republican Party operative; Asim Ghafoor, a public relations consultant, lobbyist, lawyer and advocate for the rights of American Muslims; Agha Saeed, a professor who has mobilized American Muslims to become involved in the American political process; Hooshang Amirahmadi, founder and president of the American Iranian Council, who has done considerable work on American policy toward Iran; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is the largest Muslim civil rights organization in America.

The national legal advocacy organization, Muslim Advocates, reacted, "This 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 report clearly documents how biased training by the FBI leads to biased surveillance."

The Intercept examined an "NSA spreadsheet" from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called "FISA recap." It contained 7,485 email addresses that were monitored under FISA from 2002 to 2008. Most of the addresses were "foreigners" the government "believes are linked to Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah." Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were killed in a United States drone strike in September 2011, appeared on the list.

Yet, very few people, according to The Intercept, had their names listed in the spreadsheet. The only individual identifying information listed was their email address.

"Under the heading 'Nationality,' the list designates 202 email addresses as belonging to "U.S. persons," 1,782 as belonging to "non-U.S. persons," and 5,501 as "unknown" or simply blank. The Intercept identified the five Americans placed under surveillance from their email addresses," the story explained.

The Intercept was unable to conclude whether the government agencies involved had "legal permission" to spy on these five individuals. (And, presumably, there are more Muslim-Americans like them that were targeted, which The Intercept could not identify and uncover.)

What this shows is the systemic racism that has become an intrinsic part of the national security state, especially since the September 11th attacks.

On a visceral level, The Intercept included a section from July 2005 instructions on how to format internal memos "justifying surveillance." The NSA did not use "John Doe" in the place where the name is supposed to be. They used "Mohammed Raghead" instead.

Both Gill and Ghafoor chose to use the law firm they co-founded to represent Sudan in US court. The government was being sued by victims of Al Qaeda attacks, who accused the government of aiding the terrorism. Hunton & Williams, a prominent law firm, also represented Sudan in a case stemming from the bombing of the USS Cole. No lawyers at Hunton & Williams were placed under surveillance. Gill and Ghafoor, however, had their emails monitored.

Ghafoor represented the Saudi charity, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, when it had its assets frozen by the US Treasury Department in 2003. The government alleged that the US branch of the charity had "direct links" to Osama bin Laden. He later represented Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who is the brother-in-law of bin Laden and known to have been subjected to FBI and CIA surveillance.

Yet, as Ghafoor notes in an interview for The Intercept, former Bush administration officials have represented the Saudi government in courts. Lawyers "blue chip" law firms from New York and Washington have represented the Saudi. Crown Prince. None of them were placed under surveillance.

He says, "I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India, I travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage."

Significantly, Ghafoor was previously placed under illegal surveillance when he was involved in litigation on behalf of the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation. Treasury "accidentally" released a top-secret call log to him that showed his calls with clients were being monitored. He sued the US government and won but then those judgments were reversed because the appeals judge claimed illegal surveillance did not entitle those improperly targeted to damages.

Ghafoor's emails were monitored from 2005 to 2008, which means the government was reading his communications and violating attorney-client privilege while he was suing the government for previously engaging in illegal surveillance and violating attorney-client privilege.

The targeting of CAIR executive director Nihad Awad is most likely a result of what the government thinks it knows about CAIR's "links" to Hamas. The trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in 2007 included "evidence" that "linked CAIR leaders to Hamas." That evidence came from the anti-Muslim Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), which is led by executive director Steve Emerson.

Emerson has long been a purveyor of the idea that CAIR conspired with Hamas to torpedo the Oslo Accords and has functioned as a propaganda arm of the terrorist group. He thinks "nearly all of the Islamic organizations in the United States that define themselves as religiously or culturally Muslim in character have, today, been totally captured or dominated by radical fundamentalist elements." He produced a film in 1994 called Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America, which aired as a Frontline program on PBS, which strongly suggested there were secret cells of Muslim terrorist groups in America. It earned a George Polk Award for "Best Television Documentary," even though according to The Nation it seemed to designed to create "mass hysteria against American Arabs."

It does not matter that what Emerson and his organization promotes is fabrication fueled by their Islamophobia. As his "About" page on his personal website indicates, Emerson and his staff have frequently provided "briefings to US government and law enforcement agencies, members of Congress and congressional committees, and print and electronic media, both national and international. Since 9-11, Emerson has testified before and briefed Congress dozens of times on terrorist financing and operational networks of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the rest of the worldwide Islamic militant spectrum." And former counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, once said of Emerson, "I think of Steve as the Paul Revere of terrorism...We'd always learn things [from him] we weren't hearing from the FBI or CIA, things which almost always proved to be true."

The Intercept acknowledges in their story that there are law enforcement officials, who harbor or have been susceptible to "conspiratorial and bigoted views about Americans of Muslim descent." They spoke to John Guandolo, a former counterterrorism agent "who was active at the time several of the five identified Americans were monitored."

John Guandolo, a former FBI counterterrorism official who takes credit for developing a training program for agents on the "Muslim Brotherhood and their subversive movement in the United States," told The Intercept that he participated in investigations of some of the individuals whose email accounts were monitored. Echoing the "red under every bed" hysteria of the McCarthy era, Guandolo believes that "hundreds" of covert members of the Muslim Brotherhood are active in the United States, that some of them have succeeded in infiltrating the Pentagon, and that CIA director John Brennan is a secret Muslim.

Guandolo seems like a lunatic, but, for a time, he was the FBI's lunatic. He "worked on cases to obtain FISA warrants, and his anti-Islamic views were deemed acceptable enough to be reflected in basic training materials within the bureau," according to The Intercept.


This neo-McCarthyism has played some role in pushing officials to engage in illegal spying or stretch the legal limits so they can spy on particular Muslim-Americans. Officials in these agencies personally believe that they need to be watched to prevent them from obstructing or getting in the way of US policy in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. They also believe they have to keep an eye on these people to protect policy toward Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.

Deepa Kumar, a Rutgers University professor and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, contends, "In the new order of the War on Terror, law enforcement agencies have been adapted to target the 'Islamic terrorists' in our midst. During the NATO intervention into Libya in 2011, the FBI drew up lists of Libyan residents in the United States to be interviewed--demonstrating again the links between domestic counterterrorism in the United States and military interventions abroad. When the United States goes to war against a foreign enemy, it inevitably makes war on the perceived enemy within, which includes not only members of particular ethnic or national groups but also dissenters of all races. The end goal is to win consent for an imperial agenda through a process that orchestrates fear of the enemy within and preempts criticisms of empire-building."

The FBI has been a dominant force in this process of creating fear, as it has deployed undercover agents and informants (often with criminal pasts) into Muslim communities to frame, entrap and prosecute individuals for terrorism-related offenses. In fact, a recent study by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) and Project Salam found that nearly ninety-five percent of individuals on a Justice Department list of "terrorism and terrorism-related convictions" from 2001-2010 were preemptive prosecutions. That means the defendants were pursued because of their beliefs, ideology or religious affiliation.

A key example of preemptive prosecution is the political case of Sami Al-Arian, who recently had all federal charges against him dropped. And it's worth noting that it was Emerson, who first promoted the notion that Al-Arian had links to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. He spent well over a decade pushing his "research" into Al-Arian and even had close relations with Gordon Kromberg, a US Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia who once claimed Al-Arian was part of the "Islamization of the American Justice System."

Finally, there is something rather disturbing about two of the targeted Americans felt they had to address whether they were good Muslims or Americans who love their country. Gill explained, "The real reason I'm talking to you is that I don't have anything to hide, and, "I didn't do anything wrong. I served my country, the whole time." Ghafoor said, "If you ever tap my calls and read my emails, you'll see that, even though I sued the government, I love my country. I love America."

There is no need for an apology from anyone targeted by the US government with what appears to be illegal and inappropriate surveillance. But this is post-9/11 America. A Muslim-American can never say too much to dispel hysteria around his or her actions. And many, especially those in law enforcement, have come to require these pledges of allegiance to allay suspicion.

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