NSA, FBI Spied on Muslim-American Leaders, Including Ex-Bush Official

A new report from The Intercept shows that the NSA and FBI specifically targeted five prominent Muslim-Americans for surveillance, including a former Bush administration official. Glenn Greenwald hinted that a big scoop was on the way last week, but delayed its publication pending new reporting.

NSA documents provided to Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, his co-writer, by Edward Snowden contain the email addresses of Faisal Gill, Asim Ghafoor, Hooshang Amirahmadi, Agha Saeed, and Nihad Awad on a list of targets for spying that also includes several Americans suspected of terrorist activity.

Gill served as a policy advisor to the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration and was the Republican nominee for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007. Ghafoor is an attorney who once staffed former Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez and later represented several controversial clients in court, including Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law. Saeed and Awad are both activists for civil rights for Muslim-Americans, and Amirahmadi teaches international relations at Rutgers University. None of them are terrorists, and all have "led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives," as Greenwald and Hussain write.

It's unclear which, if any, of the men targeted were approved in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but Greenwald and Hussain argue that the spying is problematic whether it was deemed legal or not:

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."

The authors also came across stunning racism and Islamophobia in their research. A 2005 instructional document for formatting memos about surveillance targets uses the name "Mohammed Raghead" as a placeholder, and John Guandolo, a former FBI counterterrorism official who was active at the time of the five men's surveillance, revealed McCarthyesque paranoia about Islam in an interview with the Intercept.

To hear Guandolo tell it, Faisal Gill, the former homeland security official under Bush, was "a major player in the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States." Asim Ghafoor, Gill's fellow attorney, is "a jihadi" who was "directly linked to Al Qaeda guys" simply because of his representation of the Al Haramain Foundation. "He had knowledge of who they were and what they were doing," Guandolo says. (Such logic would subject every lawyer representing defendants accused of terrorism to government surveillance.) To Guandolo, Agha Saeed was yet another secret operative for the Muslim Brotherhood. "He's a pretty senior guy with them," Guandolo says, "affiliated with several groups." ("That's a big lie," Saeed says, "and given my life history, absurd" because he has "always been a leftist.")

Guandolo also believes that CIA director John Brennan is a secret Muslim working as a Saudi double agent.

Several of the men on the list believe they were targeted specifically because of their Muslim heritage and expressed anger at the spying. Gill, a self-identified "Reagan-loving Republican," said the revelations are enough to show that U.S. surveillance policy needs to change.

"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 continues. "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."

And Awad argued that all Americans should be concerned for their privacy.

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

As Margaret Hartmann notes at the Daily Intel, the allegations provide legal fuel for cases against surveillance of Americans in addition to exposing potential prejudices in the way it is carried out.

"For years, the government has succeeded in having such challenges dismissed on the ground that the various plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they could not prove that they were personally targeted," Greenwald and Hussain write. Now there's proof.

[Image via The Intercept]