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News & Analysis

NSA spying on American Muslims

Ayesha Alam

Civil liberties have gone out the window since the attacks of 911 but American Muslims are a special target. They are not considered patriotic enough. The NSA has gone into overdrive to spy on and target them in a vicious campaign.

A recent report by Glen Greenwald, the journalist who published Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, reveals that the FBI has been monitoring five prominent Muslim Americans, even though they have not been charged with a crime. The report was published in The Intercept, an online site for investigative journalism. This has shed light on the issue of post-September 11 erosion of civil liberties in the US, to the point that the rights and freedoms have been nullified by the architecture of a police state.

The news sent shock waves through the Muslim community in the US, especially as the Muslim Americans under surveillance are more or less part of the mainstream US establishment. One of them is Faisal Gill, a Republican Party member who served in the Navy, has a high-level security clearance, and served in the Department of Homeland Security under G.W. Bush. The others include Agha Saeed, former professor of political science at California State University; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University; Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases; and Nihad Awad, former executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that all five belong to a list affiliated with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain reveal in their July 9 article for The Intercept that under this act, the US government can legally spy upon American citizens that are believed to be “agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also ‘are or may be’ engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism.” In the past, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were also placed on this list; both ultimately lost their lives in a US drone strike in 2011.

In an op-ed piece published by Time magazine on July 9, Nihad Awad expressed his thoughts on discovering that he was a part of the list. “I am saddened, but not surprised, by recent revelations that I am on the list of Muslim-American leaders who have been targets for NSA surveillance,” wrote Awad. “My First Amendment rights have been compromised simply because, over the years, I have expressed my views on issues relevant to public discourse. The fact that I have been individually targeted puts me on a list with very good company. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was spied on, along with Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald and boxer Muhammad Ali.”

Faisal Gill has also publicly spoken out about these allegations. “I was a very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican,” he says. “If somebody like me could be surveilled [sic], then [there are] other people out there I can only imagine who are under surveillance.” Gill’s Yahoo! and AOL accounts were monitored by the NSA while he was a Republican Party candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. “I just don’t know why,” noted Gill in a different interview. “I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community—I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.” The spreadsheet where his name appeared, part of the leaked Snowden documents, couldn’t identify a reason either. In the column titled “evidence,” the entry next to Gill’s name said “unknown.”

The unspoken message seems to be that Muslim Americans are better seen than heard—that they cannot aspire to join the political system as did Gill, or presume to have a public voice a la Awad, Ghafoor and others. The overreach of the National Security Agency has reached such epic proportions that even high level officers are breaking ranks to speak out. Recently, high-level NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, who worked for three decades in the agency’s division of crypto-mathematics, noted that the NSA has become like “J. Edgar Hoover on Super Steroids.”

Binney decided to become a whistleblower three weeks after September 11, when he discovered that the software he helped write was being used to spy on American citizens without a warrant or court order. “Bulk collection of everything gives law enforcement all the data they need on every citizen in the country,” observed Binney. ”And, it gives NSA all that info on everyone too.”

Many others agreed. James Bamford, who has written two books on the NSA, noted that, “The NSA’s operation is eerily similar to the FBI’s operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to ‘neutralize’ their targets. Hoover ran a veritable reign of terror in Washington DC, amassing vast files collecting espionage on presidents, senators, media figures, and others, using them to hold them on a tight leash. As reported in the July 11 Washington Post blog, William Sullivan, the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence in the 1960s noted that: “The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator, he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter…’ From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.

According to secret government documents that were made public in 2013, the NSA obtains full copies of everything that is carried along major domestic fiber optic cable networks. The NSA is also receiving wholesale copies of Americans’ telephone and other communications records. In other words, there is always someone monitoring the web data sent by every single world citizen. However, there are thousands of Muslim Americans and others that end up on the NSA lists as “foreign agents” or “are subject to particular scrutiny. The considerations used to determine who is a target and who is not, venture into the absurd. In a report carried on the July 4 weekend, the Washington Post notes that one way the NSA distinguishes a foreign agent from a “US person” was if they had e-mails “written in a foreign language, a quality shared by tens of millions of Americans.” In other words, simply exchanging emails with another party in a foreign language can render you a suspect.

A July 2014 Washington Post article reported that the NSA also spied on Barack Obama, collecting information on him both when he was senator and when he was president-elect. The NSA has been exposed as spying on members of Congress, foreign heads of state, Supreme Court Judges, federal and state judges, Senators, Representatives, law firms and lawyers, foreign officials and heads of state. Binney noted before the media that this dragnet covers “just anybody you don’t like … reporters included.”

The Snowden documents also revealed that the NSA shares all the raw data that it amasses with Israel, without sifting through and removing information on American citizens, as it is obliged to do by law. In other words, Israeli intelligence apparatuses have the same detailed information on US citizens, ranging from emails, web browsing, telephone calls, records of premarital activities, psychiatric records, family and financial history, and more.

However, the revelation of NSA spying on high profile US Muslims had one positive outcome—this year’s White House iftaar was broadly boycotted by Muslim American leaders. The ones that attended perhaps rued the fact that they did not join the boycott; Obama used the platform to castigate Hamas for endangering Israel’s security. “And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at citizens,” Obama declared, in midst of Israel’s massacre of Gaza. “And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”

The Many were appalled at the audacity and hypocrisy of the administration to host an “Iftaar” and honoring a select few Muslims as well as a Pakistani-American from the “Ahmadiyya Muslim community” whose family was “mistreated because of their beliefs,” just days after a news report broke exposing the NSA's surveillance of national Muslim leaders.

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