The emails of at least five prominent Muslim-Americans were targeted by the FBI and the National Security Agency, according to information in new documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The report, co-authored by journalist Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, appeared on the online news site The Intercept and said the surveillance was authorized by a secret intelligence court under procedures intended to locate spies and terrorist suspects.
The report, which cited documents in an NSA spreadsheet leaked by former contractor Snowden, showed the emails of the individuals, but not their names, according to The Intercept report.
The Intercept said it identified at least five people, all American citizens, based on those email addresses. They include:
- 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 report by Greenwald and Hussain, the spreadsheet shows 7,485 email addresses listed as monitored between 2002 and 2008.
Many of the emails appeared to belong to foreigners suspected of being linked to al-Qaida, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike.
But the journalists' investigation also found a number of U.S. citizens monitored in this manner, which requires an order from the secret intelligence court based on evidence linking them to espionage or terrorist activities.
However, during the three-month investigation by Greenwald and Hussain, which included interviews with more than a dozen current and former federal law enforcement officials involved in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, they reported that they found the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.
A recent Washington Post report based on similar leaked files warned that such accidental sweeps pick up far more U.S. web traffic than officials have acknowledged and that the material can be held indefinitely by the government.
The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives.
All five denied any involvement in terrorism or espionage, The Intercept reported. Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments.
All five raised questions in the account about why their emails would have been targeted by surveillance, according to the Associated Press. The report said that several of the men had been subjected to previous government inquiries.
Civil rights groups crtiticized the revelations.
Responding to The Intercept report, a coalition of 44 civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama urging a "full public accounting" about the alleged domestic surveillance.
The group also asked for a meeting with Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.
The head of the Center for Constitutional Rights told The Hill that the targeting “fits the same pattern” as the FBI’s tracking of top civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in previous decades.
“The government is targeting an organization for its lawful political activity and conflating peaceful support for Palestinians and equal treatment for Muslims in the U.S. with suspicious activity,” Vincent Warrant told The Hill.
“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 group Muslim Advocates said in a statement shortly after the story published, according to a report by the online site Wired.
In a statement on Wednesday morning, the Obama administration denied that its activities were based on politics or religion.
U.S. officials, responding to the report, said communications are only monitored with a "legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose.”
"It is entirely false that U.S. 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," said a joint statement from the Justice Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The statement added that a court order for any surveillance of this kind requires "probable cause, based on specific facts," which indicate that the person "is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power."
"No U.S. person can be the subject of surveillance based solely on First Amendment activities, such as staging public rallies, organizing campaigns, writing critical essays, or expressing personal beliefs," the statement added.
Some information for this report provided by AFP and AP.