Why Were Five Muslim-American Leaders Subject to NSA Surveillance?

The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald has been teasing a story connecting NSA surveillance to specific Americans, and now that story is out in the world.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald has been teasing a story connecting NSA surveillance to specific Americans, and on Wednesday morning that story was pushed out in the world. According to a story based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the U.S. was spying on five Americans — all Muslims — for reasons that remain classified. According to The Intercept, it's not clear whether the government had legal permission to monitor those five Americans between the years 2002 and 2008. The individuals were identified by the reporters through their email addresses.

According to Greenwald's report, those five Americans are: Faisal Gill, a Republican lawyer and political operative and one-time candidate for public office who previously worked as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security; Asim Ghafoor, an attorney who has defended terrorism suspects; Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor of international relations at Rutgers University; Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

You can read Greenwald's full report for yourself here, but it's important to note that what is arguably the most critical detail contained in this narrative remains a mystery: how, and why, the U.S. government justified spying on these Americans. That information, if it exists on paper, remains classified. In other words, what do these five cases say about how high a bar the U.S. government sets on when it may target a U.S. citizen? We don't know, conclusively. Nor do we know from the report how, or if, the U.S. was granted legal permission to spy on these five Americans. Intelligence agencies are legally barred from surveilling American citizens without warrants, but legal maneuvering to obtain such permission is highly secretive. To the former question, Greenwald's piece seems to make an educated guess, using evidence that would be familiar to those following the U.S.'s post-9/11 national security policy towards American Muslim leaders.

Noting that the FBI is listed as the “responsible agency” for investigating all five Americans, Greenwald called up a former FBI official notorious for his anti-Muslim views to get his take on the spying program. John Guandolo claims to be behind an FBI training program targeting "The Muslim Brotherhood" and "their subversive movement in the United States," and is now a well-known figure on the anti-Muslim national security pundit circuit. Also, Guandolo is long gone from the law enforcement agency. The FBI has had a ... mixed record when it comes to targeting of U.S. Muslim communities, having relied in the past on training materials depicting all U.S. Muslims as potential subversives or terrorists.

Here's what Guandolo told Greenwald about some of the targets of U.S. surveillance, even though none of the men have ever been credibly connected to terrorist activity:

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.”

Guandolo also told Greenwald that he participated in the investigation of at least one of the five Americans listed in the Snowden documents. As The Intercept notes, the five men named in their report would be familiar to those Americans who believe in a Muslim conspiracy similar to what Guandolo promotes in his statements.

The implications of the dots connected in the Greenwald report are already having an impact on the American Muslim community. Muslim Advocates's Fatima Kahn released a statement shortly after publication stating, "This report confirms the worst fears of American Muslims." She added, "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."

In response, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department issued a statement on Wednesday insisting that it does not target any Americans for their religious or political views, though it does not address whether these particular individuals were targeted or why.

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.
On the other hand, a person who the court finds is an agent of a foreign power under this rigorous standard is not exempted just because of his or her occupation.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.