A new report based on NSA documents taken by Edward Snowden has revealed the names of prominent American Muslims whose emails it claims were monitored by the FBI and the NSA for years – the most specific allegation yet of the U.S. government's domestic spying and one that officials said could compromise ongoing operations.
The report, published overnight by Glenn Greenwald at the fledgling news outlet The Intercept, identifies five of some 202 “U.S. Persons” listed in NSA documents whose emails were allegedly swept up over a six-year period ending in 2008: Nihad Awad, Executive Director of CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country; Faisal Gill, who served with the Department of Homeland Security and ran for public office in Virginia as a Republican; Asim Ghafoor, a defense attorney who has taken on terrorism-related cases; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an international relations professor at Rutgers University; and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University and National Chairman of the American Muslim Alliance.
"There is absolutely no question in my mind that the reason I was being surveilled is because I am a Muslim. There is nothing in my background. I have always carried a security clearance," Gill told ABC News in an interview broadcast today on "Good Morning America".
The disclosure by The Intercept of Americans allegedly once spied on secretly, and possibly under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is unprecedented, according to some officials in national security positions who say they urged Greenwald not to use the names of any individuals because it could compromise ongoing operations or wrongly implicate the people cited.
All five named by Greenwald have denied involvement in terrorism and none have ever been charged with any terrorism-related crimes.
The new disclosures raise a host of questions -- namely why these individuals' emails were collected by U.S. spies inside the homeland in the first place, given the layers of legal review such intelligence warrants undergo. Current and former officials said the Attorney General and the FBI director would have been personally involved in overseeing any FISA warrant targeting the leader of a civil rights group such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is protected by the First Amendment speech protections of the Constitution.
In his potentially explosive story, Greenwald admits he only has a list of thousands of email addresses which may have been targets of intelligence collection, adding that because other files he does not possess are still classified, "it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance."
"It is also unclear under what legal authority it was conducted," Greenwald writes.
Any spying inside the U.S. linked to terrorism or espionage must be approved with a warrant from the super-secret federal court that oversees classified FISA surveillance and clandestine FBI searches.
In June last year, with Greenwald's help, Snowden leaked the first known copy of a FISA court order since the court's inception 35 years ago.
Greenwald also concedes in his online article that The Intercept's reporters and editors do not know "what, if anything, authorities found that permitted them to continue spying on the men for prolonged periods of time," but said the five shared a "Muslim heritage."
"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 by the Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence Tuesday night.
While the reasons for surveillance aren't known, some of the men named had public associations that may have raised questions. Gill, for instance, once worked as a consultant for the American Muslim Council, which was founded by Abdulrahman Alamoudi, a man who pleaded guilty in 2004 to charges related to his “activities… with nations and organizations that have ties to terrorism.” Gill was investigated for this connection twice by the DHS and was cleared both times, The Intercept reported, yet the surveillance continued.
A senior government official said without knowing the underlying probable cause presented to a federal judge from the FISA court in each case, Greenwald and The Intercept cannot know why the e-mails of the purported targets were collected.
As a result, the official said, Greenwald and Snowden cannot know whether the surveillance revealed evidence or intelligence in each case that was incriminating or exculpatory -- or whether some targets later cooperated with the FBI. Several officials said it was “irresponsible” to name individuals as surveillance targets when no public court record exists. The identified targets could be guilty or innocent or even cooperating with the government, the officials said.
"You don't know if somebody was later approached to become an informant," the senior official said. "To the extent any of these people were targets, [The Intercept report] is a serious compromise. And if they weren't targets, they shouldn't be named."
The Intercept said many of the emails on the spreadsheet titled “FISA Recap," which they said Snowden provided, “appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.” But the report says their three-month investigation showed that “in practice, the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.”
However, current and former U.S. officials told ABC News that Snowden or Greenwald may have misunderstood some of the NSA documents, which they reported are spreadsheets with 7,485 email addresses, including many among multiple accounts by individuals.
"You should not assume all of the names Glenn Greenwald has were targets of surveillance," a senior official familiar with Snowden's pilfered cache told ABC News last week.
A former senior official once closely involved in the FISA warrant process told ABC News that The Intercept's reporters were repeatedly warned by him that they "were getting it wrong" in how they interpreted what the NSA spreadsheets from Snowden signified. The documents also were curiously absent of the markings secret files typically carry which denote its specific level of classification and distribution limitations.
"The documents indicated to me that they were not targets," the former official said.
Greenwald, who delayed his announced publication date last week by several days while seeking additional clarification from the U.S. government, reported the Department of Justice refused to comment and he was ultimately unable to determine under what legal authority the surveillance was conducted or whether the men were formally targeted under FISA warrants.
“Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone's communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion,” the joint statement provided to ABC News by the government offices said. “Our intelligence agencies can collect communications only when they have a legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose. This work is done to help protect Americans.”
“Moreover, 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,” the statement says.
The Intercept also reported that Snowden provided a 2005 training document that instructed “intelligence community personnel” to file memos correctly to justify a FISA warrant. “In the place where the target’s real name would go,” Greenwald writes, “the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: ‘Mohammad Raghead.’”
Another senior government official, who is not authorized to speak to the press, told ABC News that the offensive document was produced by a low-level "knucklehead" who only shared it with a few fellow government or military employees, not thousands of intelligence workers.
Vanee Vines, a spokesperson for the NSA, told ABC News that while the agency would not comment on the “authenticity of any allegedly leaked material,” the NSA “has not and would not approve official training documents that include insulting or inflammatory language.”
“Any use of racial or ethical stereotypes, slurs or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with NSA policy and core values,” Vines said.
ABC News' Rym Momtaz and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.