Feds Spied on Prominent Muslim-Americans, Report Claims

U.S. official says naming names a "serious compromise."

ByABC News
July 9, 2014, 7:36 AM

WASHINGTON— -- 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.

Read Full Statement From the ODNI/Justice Department

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.