Racially profiled by the National Spy Agency

July 16, 2014

The latest revelations in the NSA spying scandal provide yet more proof that the American surveillance state is out of control. Nicole Colson explains.

BIG BROTHER'S paranoia about Muslims knows no bounds.

Last week, using information provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussein revealed in a story published at The Intercept the names of five U.S. citizens they can prove were kept under surveillance by the U.S. government. The list includes civil rights activists, lawyers and academics--and at least one Republican political candidate.

It's a disparate group, but what ties them together is the fact that all are Muslim--and all were spied on legally, after government officials went to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court to get permission.

The fact that these men could come under such intense government scrutiny as part of the "war on terror" proves once again that the supposed threat of "terrorism" after 9/11 was used not only to justify targeting Muslims in the U.S. on the most tenuous of grounds, but to legitimize a frightening level of government intrusion into once-private aspects of the ordinary lives of U.S. citizens.

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

Greenwald and Hussein reviewed an NSA spreadsheet containing thousands of e-mail addresses apparently targeted by the agency between 2002 and 2008, under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). While most appeared to be foreigners, including some with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, just over 200 were addresses designated as belonging to "U.S. persons."

Of those, Greenwald and Hussein chose to profile five they were able to identify. These 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, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.

These five men "all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives," according to the Intercept. "All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press. Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments."

WHILE THE NSA refused (of course) to comment on the surveillance of any of the men cited, Greenwald and Hussein point out the obvious: That unless there is some specific reason not alluded to in the documents they examined, these U.S. citizens all appear to have become targets of government surveillance primarily because they are Muslims, not because of anything they may have said or done--and not even because of their political beliefs, which also is not a legal justification for spying on U.S. citizens, though we know it happens all too frequently.

As Greenwald told SocialistWorker.org in an interview last month, the decision to name individuals who have been targets of surveillance was not made lightly:

[I]t's the most sensitive and difficult reporting there is to do, because you have to try and figure out who has been targeted. And then, once you know that, there's the question of what factors you take into consideration when deciding whether or not you'll name them...

I think everybody knows that the U.S. has compiled a shockingly limitless surveillance apparatus. I think people understand the reasons why there's such potential for danger and abuse. There has been some evidence of abuse and political ends for the surveillance...But I think the real question still is: What kinds of people are being targeted for the most invasive forms of surveillance. That's the question we want to answer.

As last week's report shows, the main answer to that question appears to be: "American Muslims."

Of course, government officials--under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama--have repeatedly claimed that surveillance efforts post-9/11 have never unfairly targeted Muslims or Arabs in the U.S. (though that denial was long ago proven to be a lie by a long list of witch-hunts and "terrorism" convictions based on entrapment, along with the number of local law enforcement agencies engaged in spying on local Muslim communities).

ACCORDING TO its defenders, expanded government surveillance, including the bulk collection of metadata, is a necessary tool in a "new era" where the U.S. is engaged in a perpetual war against vaguely defined enemies. And, goes the argument, if you have nothing to hide, you should have no problem letting the government see your e-mails or anything else it wants to, right?

But beyond the simple idea that the government should not have the right to spy on its citizens, there are real biases--particularly against Muslims and Arabs--embedded in the politics of domestic surveillance agencies that should frighten us all.

As Greenwald and Hussein point out, one of the pieces contained in the Snowden files is a 2005 document instructing intelligence personnel in the correct formatting of internal memos that justify surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act (FISA). In the place where a target's name would go, the document doesn't list "Joe Doe" or anything so benign.

Instead, it lists "Mohammed Raghead."

For their report, Greenwald and Hussein also spoke to former FBI counterterrorism official John Guandolo. Sounding like a 21st century version of Joe McCarthy, obsessed with Muslims instead of communists (instead of a Red under every bed, Guandolo seems to fear a Muslim Brotherhood connection in every congressional office) Guandolo proudly trumpeted the "training program" he created for security personnel warning of the "Muslim Brotherhood and their subversive movement in the United States."

According to the Intercept, "Guandolo believes that 'hundreds' of covert members of the Muslim Brotherhood are active in the United States, that some of them have succeeded in infiltrating the Pentagon, and that CIA director John Brennan is a secret Muslim."

Guandolo, the Intercept also notes, "worked on cases to obtain FISA warrants, and his anti-Islamic views were deemed acceptable enough to be reflected in basic training materials within the bureau."

As ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer told the Intercept, "Some of the government's surveillance practices today are reminiscent of those earlier abusive practices [of targeting activists critical of the government]. Today's American-Muslim activists occupy the same position that civil-rights and anti-war activists occupied during the 1960s."

ONE OF the most damning of the recent revelations is how the surveillance of U.S. citizens on the basis of racial profiling was given legal legitimacy--through the FISA court.

Writing at the ACLU's "Free Future" blog, Alex Abdo points out that although typically government surveillance requires a court order based on evidence that a person has, or is about to, commit a crime, in the 1970s, FISA created a legal loophole permitting "the government to obtain a surveillance order from a secretive court...if it can demonstrate probable cause to believe that its target is 'an agent of a foreign power.'"

That term, "agent of a foreign power" is loosely defined, but as Abdo explains, "it refers to individuals working at the behest of foreign powers, which are broadly defined to include foreign governments, terrorist groups and 'foreign-based political organizations.'...For U.S. citizens or residents to qualify as agents of a foreign power, there must be some tie to criminal activity, but that requirement is lower than probable cause, which is the traditional standard the government must satisfy before spying on Americans."

With no real mechanism for accountability--and no requirement to ever inform targets of surveillance that they are or were targets--the FISA system is basically a green light to spy indiscriminately.

Ironically, FISA and the FISA court were initially intended as a post-Watergate curb on government spying and "dirty tricks." The idea was that the FISA court would act as an independent arbiter of requests for spying, especially when it came to U.S. citizens and domestic targets.

However, in the post-9/11 era, FISA has been re-interpreted by the Bush and Obama administrations to permit exactly the kinds of domestic spying that were supposed to be curbed in the aftermath of Watergate. And no one's the wiser, since the FISA court--which is so willing to rubberstamp government requests that it almost never denies one-- operates in almost complete secrecy.

As the Intercept points out, "[L]egal experts have long expressed concern that the secretive nature of the FISA process makes it impossible to know what level of evidence is actually used to authorize surveillance, precisely what it means to be an agent of a foreign power, or whether there is any effective oversight to protect civil liberties."

Today, it's only because of the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden that we know about this dramatic government overreach. Without the files he provided, people like Faisal Gill, Asim Ghafoor, Hooshang Amirahmadi, Agha Saeed and Nihad Awad might never have known their government was targeting them. And even after these revelations they still might never know the official reason.

But Faisal Gill told Greenwald and Hussein he's positive he would never have been in the NSA crosshairs were he not a Muslim:

Look, I've never made an appearance or been a lawyer for anyone who's been [associated with terrorism]. But there are plenty of other lawyers who have made those appearances and actually represented those governments, and their name isn't Faisal Gill and they weren't born in Pakistan and they aren't on this list.

Gill said the knowledge he was being spied on illegally is cause for concern for his future--but the importance of speaking out against such practices outweighs the risks. As he said. "There will be a lot of folks who will say it was justified, and there's something there. I'm sure it'll have some sort of negative impact with clients, and who knows what else... The real reason I'm talking to you is that I don't have anything to hide. I didn't do anything wrong. I served my country, the whole time."

BACK TO the question beloved by defenders of the government spy state: Why should ordinary Americans be worried about surveillance if we truly have nothing to hide?

As Glenn Greenwald told SocialistWorker.org last month, not only is there a larger principle of protecting our civil liberties and pushing back against unprecedented government intrusion into our privacy, but government intrusion can act as a kind of invisible fetter on people--on their ability and confidence to speak out politically and take action:

When we think that somebody's watching us, our behavior becomes much more conformist, compliant and subservient, because we want to engage in the behavior that people want us to engage in, and will judge us positively for, rather than condemn us or look at us in an exclusionary kind of way...

That's the reason why tyrannies always want to turn to surveillance--because they know that creating the perception one is always being watched is the most powerful instrument for keeping people in line and forcing people to comply with the wishes of authority.

As Greenwald and Hussein show, the targeting of Muslims is the leading edge of this intrusive state--but the ability of the government to get away with such actions threatens all of us, by creating a "new normal" where all forms of political dissent become subject to counter-measures by a government hostile to the right to challenge and resist the way the government operates.

Such surveillance becomes another tool of empire through the implication that there is something wrong or suspicious about dissent--and by targeting communities that may have particular cause to disagree with particular government programs or policies, like the "war on terror."

As Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, and Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror, commented this week in the Albany Times Union:

These documents suggest that the government is viewing all Muslims--be they Arab, Asian or African-American--as suspect because of their membership in a religious community. And when their Islamic belief is combined with political opinions critical of U.S. foreign policy, they become even more suspicious--to the point of being treated as possible terrorists...

The spying on Muslim-Americans is all too reminiscent of the FBI's COINTELPRO and the NSA's Project Minaret decades ago, which spied on people like Joan Baez, Jane Fonda and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

We have to strongly reject the surveillance of Muslim-Americans and recognize that an attack on the rights of one group of people inevitably fans out to others. As the U.S. labor movement once put it: an injury to one is an injury to all.

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