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Congressman Grayson to Clapper: Did US Intelligence Agencies Spy on American Muslims?

Representative Alan Grayson of Florida sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking if US intelligence agencies spied on five prominent American Muslims named as targets named in a major story from The Intercept, which was published on July 9.

The story by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain revealed the following individuals had their email addresses targeted by the NSA and FBI: Faisal Gill, a lawyer, a former member of President George W. Bush’s administration and former GOP candidate; Asim Ghafoor, a public relations consultant, lobbyist, lawyer and advocate for the rights of American Muslims; Agha Saeed, a professor who has mobilized American Muslims to become involved in the American political process; Hooshang Amirahmadi, founder and president of the American Iranian Council, who has done considerable work on American policy toward Iran; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is the largest Muslim civil rights organization in America.

Grayson’s letter to Clapper is concise and simple. He wrote, “The Intercept reported that agencies under your purview spied on five Muslim-Americans: Faisal Gill, Asim Ghafoor, Hooshang Amirahmadi, Agha Saeed, and Nihad Awad.”

“Did the intelligence community spy on these five people? If so, why?” Grayson asked.

It would appear that Grayson is the first member of Congress to send a letter demanding more information on why these five individuals were targeted.

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim congressmen, reacted yesterday, “I share the concerns of many Americans who feel the NSA has violated their civil liberties by monitoring them without cause.”

“The Intercept report is particularly troubling because it suggests that Americans were targeted because of their faith and civic engagement.  Unfortunately, the NYPD’s spying on Muslims with the CIA’s help and the FBI’s use of hateful anti-Muslim training materials makes this concern legitimate,” Ellison added.

Senator Ron Wyden issued a statement in which he declared, “I am unfamiliar with the individuals named in this story, so I will let them speak for themselves,” but later indicated, “This story raises new questions about agencies’ internal oversight of domestic surveillance activities and the adequacy of protections for the privacy of law-abiding Americans.” He also called it appalling that the NSA had used an “ethnic slur”—”Mohammed Raghead”—in an internal memo.

The Intercept uncovered this information after examining an “NSA spreadsheet” provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called “FISA recap,” which contained 7,485 email addresses that were monitored under FISA from 2002 to 2008.

Greenwald explained on “Democracy Now!” this morning:

…[W]e had maybe 20 or so Americans that we thought we should report on, and we narrowed it down to five, based on a variety of factors, including who was willing to be identified publicly as a surveillance target. A lot of people were very afraid of the stigma that it would have for them on their careers or their reputation forever and didn’t want to be named. And so, that was one big factor. And another one was making sure that we were reporting on people who clearly led very law-abiding, exemplary lives, as the five people here did…

Once the five individuals were willing to have the fact that they had been targeted revealed, The Intercept investigated them to figure out why they might have been put under surveillance. What was uncovered is that they were each “politically active American Muslims.”

The Intercept was unable to determine whether the NSA obtained any kind of a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Before 2008, the government may have been able to obtain authority for surveillance of Americans from the attorney general.

This is a question that members of Congress should be asking Clapper, NSA director Mike Rogers, Attorney General Eric Holder and the White House: On what authority were these American Muslims targeted?

On “Democracy Now!”, Gill shared, “I’ve never had any connection with any terrorist groups, never been involved. I’ve passed polygraphs stating such. So, that’s what’s more troubling to me is that there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect me of any of these activities.”

Gill said that he would never have thought he was suspected of any wrongdoing or monitored until Greenwald contacted him.

For Ghafoor, this was the second time that he had been the target of government surveillance. He talked on “Democracy Now!” about representing the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a charity which the US Treasury Department had been investigating:

…In 2004, a charity in Oregon that was under investigation by the US Treasury Department—a group of lawyers were given a stack of documents, four pages of which I still cannot talk about today, because of warnings from the government that they would prosecute me if I did. But it has been publicly reported that those four pages were a summary of conversations of some overseas individuals with myself, my fellow lawyers and other staff here in the US, about a legal strategy on how to get delisted from Treasury designation. So, it wasn’t exactly terrorism. It was a group of people who were falsely accused of terrorism who were trying to hire a lawyer, use the civil justice system, suing the Treasury Department, suing the Office of Foreign Assets Control and other organizations in the US, government agencies in the US. That investigation ended up freezing the assets of the US charity, jailing the leader for two years—and your show has covered that in the past—and freezing the assets of several individuals overseas. This was evidence of the government not only conducting warrantless surveillance, but then using that information to cause a very unjustified legal distress…

Not surprisingly, he was extremely shocked to learn that he was placed under surveillance again, particularly because he is a lawyer who needs to be able to represent clients without the fear that their privileged communications to him are going to be compromised.

As Ghafoor put it, “If a lawyer were to go in court, come up with some evidence that they got from reading my emails to my clients or maybe to co-counsel, to a paralegal, to anyone that I deal with on a legal basis, on a day-to-day basis representing my clients in civil rights cases, a judge would laugh them out of court. So, what made a lawyer or an agent or somebody in the government think that they could even use this information? To me, that’s just as baffling as the fact that this whole regime has been implemented.”

All of which raises many more additional questions that intelligence agency officials should be required to answer.

Full “Democracy Now!” segment: 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."