The National Security Agency and the FBI have spied on five prominent Muslim-Americans, including a political candidate, civil rights activists, academics and lawyers, under its top-secret surveillance program intended to target terrorists and foreign spies, The Intercept reported.
According to documents obtained by the website from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the individuals targeted are: Faisal Gill, a longtime GOP operative and former political candidate; Asim Ghafoor, an attorney who represented clients in terrorism-related cases; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American international relations professor at Rutgers University; Agha Saeed, a former political science professor who champions Muslim and Palestinian issues at California State University; and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"I just don't know why," said Gill, who had a top-secret security clearance, served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and ran as a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, according to The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain.
"I've done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community — I've done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do." He also described himself as having once been a "very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican."
Each of the five prominent Muslims were among over 7,000 people whose email addresses were monitored between 2002 and 2008 and whom the Justice Department identified as possible agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign entity, or "are or may be" engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism.
Others on the list include foreigners believed to be linked to al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Surveillance was authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews and approves the Justice Department's recommended list every 90 days.
Justifications for selection of individuals on the list are classified, as is the extent of the surveillance.
It is unclear whether the agency obtained any legal permission to monitor the Americans on the list, but the NSA and the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence, told The Intercept that "except in exceptional circumstances," surveillance directly targeting Americans is conducted only with court-approved warrants.
All five of the American Muslims have held distinguished positions in their fields and deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage. None advocate violent jihad or is known to have been involved in any crime. Some have been among the upper echelons of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment, The Intercept reported.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment on the story, but the NSA said in a statement, "No U.S. person can be the subject of a FISA surveillance based solely on First Amendment activities, such as staging public rallies, organizing campaigns, writing critical essays, or expressing personal beliefs."
The Intercept's Greenwald and Hussain wrote "the government's ability to monitor such high-profile Muslim-Americans — with or without warrants — suggests that the most alarming and invasive aspects of the NSA's surveillance occur not because the agency breaks the law, but because it is able to exploit the law's permissive contours."
The five Americans whose email accounts were on the list are from a variety of backgrounds and have varying religious and political views. None of the individuals was identified as having been connected to a foreign power, charged with a crime, or convincingly linked to terrorism or espionage, The Intercept reported.
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