The Snowden leak has rendered itself once again in the form of a report that the NSA has surveilled American citizens apparently without cause, including five American-Muslim leaders. Documents related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including a spreadsheet with thousands of personal email addresses, are offered as evidence of surveillance by the FBI and the NSA with only a questionable and unverifiable legal basis for doing so. There has been outcry from American Muslims who see evidence of religious and ethnic discrimination in the surveillance and civil rights watchdogs are concerned that this is a replay of McCarthy Era witch hunting. But even as these revelations about the NSA and the FBI create outrage, there are skeptics who are promoting caution in accepting the conclusions of this story completely.
The report in The Intercept from journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain is a long report on documents from the Snowden archive, which caused quite a stir when they were published. Greenwald has covered Snowden’s story extensively and his latest report is not the last he says he will be writing on the topic. It has already been seen that the NSW is surveilling American citizens with a questionable and largely secret legal process known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as authorization for doing so. The primary document in this latest report is a spreadsheet containing over 7,000 personal email addresses of surveillance targets. There is a minimum of 200 American targets contained in that document, but the biggest splash has been from the five email addresses that belong to prominent American-Muslim leaders and activists.
This fact seems to point to ethnic and religious profiling on the part of the intelligence agencies and is the main cause of all the uproar. There is apparently little reason to spy on these men other than their religious and ethnic connections. For example, Faisal Gill served in the Department of Homeland security and had a top security clearance under the Bush administration. If he was found suitable to serve the country then, then the question is, why has he been spied on since? The answer that many, including the authors, are offering is racial profiling. If that is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the case, then the United States government has a serious civil rights violation to answer for. As of yet, there is no definitive proof of profiling, but there are reviews underway to examine the possible existence of racial or religious bias in security agency training.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence offered in the report by Greenwald and Hussain, however, is the person of Asim Ghafoor whose email is one of the five causing so much stir. Ghafoor has been legal representation in terrorism-related cases, defending accused terrorists in court. His presence on the list is in stark contrast to the absence of any non-Muslim attorneys who have also represented people suspected of terrorist involvement. It is his personal belief that he is on the list because his name sounds foreign and that he is Muslim. He also says that his involvement in terror-related court cases “had something to do with it,” too.
Both Greenwald and Hussain believe that this is a serious case of prejudice, a view they both stated in a Reddit question and answer session after the report was published. Hussain believes that this report is part of what he termed “ample evidence” for prejudice against Muslim-Americans specifically on the part of the intelligence agencies. While Greenwald agrees, he is inclined to take the concept to a bigger platform. He stated that “I absolutely believe that there are religio-cultural components to the propagation of the War on Terror.” These are very definite statements of belief and they are reflected in the reporting.
Such beliefs are not completely without supporting evidence. In 2011 it was revealed that the FBI was presenting an extreme view of American-Muslims which held that they were all terrorist sympathisers. Certain training documents showed that the FBI was casting Muhammad as a “cult leader” and the Muslim practice of charitable given, which is part of their religious code, as nothing more than a cover for funding terrorism. The FBI also raised its presence in and around mosques and other Muslim community centers, effectively engaging in religious and ethnic profiling. The FBI’s involvement in this most recent report from Greenwald and Hussain seems to be a troubling continuation of an already well-documented prejudice.
But there are some people who amid all the outrage created by the new NSA revelations are exercising skepticism or at least encouraging a healthy examination of all the facts. Breitbart asserted that if allegations of profiling were true, then there would be other identifiable Muslim leaders on the list. The news source claims that because there are no names of leaders from organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, then there is no real reason to cry foul. In their view, Greenwald, who is most famous for his coverage of the Snowden leak, has “taken the bait” on this latest report.
From a more legal perspective, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says that there is some missing data in Greenwald and Hussain’s story. According to him, there is not enough documentation to prove that the men listed on the spreadsheet were actually being surveilled. A substantial document establishing probable cause for surveillance should be present somewhere in the proceedings of the FISA court. Without that document, Wittes says, the discussion is pointless. Until that documentation is found and examined, the report is dealing with what-ifs instead of what is really happening.
The main concern for many at this point, however, is the state of civil liberties after the revelations in The Intercept report. Observers are seeing a connection between this case and the McCarthy era when American citizens were spied on due to fears of communism. The Executive Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights Vincent Warren released a statement making the connection between the NSA practices and surveillance of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s. According to him, “the government is targeting an organization for its lawful political activity and conflating peaceful support for… equal treatment for Muslims in the U.S. with suspicious activity.” He also reiterated his organization’s support for civil rights and ongoing legal challenges to NSA surveillance.
The Snowden leaks caused a lot of upheaval when they were originally released and they are capable of continuing to do so today. Greenwald and Hussain’s latest report has revealed concerns of profiling in cases of the surveillance of American citizens. Both of the authors believe that there is a concerted effort to discriminate against Muslim-Americans and have provided the evidence they have for its existence. While there is corroborating evidence enough to back up some of their claims, there are also calls for a temperate approach and the gathering of more data to prove it substantially. Others are willing to simply discount the report altogether. But in the midst of all the outrage and skepticism, Greenwald has promised more revelations on the NSA to come, which will could very well create another such stir when released.
By Lydia Bradbury