Glenn Greenwald Reveals NSA/FBI Surveillance of Muslim-American Activists’ Emails

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July 9, 2014;The Intercept

Boy, that Glenn Greenwald really stirs up emotions among other journalists and within the U.S. government!

Before Greenwald actually published information based on new revelations from NSA-leaker Edward Snowden that the NSA and the FBI had been monitoring the emails of Muslim-Americans (who had absolutely no connection to Islamic terrorism other than the fact that they happen to be Muslims themselves), the Justice Department went into action. Officials began “reaching out to Muslim-American leaders across the country to warn them that the piece would contain errors and misrepresentations, even though it had not yet been written.”

Preemptive trashing of an article by Greenwald before it ever appeared in print or online—amazing! Do you think the NSA and the FBI might be a little sensitive about the continuing revelations of their highly inappropriate, if not illegal and unconstitutional, monitoring of American citizens?

The five Muslim-Americans who were “surveilled” (a great word added to the daily lexicon of Americans as a result of the Snowden disclosures) were not selected by the NSA and the FBI because of any finding that there was “probable cause to believe that [they] are not only agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also ‘are or may be’ engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism,” the required conditions that would trigger, if the Bush or Obama administrations had been following the law, the government’s ability pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) to invade citizens’ emails. In the cases of these five, they simply happened to be Muslims—and for our purposes, Muslim-Americans connected to 501(c) nonprofits.

The five Muslim-Americans whose emails were monitored have been known advocates for Muslims—particularly Palestinians, which in and of itself garnered them controversy—but they don’t have personal histories that rose to the level of FISA digging into their email accounts:

  • Faisal Gill: Once a Republican candidate for the state legislature in Virginia, the Pakistan-born Gill also held a top-secret security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security during the administration of President George W. Bush (Note: Although Gill once worked for the American Muslim Council, whose founder was indicted on terrorism-related money-laundering charges, DHS found no reason not to hire Gill or to deny him a security clearance, before which he was an employee of the Islamic Institute, established by conservative Republican operative Grover Norquist.)
  • Asim Ghafoor: an attorney who has defended clients in terrorism-related cases (Note: Originally from India, Ghafoor seems to have attracted notice for having regularly performed the haj in Saudi Arabia.)
  • Hooshang Amirahmadi: an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University (Note: Known for his advocacy of gender equality and women’s rights in Iran, Amirahmadi is a co-founder of the nonprofit American Iranian Council)
  • Agha Saeed: a former political science professor at California State University, known for advocating for Muslim and Palestinian civil liberties (Note: The Pakistani-born Saeed is the founder of the American Muslim Alliance, which gained attention during the Hillary Clinton’s senate run in 2000 when she returned political donations from AMA members after Saeed delivered a strongly pro-Palestinian speech)
  • Nihad Awad: the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.

To be sure, none of the five are ordinary. In general, they are advocates for Muslim rights and Palestinian rights, as are many other people who hold similar beliefs but lack a common quality of these five—they aren’t Muslims. Think that isn’t relevant? A 2005 instructional for intelligence personnel provides a format for memos justifying FISA approval of surveillance of targets. The placeholder for the target’s email is; the placeholder for the target’s name is “Mohammed Raghead.” 


Greenwald and his Intercept co-author Murtaza Hussain held an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit to reveal and explain more of what they reported on in these disclosures about NSA and FBI surveillance.

The interesting dynamic was a charge that Greenwald leveled against Reddit. Remember the really troubling insinuation by MSNBC anchor David Gregory to Greenwald that because of his work with Snowden, he might have “aided and abetted” a criminal and therefore be subject to criminal prosecution himself? Greenwald’s response sliced and diced the hapless Gregory, and even supportive comments from MSNBC colleague Chuck Todd didn’t rectify Gregory’s questions that essentially criminalized Greenwald’s journalism. In the AMA, Greenwald charged that Reddit moderators have been censoring stories such as these because the Reddit moderators, Greenwald charged, are “partisan Democrats who want to conceal these stories because perceive that it reflects poorly on Obama.”

“Reddit is practicing censorship, pure and simple,” Greenwald added. “It’s pitiful.”

Apparently, Greenwald’s complaint was about Reddit’s classifying anything and everything from the Intercept as “opinion” rather than “news.” We feel Greenwald’s pain: Reporting that the NSA and FBI pulled five Muslim-American names for email surveillance isn’t opinion; it is fact. It is also a fact that the five prominent Muslim-Americans who found their emails monitored by federal operatives had strong feelings about Muslim and Palestinian rights. So do many others in the nonprofit world who do not happen to be Muslims. Protecting from unjustified government monitoring the contents of email accounts of activists who happen to who happen to favor the position of Palestinians or favor the arguments of Israelis seems consistent with nonprofit values of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Being Muslim shouldn’t put those activists into a different category where they suddenly and secretly lose their First Amendment rights.—Rick Cohen