The NSA and FBI monitored the e-mails of prominent Muslim American leaders and attorneys, including the head of the largest American Muslim civil rights group, reported The Intercept today.
Despite repeated assurances from officials that the government only uses its intelligence authority only to target “bad guys,” new NSA documents indicate that the FBI collected, sometimes for several years, the emails of prominent Muslim American civil rights leaders and activists. According to the story, the FBI obtained authorization from the secret FISA court for some targets by alleging that they were agents of foreign powers, apparently based on their civil rights, legal, and political work.
There is also a suggestion that in at least one case, there was no warrant at all. Notably, the monitoring of lawyers’ emails raises concerns that some of the information collected may be protected by the attorney-client privilege, which the intelligence agencies are bound to respect.
“Since 9/11, American-Muslim communities have been fair game for law enforcement tactics of the sort that were used against African American civil rights groups in the 1960s and '70s,” said Faiza Patel. “By targeting the leaders of these communities for secret full scale monitoring, the FBI has taken this tactic to another level. How can any of us who work to advance justice for American Muslims feel free to do our work if we fear the government is watching our every step?”
“Two other aspects of the story should raise big red flags for all Americans. The administration’s assertion that they use court-approved warrants ‘except in exceptional circumstances’ suggests that there are instances in which they are avoiding the very judicial scrutiny they hold out as legitimizing surveillance operations," said Patel. “It also seems that the intelligence community doesn’t take attorney-client privilege very seriously — it feels free to look at information that courts have long recognized as protected.”
“These documents raise the specter that the government may be spying on Americans based on their religion or political activities,” said Elizabeth Goitein. “At a minimum, the targeting of these community leaders under a law reserved for terrorists and agents of foreign powers raises very serious questions. And the use of the term ‘Raghead’ in a tutorial for intelligence officers is sickening. The burden is now on the administration to explain and justify what looks very much like an abuse of the intelligence community’s surveillance powers.”
“The FBI has a long history of abusing intelligence authorities to impede Americans’ First Amendment rights,” said Michael German. “The loosened restrictions on such collection have re-opened the door to this abuse, and distracted the FBI from the search for real threats. We must have stronger intelligence guidelines that protect Americans from undue racial and religious profiling and better oversight to end intelligence programs that are unnecessary, ineffective, or prone to abuse.”
This would not be the first time the FBI has targeted groups based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Despite efforts to reform FBI surveillance abuse in the 1970s, Freedom of Information Act documents obtained in 2011 revealed the FBI was collecting racial and ethnic data to map and investigate American communities across the U.S. without reasonable suspicion. Other documents show that the FBI was targeting individuals and organizations due to their First Amendment-protected activities, including exploiting a mosque outreach program to secretly collect information on law-abiding Muslims and investigations of environmental advocacy groups.