An online news site reported Wednesday that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies monitored the emails of several prominent Muslim-American activists and attorneys, prompting cries of protest from civil liberties advocates and a strong rebuttal from the government.
A lengthy article published on the Intercept stated that the National Security Agency and the FBI monitored the emails of five Muslim-Americans under procedures meant to target foreign terrorists and spies.
The surveillance, according to the article, apparently was conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to have probable cause to believe that the American targets are agents of foreign powers or terrorists. The article stated that it was unclear whether warrants were obtained and what the justification for the targeting was.
The Intercept article said the five men denied any involvement in terrorism or espionage and that none advocated violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in a crime. It quoted some of them as saying they believed they had been targeted because they were of Muslim heritage.
The report, which resulted from a three-month investigation, elicited charges that the government was conducting surveillance that violated people’s constitutional rights.
"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, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
The government rejected the allegation.
"It is entirely false that U.S. intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government or for exercising constitutional rights," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Justice Department said in a joint statement.
The article was based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which included a spreadsheet listing thousands of email addresses monitored between 2002 and 2008.
One 2005 training document also carried a disparaging reference to Muslims, listing a fake target whose name was "Mohammed Raghead."
"The use of the term ‘Raghead’ in a tutorial for intelligence officers is sickening," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director with Patel of the Brennan Center program.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines, without confirming the authenticity of the training document, said, "NSA has not and would not approve official training documents that include insulting or inflammatory language. Any use of racial or ethnic stereotypes, slurs or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with NSA policy and core values."
The ODNI and Justice Department did not directly address the cases of the five men but took issue with the suggestion that the targeting was based on people’s political or religious views.
"Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone’s communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion," the statement said.
With "limited exceptions," as in an emergency, U.S. intelligence agencies must have a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to target any U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident for electronic surveillance, it said.
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