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Civil Rights Groups Respond to Allegations of Religious Profiling by the NSA and FBI

Explosive allegations that the National Security Agency and FBI targeted Muslim-American activists, politicians, and educators for secret surveillance programs, published last week in The Intercept, have prompted a robust response from a coalition of civil and human rights groups.

Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain’s report, based on a spreadsheet of nearly 8,000 email addresses leaked by Edward Snowden and three months of investigative reporting, contends that at least five of the surveillance targets led “highly public, outwardly exemplary lives,” but were scrutinized by the federal intelligence agencies based on their ethnic backgrounds and Muslim faith. Among those targeted were Faisal Gill, a member of the Bush administration once employed by the Department of Homeland Security with top security clearance; Asim Ghafoor, a civil rights attorney who defended the Saudi charity the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation; and Agha Saeed, who founded the American Muslim Alliance and concentrated much of his activism on registering Muslim Americans to vote.

The leaked spreadsheet that inspired the story is titled “FISA recap,” which suggests that the surveillance was cleared by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. The FISA court is a secret tribunal that vets government requests to tap phones, search emails, collect data, and otherwise monitor suspected terrorists and spies. Given that FISA determinations are classified, we may never know the rationale for, or the extent of, the surveillance of these men. Greenwald and Hussain write,

Whatever the specific reasons and methods used to monitor the five men’s emails, the surveillance against them took place during the chaos and fear that enveloped the national security community in the years after 9/11. … One former law enforcement official said that, while the FBI was diligent in trying to hew to the law, there may have been ‘some missteps’ along the way. Those missteps have landed heavily on Americans of Muslim heritage.

In a response sent July 9, fifty-two civil and human rights groups, including the ACLU, American Muslim Alliance, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Immigration Law Center, called on President Obama to re-affirm law enforcement’s commitment to “serve and protect America’s diverse population equally.” They wrote,

The [Intercept] report is troubling because it arises in [a] broader context of abuse. … Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. … [T]he government’s domestic counterterrorism policies treat entire minority communities as suspect, and American Muslims have borne the brunt of government suspicion, stigma and abuse.

Arguing that these practices “strike at the bedrock of democracy,” the co-signers called on the White House to strengthen the Department of Justice’s Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, issued in June 2003, and to expand these guidelines to explicitly ban profiling on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and national origin.

In response, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice insisted that FISA court orders to monitor U.S. citizens are only issued if credible evidence that the target of surveillance is “an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power” exists. In a joint statement, the agencies wrote,

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, of for exercising constitutional rights. 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.

However, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, of the more than 35,000 FISA surveillance orders reviewed by the court in the last 35 years, only twelve—a mere 0.03% of them—were denied.

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