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Report: U.S. spied on American Muslim leaders

By Mariano Castillo and Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 7:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "My No. 1 reaction was of shock and surprise," a Muslim-American says
  • NEW: "If it's my clients that's causing it...that's a reason for pause," another says
  • The report is based on documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden
  • The Justice Department says it does not spy based on religious views

(CNN) -- The U.S. government allegedly spied on prominent American Muslims under the same program it used to keep tabs on suspected terrorists, according to documents held by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, writing for The Intercept, said Snowden provided them documents that show that at least five American Muslims were monitored by their own government for periods between 2002 and 2008.

The names of Republican Party operative and lawyer Faisal Gill; attorney Asim Ghafoor; international relations professor Hooshang Amirahmadi; Muslim civil liberties advocate Agha Saeed; and the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Affairs, Nihad Awad, all appear on a spreadsheet that purportedly lists individuals under NSA, CIA or FBI digital surveillance.

The spreadsheet shows more than 7,000 e-mail addresses that appear to include the names of foreigners linked to terrorist organizations and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity, according to The Intercept's report.

But also on the list are the names of the five prominent Muslim-Americans, who have never been accused or charged with terrorism, and who deny any involvement in terrorism.

Accusations of profiling

Two of them -- Gill and Ghafoor -- told CNN that they were targeted just because they are Muslim, a violation of their rights.

"I can't think of any other reason," Gill said.

"Absolutely. No other reason," Ghafoor said.

Gill said he had a security clearance working in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"That's why my No. 1 reaction was of shock and surprise because there's nothing in my background that would lead any law enforcement agency to suspect me of any acts of terror," Gill said.

Ghafoor is a civil rights attorney who represented clients in terrorism-related cases.

"If it's my clients that's causing it," Ghafoor said of the alleged spying on him, "that's a reason for pause -- to find out what benefit does the government have listening in on the lawyer's communications with his or her client? What information can they use in court?

"Imagine a government lawyer telling his or her supervisors we had to listen to his calls and maybe we can go to court to beat him," Ghafoor said.

Ghafoor said that the government apparently spied on his Yahoo e-mail -- not his e-mail with his law firm.

"I feel sorry for the agents who had to read all of that. There's not a whole lot you will get from my Yahoo account," Ghafoor said.

Opinion: A year after Snowden, the real costs of NSA surveillance

Gill served in the Navy and later became a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

Gill also worked as a spokesman for American Muslim Council, whose founder and executive director, Aldurahman M. Alamoudi, was sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2004 for activities with nations and groups with ties to terrorism.

But the U.S. government allegedly spied on Gill from 2006 to 2008 -- after Gill left the council and when Gill was the Republican nominee for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, journalist Greenwald told CNN.

Gill said he did not know Alamoudi and hardly had contact with him. Moreover, after he left the Muslim council, Gill disclosed that job to the U.S. government, which eventually gave him a security clearance.

"Surveillance needs to happen but there has to be a reason for it," Gill said. "There was nothing in my background."

He asserted that authorities have a 99.6% success rate in obtaining warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, Court, which rules on U.S. requests to do surveillance on suspected terrorists and spies.

Gill described that success rate "ridiculous."

"If you go to any county in the United States...it would not be that high. Clearly there is something wrong," Gill said.

Gill told The Intercept that he believes that his e-mails were intercepted because he is Muslim.

"Look, I've never made an appearance or been a lawyer for anyone who's been (associated with terrorism)," he told The Intercept. "But there are plenty of other lawyers who have made those appearances and actually represented those governments, and their name isn't Faisal Gill and they weren't born in Pakistan and they aren't on this list."

U.S. response

In a joint statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department denied that the U.S. government conducts surveillance based on anyone's politics, religion or activism.

"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.

Any surveillance of U.S. citizens requires a court order from the FISA Court, the statement says.

"These court orders are issued by an independent federal judge only if probable cause, based on specific facts, are established that the person is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power," the statement says.

But The Intercept reported that at least one of the five American Muslims was spied on without a FISA warrant.

In addition, one of the documents provided to The Intercept by Snowden instructs agents on the proper way to compose a memo to request FISA surveillance. In the example, it lists a fake name -- "Mohammed Raghead" -- as a placeholder.

An NSA spokeswoman quoted in the report said that the agency would not allow such insulting language to be used in its training documents.

CAIR, the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties group and led by Awad, called for a full accounting of government spying on American Muslims.

"This is an outrageous continuation of civil rights era surveillance of minority community leadership by government elements who see threats in all patriotic dissent," the group said in a statement.

Germany calls in U.S. ambassador over new spying allegation

India summons U.S. diplomat over report of NSA spying

Review board finds potential for abuses in NSA phone, Internet surveillance

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