Up until last week, Malcolm X was the most well-known American Muslim leader to have been spied on by the American government. For a man who gave his life fighting for civil liberties, he would be shocked to learn that little has changed for dissenting voices, even perceived ones, fifty years after his assassination. New revelations on government spying in a report by The Intercept revealed five notable Muslim leaders who have been under NSA and FBI surveillance. The report highlights that these individuals were spied despite their civic engagement, public service and lack of a criminal record.
Amongst the most striking revelations is that these Americans were spied under the secretive proceedings of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. FISA is intended to target foreign nationals who are suspected of participating in terrorist activity; the only exception is when the agents can convince the clandestine courts that an American citizen is involved in foreign suspects. The five individuals spied on are US citizens who have not been charged with terrorism and vehemently deny any allegations of involvement.
The high public profiles of those revealed in this report is particularly telling. Most well known amongst them is Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR’s outstanding civil liberties work, especially post 9/11, has made it one of the most trusted and valued institutions in the American Muslim community. CAIR has worked extensively to encourage civil engagement and public service amongst Muslims – if its personnel can be subject to spying as if they were foreign terrorists, what does that say about the rest of us? If CAIR can’t be trusted then who’s left?
It seems that even working closely with the government and running for public office doesn’t get you off-the hook. Faisal Gill joined the Department of Homeland Security as a senior policy adviser for the Bush Administration. He was able to receive some of the highest levels of security clearance where his eyes had access to some of the nation’s most closely held secrets. Gill also secured the Republican nomination for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007, the year when the government began spying on him.
The discrimination and racism underlying the spying programs of the US government and affiliated agencies are manifestly evident at this point in time.
These revelations are a new addition to the long list which includes things like the surveillance of MSA’s, infiltration of places of worship by ‘mosque crawlers’ and the fake terror plots of paid informants. The repeated behavior of treating an entire community as potential terrorists and threats to national security is sickening. The spying conducted in this case was for activities that are protected by the First Amendment; they are therefore in flagrant violation of some of the most basic rights of an American citizen.
Particularly eye-opening is the bigoted and hawkish culture of the intelligence community which has been highlighted in the Intercept’s report. John Guandolo, a former counter-terrorism agent, was asked about the five men in question. He responded with uncorroborated accusations and highlighted his belief that these men were part of a Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate and topple the United States from within. Earlier, Guandalo also stated on a radio show that CIA director John Brennan secretly converted to Islam and is an instrument of Saudi intelligence.
Also exposed in the story was NSA’s usage of derogatory terms such as ‘raghead’ to refer to potential targets. In addition, the role of the Islamophobic activists such as Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes is deeply troubling. It appears that an internet campaign run by one of these repugnant characters is sufficient ground for the FBI to open a file on an individual. The fact that government would take seriously vitriol from these xenophobic groups furthers hints at sympathizers of this thought within the spy agencies.
Muslim political activists and leaders are not the only ones caught up in NSA’s web of surveillance. As outlined by the Washington Post last week, the NSA intercepted and spied on tens of thousand of private emails of users. Innocuous pictures, emails and private conversations were stored as ‘incidental collection’ by the NSA – collateral damage in other words.
Again, it is striking that most examples outlined in the Post’s report are those of Muslim users. For example, they included the deeply private conversations of Muslim girl who was considering for marriage a jihadist wannabe.
Spying on Muslim leaders by the FBI and NSA is a major blow to relations between the government and the Muslim community. It is particularly heart breaking to see individuals who worked hard to foster civic engagement getting back stabbed. The seeds of mistrust planted in the wake of 9/11 have further taken root in the soil of ignorance. Under Bush, and now Obama, we have seen a return to the dark McCarthyism-style fear mongering and suspicion. This represents a major setback for civil liberties and puts a question mark on the progress made in the past several decades.
It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild the trust tarnished by these spying programs. American Muslims deserve an apology for starters; there needs to be more transparency on the secretive operation of the FISA courts and, more importantly, a scaling back of the hokey schemes that violate our sanctified right to privacy.