Advocacy Groups, Lawmakers Condemn NSA Surveillance Of Muslim-Americans

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Response to a recent report detailing surveillance of Muslim-Americans by the U.S. government has been swift and negative, with condemnation piling up from privacy and religious organizations alike.

Delivering on a long-held promise, journalist Glenn Greenwald today published the names of five prominent Muslim-Americans who were under governmental surveillance for years. The group included professors and activists and even a candidate for political office. It’s precisely the set of people who the government claims to not spy on domestically.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a collection of dozens of religious organizations each criticized the revelations, saying they recalled previous decades that saw governmental overreach into the private lives of activists.

The FBI, implicated in the report, is infamous for its surveillance and abuse of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The agency went as far as to mail him an anonymous letter urging suicide. Given that track record, the number of American targets on the list that Greenwald published is troubling.

Greenwald’s report, published on The Intercept, contained thousands of surveillance targets, hundreds of which were Americans. Thousands more were marked as “unknown,” regarding their citizenship.

The EFF’s statement is plain:

EFF unambiguously condemns government surveillance of people based on the exercise of their First Amendment rights. The government’s surveillance of prominent Muslim activists based on constitutionally protected activity fails the test of a democratic society that values freedom of expression, religious freedom, and adherence to the rule of law.

The collected religious groups’ letter, also signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, demands a “full public accounting” of the material published and calls for stronger privacy protections. The letter directly alleges that the government is “targeting entire communities — particularly American Muslims — for secret surveillance based on their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.”

The letter also cites a lack of knowledge due to excessive government secrecy. For a first step, it asks that the government provide “the public with the information necessary to meaningfully assess the First Look report.” That seems unlikely.

Amnesty International added to the criticism, calling the surveillance of the five “apparently arbitrary,” and demanding “comprehensive surveillance reform legislation” to pass.

The Department of Justice, in a released comment, stated that 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.”

Update:

But the White House and lawmakers on Wednesday called the reported use of a racial slur in intelligence agency training materials unacceptable.

The Intercept leaked a 2005 training document for intelligence community employees on how to format an internal Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) memo. In the place a surveillance target’s identity would go, the agency uses the placeholder “Mohammed Raghead.”

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the use of racial slurs is “both unacceptable and inconsistent with the country’s core values,” and the White House takes the allegations ‘“very seriously.”

“Upon learning of this matter the White House immediately requested that the Director of National Intelligence undertake an assessment of Intelligence Community policies, training standards or directives that promote diversity and tolerance, and as necessary, make any recommendations changes or additional reforms.”

The NSA declined to comment on the authenticity of the memo but said the agency would not approve the use of such a slur in official training materials.

Some lawmakers went further than the White House’s criticism of the training memo, condemning the agencies for targeting particular religious groups.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has staunchly supported reigning in intelligence agencies, called the slur in the memo “appalling,” but went on to say it would be “even more troubling” if that type of sentiment were informing intelligence activities.

“I appreciate the NSA spokeswoman’s statement that racial and ethnic stereotypes and slurs are unacceptable. However, our intelligence leadership must make clear not just that racial and ethnic slurs are unacceptable, but that targeting Americans based on their religion is unacceptable as well,” Wyden said in a statement Wednesday.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, called the NSA’s activity “wrong.”

“I share the concerns of many Americans who feel the NSA has violated their civil liberties by monitoring them without cause,” Ellison said. “Muslim-Americans continue to face bigotry and hatred, but the NSA’s former spying practices undermines our entire nation’s progress towards greater inclusion. […] The United States Government must protect all Americans no matter what they believe, the color of their skin, where they’re from or who they love.”

Cat Zakrzewski contributed reporting. 

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