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NSA spied on 5 American Muslims, report reveals

WASHINGTON — A new report based on documents provided by Edward J. Snowden has identified five American Muslims, including the leader of a civil rights group, as having been subjected to surveillance by the National Security Agency.

The disclosure of what were described as specific domestic surveillance targets was a rare glimpse into some of the most closely held secrets by counterespionage and terrorism investigators. The article, by The Intercept and published by First Look, raised questions about the basis for the domestic spying. The government condemned the article as irresponsible and damaging to national security.

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The report was based on what it described as a spreadsheet of e-mail addresses said to have been monitored between 2002 and 2008. It was co-written by Glenn Greenwald, a primary recipient of the trove of documents leaked by Snowden, the former NSA contractor.

The document is titled “FISA Recap,” suggesting that the eavesdropping took place under the process authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Among those identified by First Look as having been subjected to surveillance were Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers University professor who is the president of the American Iranian Council, a public policy group that works on diplomatic issues regarding relations with Iran, and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Muslim civil rights organization.

Also named were Asim Ghafoor, a defense lawyer who has handled terrorism-related cases; Faisal Gill, a former Department of Homeland Security lawyer who First Look said later did some legal work with Ghafoor on behalf of Sudan in a lawsuit brought by victims of terrorist attacks; and Agha Saeed, the national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, which supports Muslim political candidates.

In its report, First Look said that the documents did not say what the suspicion or the evidence was against the men that justified the surveillance, acknowledging that “it is impossible to know why their e-mails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance.”

In video clips posted by First Look, several of the men denied wrongdoing and said they suspected their religion contributed to any targeting.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has issued about 1,800 orders each year for surveillance or physical searches on US soil. To obtain a court order to wiretap an American under that law, the government must convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe the target is engaged in a crime on behalf of a foreign power; non-Americans need only be agents of a foreign power.

None of the five American Muslims named by First Look has been charged with a crime.

The government refused to confirm whether any of the five had indeed been subjected to surveillance or, if so, what the basis for it was.

A group of civil liberties and rights groups sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday expressing concerns about the potential for “discriminatory and abusive surveillance,” but also said “we don’t know all the facts.”

“We cannot trust government assurances of fairness and legality when surveillance is being conducted without sufficient public oversight,” it said. “As a first step, we urge you to provide the public with the information necessary to . . . assess the First Look report.”

Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with CAIR, called the apparent surveillance of its executive director an outrage.

“It’s but the latest indication that the NSA is spying on Americans based on the exercise of their constitutional rights,” he said. “In this case, what has been revealed makes very clear that Americans’ faith as well as their political activism is what the NSA uses as the basis for its targeting practices.”

In a statement, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence denied such accusations, pointing to standards a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge must agree have been met before agencies may eavesdrop on an American.

“It is entirely false that US 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,” they said.

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