NSA

What You Should Take Away From Glenn Greenwald's Latest NSA Report

|

Faisal Gill
The Intercept

Last night Glenn Greenwald published his latest information about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, naming five Americans of Muslim backgrounds targeted for e-mail collection. I hesitate to call it a bombshell because I would predict most folks—whether they agree with the government's tactics—probably suspected this was exactly what they were doing.

I threw up a link really quickly last night just to draw attention to Greenwald's latest. Spending some time to really look over the information and responses, here's a few things I think that are worth taking away from the report that could end up being lost in the debate.

It's not just five American targets total. The file Greenwald is drawing this information from, email surveillance targets from 2002 to 2008, contained more than 7,000 targets. At least 200 of them were of American citizens. The five men named and interviewed by Greenwald were the ones whose names they were able to figure out from their email addresses. More than 5,000 addresses don't identify whether or not the targets are Americans (or they don't know) so the number could actually be much higher. Some, indeed, were terrorism suspects, such as Anwar al-Alwaki, killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2011.

One of the targets was suing the federal government for previous illegal surveillance while he was being monitored again. Asim Ghafoor served as an attorney representing a Saudi charity whose assets were frozen over allegations of ties to Osama bin Laden. During the case in 2004, Ghafoor discovered his calls were being monitored:

In 2004, during the Al Haramain litigation, the Treasury Department accidentally provided one of the foundation's lawyers with a top-secret call log showing that the government had been eavesdropping on Ghafoor's calls with his clients. FBI agents quickly showed up to retrieve the document, and they took Ghafoor's laptop for a week to "scrub" it of any trace of the classified information. At the time, neither Ghafoor nor Wendell Belew, the other attorney whose conversations were monitored, knew what to make of the log. The following year, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times revealed the Bush Administration's illegal wiretapping program, Ghafoor realized that his attorney-client conversations had been surveilled without a warrant.

"When I received a document that proved I had been tapped talking to my clients, I was shocked beyond belief," Ghafoor recalls. "It's like finding out there was a peeping tom. You just wonder: What else did they violate?"

The attorneys and Al Haramain sued the U.S. government, claiming that the eavesdropping violated their constitutional rights. After nearly five years of litigation, Ghafoor was awarded more than $20,000 in damages and the government was ordered to pay his legal fees of $2.5 million. Those judgments were later reversed on appeal, on the grounds that the law does not explicitly entitle those targeted by surveillance to damages from the government, even if they prove that the surveillance was illegal.

During this time while Ghafoor was suing the government for listening to his phone calls with his client, it was also secretly monitoring his e-mails.

There's a reason the story focuses on the ethnic background of the targets (beyond the obvious). Ghafoor and fellow surveillance target Faisal Gill (a former George W. Bush administration official) both have represented legal interests of foreign countries like Sudan. But so have many other Americans, extremely white Americans like Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole. Greenwald and reporter Murtaza Hussain could not find any evidence from the documents that other lawyers at other firms were having their communications monitored:

While Gill and Ghafoor both ended up being surveilled, none of the Hunton & Williams lawyers who represented Sudan appear to be listed in the NSA spreadsheet. Also missing from the list is any apparent mention of the multitude of American, non-Muslim politicians who have represented foreign governments, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (Turkey), former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (United Arab Emirates),  former Rep. Bob Livingston (Libya), and former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis (Honduras post-coup).

Under U.S. law, Gill's legal work for the Sudanese government could not have been used to justify targeting him for surveillance, absent any other evidence. "Representation of a foreign government in legal matters by itself does not make a U.S. lawyer an agent of a foreign power," NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines said in a statement. According to the NSA spreadsheet, Gill's surveillance was terminated in February 2008.

One of the targets, despite having a Middle Eastern background, doesn't even identify as Muslim. Hooshang Amirahmadi, who has dual citizenship as an Iranian and an American, says he's an atheist. But The Intercept notes he opposes sanctions in Iran and attempts to foment regime changes as foreign policy goals. Amirahmadi himself, though, believes he was targeted over his diplomatic connections, not his ethnicity, and declined to be interviewed for the story.

There's still more to come! Greenwald and Hussain participated in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" thread this morning. A Reddit participant asked if there were other targeted groups beyond Muslim leaders. Greenwald responded:

I get in trouble every time I talk about our reporting before it's ready, but suffice to say: Muslims, while the prime target of post-9/11 abuses, are not the only ones targeted by them, and there is definitely more big reporting to come from the Snowden archive.

My prediction: the Occupy folks. We've already seen they were targeted for analysis and poorly managed monitoring by fusion centers.

One of the responses from unnamed government officials to the report has been that Greenwald is potentially identifying the names of people who agreed to become government informants following surveillance. But from his Reddit chat, Greenwald and Hussain indicate they contacted these five targets and got permission from them to reveal their names, even from Amirahmadi.

NEXT: Liberals to Justice Ginsburg: Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Ghafoor and fellow surveillance target Faisal Gill (a former George W. Bush administration official) both have represented legal interests of foreign countries like Sudan.

    No relation.

  2. What’s the over/under for SugarFree being on the list?

    For his general crimes against humanity, that is.

    1. Depends? has he ever searched for the following words (or associated words) online?

      * Tor
      * Tails Linux
      * Online Privacy
      * Encryption

      I’m pretty sure I’m on the NSA watch list? I deal with encryption, online privacy, etc., in my job.

  3. the law does not explicitly entitle those targeted by surveillance to damages from the government, even if they prove that the surveillance was illegal.

    nice.

  4. If it comes out that the NSA were *ACTIVELY* spying on those Occupy dummies, it still won’t affect their devotion to the president. They all seem to be under the impression that the NSA is this amorphous, evil construct – not something directly under control of the White House.

    They buy that whole “I found out about it when I read about it in the paper” bullshit that Obama peddles every time. You know, the Nobel Prize-winning Super Genius” that they rallied soooo hard for.

    God forbid they’d ever do anything like organize a protest about illegal, unchecked domestic by their golden boy. They only drag out the paper mache puppets or shitty protest songs for BUSHITLER.

    1. If it comes out that the NSA were *ACTIVELY* spying on those Occupy dummies, it still won’t affect their devotion to the president.

      I don’t think so. These people have no problem with government over reach because they assume it will always be used against their enemies. They never thought they’d be the one up against the wall, when they find out they were wrong it could get nasty.

    2. Just how many occupy dummies have you asked for their opinion on the matter?

      1. How do you formulate a question to a brain dead hippie?

  5. I get in trouble every time I talk about our reporting before it’s ready, but suffice to say: Muslims, while the prime target of post -9/11 abuses, are not the only ones targeted by them, and there is definitely more big reporting to come from the Snowden archive.

    As fucked up as it sounds, I hope you’ve got more groups than this. Most people won’t get worked up over spying on Muslims, no matter how illegal it is. But let word get out that the NSA is spying on the occutards, domestic political groups, or Christian organizations and maybe the knives come out.

    1. True. The shit will really hit the fan if it turns out the NSA was spying on Republicans and Tea Party types. If this is Greenwald’s big reveal in terms of “spying on Americans, it’s close to “meh.”

      1. If it’s Republicans and Christians being targeted nothing will happen at all.

        The Republicans can’t even win on the IRS targeting, and even Democrats in general think the IRS is lying and misbehaving in that case.

        Christians just don’t stand up to these kind of attacks because of their turn the other cheek mentality. Muslims are the ones who blow shit up when they don’t like something…

  6. So, the “big reveal” from the traitor was that 5 muslims with links to terrorists or terrorist organizations, and maybe even up to 0.0001 fucking percent of the population, has had their email monitored, and this is the “Massive Surveillance State” that “forced” him to reveal reams of classified information on legitimate intelligence collection efforts? Jesus Fucking Christ, I hope this guy gets crushed by a drunken Russian truck driver, and it’s captured on a dash cam.

    1. Where does your “0.0001%” figure come from? That’s only like 35,000 people total…You honestly think the NSA has only monitored 35,000 Americans?

      1. He’s just mad that snowden made his NSA boyfriends look bad.

        1. Once he’s no longer useful to them, Snowden is going to end up dead in a Russian gutter where he belongs. You can all erect a monument to your traitor/hero then.

          1. Go find some more boots to lick.

            1. Since when is having an informed opinion licking boots?

      2. You know where it came from.

      3. Actually, I don’t think the NSA has “monitored” anywhere near 35K Americans, unless you want to count back over 40 years or so. There simply aren’t enough people to sit around reading email and listening to random, untargeted people by the thousands. All this “Massive Surveillance State” bullshit is just that: Bullshit. In my opinion, it’s an effort by the left-wing media to destroy the intelligence gathering capabilities of the United States. As an example of why that’s my opinion, I’ll point out that 99% of the highly classified information Snowden/Greenwald have released, has absolutely nothing to do with any domestic collect effort, revealed legitimate classified foreign collection efforts, and seems to have been specifically intended to destroy US foreign relations.

        1. If you stick your fingers in your ears and go LALALALALALALALALALALA enough, reality goes away!

          1. Yes, and if you throw enough “may be”, “might”, perhaps”, and “could be” into a narrative, you can shape reality to fit your needs, right?

            Try to remember: We’re talking about a government that can’t set up a fucking MS Exchange server without screwing it up somehow. The idea that the NSA has these magical systems, the only ones in government that actually work, that can collect and analyze the communications of everyone on the planet, is just paranoid nonsense.

  7. I was hoping for one or two memebers of congress; Diane Fienstein or Mike Rogers, for instance.

  8. Does anyone mind if I form my own opinion about what to take away from the issue at hand?

    1. No, you must assume, based on biased media reporting, that somehow 40,000 NSA employees manage to monitor the communications of everyone on the planet.

      1. Just because they admitted to it doesn’t mean they’re guilty!

        1. Please point out where anyone has admitted to “monitor (ing) the communications of everyone on the planet”, or STFU.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.