The National Security Agency and the FBI allegedly tracked email accounts of five Muslim American leaders between 2006 and 2008, according to an NSA spreadsheet of email addresses disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The spreadsheet, which lists email addresses and dates, does not indicate how much, if any, surveillance took place. Because the spreadsheet stops in spring 2008, it also does not indicate whether any such surveillance continued after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended that year, in part to restrict the George W. Bush administration's use of wiretaps, or after President Obama took office in January 2009.
Parts of the document were published by the Intercept, an online news site.
The spreadsheet lists 7,485 email addresses as being monitored between 2002 and 2008, of which 202 were labeled as belonging to "U.S. persons," meaning citizens or legal residents.
The Intercept report focused on five of them: Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a leading national Muslim civil rights organization; Faisal Gill, a lawyer who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Bush and later ran for public office in Virginia as a Republican; Asim Ghafoor, a defense attorney who has taken on terrorism-related cases; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an international relations professor at Rutgers University; and Agha Saeed, who has lectured in political science at Cal State East Bay and taught at UC Berkeley, and served as chairman of the American Muslim Alliance.
The five men told the Intercept that they believe they were targeted in part because of their Muslim backgrounds.
The Obama administration called that claim "entirely false." In a statement released Wednesday, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Americans were not targeted for surveillance because of their religious beliefs or because they criticized the government.
Intelligence agencies do not "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," the statement said.
Under current law, intelligence agencies must seek a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to put U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents under surveillance. To get a warrant, the government needs to show the court probable cause that a person is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power, officials said.
"A person who the court finds is an agent of a foreign power under this rigorous standard is not exempted just because of his or her occupation," the administration statement said.
Because the court meets in secret and its warrants are classified, the public has little information about what evidence it relies on.
The latest disclosures prompted fresh calls for the administration to disclose more information about what protections are in place for the constitutional rights of American citizens.
"This story raises new questions about agencies' internal oversight of domestic surveillance activities and the adequacy of protections for the privacy of law-abiding Americans," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has been a vocal critic of NSA surveillance programs, said in a statement Wednesday.
Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are pushing for legal changes that would ban the bulk collection of Americans' personal information and close a loophole that allows intelligence agencies to deliberately read American's email without a warrant when an American is corresponding with a foreign person who is under surveillance.
Gill told the Intercept that he couldn't think of a legitimate reason that he would have been monitored. "I've done everything in my life to be patriotic," Gill said. "The fact that I was so surveilled in spite of doing all of that — it just goes to show the hysteria" toward Muslims, he said.
Awad was traveling outside the U.S. on Wednesday and did not return requests for comment. Corey Saylor, a spokesman for CAIR, said Awad was outraged by the idea that he had been under surveillance by the NSA.
"He's been a very outspoken representative of the American Muslim community, and that's the only thing we can come up with" for why his email address would have been in an NSA document, Saylor said.
At the time covered by the NSA spreadsheet, CAIR had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal criminal case against the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas-based charity that prosecutors accused of supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. The Holy Land Foundation and several of its officers were convicted in November 2008. CAIR and Awad were not accused of wrongdoing.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who worked with Snowden on his first disclosures and who was one of the authors of the report, said in an online discussion on Reddit about the story that he had named only five people because they were the ones who agreed to go public.
"My email inbox has been full of people literally pleading not to be" named, he said.
For a lawyer in particular, being under surveillance can be a "death sentence for your career" because clients may be reluctant to engage in correspondence, said Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group in New York.
"People are going to be less willing to talk to you if they wonder if you are a target — that's a huge, huge problem," Kadidal said.
Forty-five Muslim community organizations and civil liberties advocacy groups wrote a letter to Obama on Wednesday saying that the reported surveillance was part of a wider pattern in which law enforcement agencies had targeted American Muslims for intelligence gathering without suspicion of wrongdoing.
The organizations asked Obama to review the standards in the intelligence community for promoting diversity and tolerance.
One document obtained by the Intercept shows that in 2005, a racially charged epithet appeared in a training document regarding surveillance.
Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the National Security Agency, would not comment on the authenticity of the documents but said that the "NSA has not and would not approve official training documents that include insulting or inflammatory language."
Use of racial or ethnic stereotypes or slurs by employees is "unacceptable and inconsistent with NSA policy and core values," Vines said.
Separately, Snowden's lawyer said he had filed paperwork to extend his refugee status in Russia, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this month.