Before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act became law in 1978, the federal government claimed for 40 years the power to spy on anyone. Presidents of both parties used intelligence agencies to investigate opponents for political gain. Other agencies wiretapped nonviolent citizens without warrants because of their political beliefs.
How America ignores the lessons of history: The Intercept, an online investigative publication, reported that the National Security Agency monitored five politically active Muslim-Americans, in a manner reminiscent of the FBI’s surveillance decades ago of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. The report, written by Glenn Greenwald, was based on information in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Americans who were monitored include Faisal Gill, a former Department of Homeland Security lawyer in the George W. Bush administration with a high security clearance; Professors Hooshang Amirahmadi of Rutgers University and Agha Saeed of California State University; Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney in terrorism cases, and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group.
None of the men has been charged with a crime. The government declines to confirm they were monitored. To do so legally, officials would have had to convince a surveillance court that there was probable cause to suspect that the subjects were foreign agents engaged in terrorism. Given the absence of evidence or criminal charges, that seems dubious.
The report also mentioned a training document that used the slur “Mohammad Raghead” as a placeholder for the name of a surveillance target. That makes it hard to believe that political beliefs or religious affiliation played no role in the government’s targeting.
A congressional committee that investigated U.S. intelligence agencies after Watergate declared that the government “has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power.”
Four decades later, that painful lesson still appears to go unheeded.