Before President Jimmy Carter enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, the executive branch had claimed for 40 years an “inherent” power to spy on anyone. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon used intelligence agencies to investigate opponents for political gain and other federal agencies wiretapped nonviolent citizens, without warrants, for their political beliefs.
How America ignores the lessons of history.
A report by The Intercept, an online investigative outlet, revealed that the National Security Agency monitored five politically active Muslim-Americans, which is eerily reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other figures. The report written by Glenn Greenwald, a co-founder of The Intercept, was based on information in documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor now living in Russia.
The Americans monitored include Faisal Gill, a one-time Republican candidate for the Virginia Legislature and former Department of Homeland Security lawyer in the Bush administration with a high security clearance; professors Hooshang Amirahmadi of Rutgers University and Agha Saeed of California State University, East Bay; Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney in terrorism cases; and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.
None of the men has been charged with a crime and the government has declined to say if any of them has been monitored.
To keep an eye on these men within the bounds of the law, officials would have had to convince a surveillance court judge of probable cause that the subjects were foreign agents engaged in terrorism. Since no criminal charges have resulted, the case for monitoring here seems dubious.
The report also mentioned a training document that uses the cultural slur “Mohammad Raghead” as a placeholder for the name of a surveillance target. It’s hard to believe that political beliefs or religious affiliation played no role in the government’s targeting when its personnel used a term like that.
The Church Committee, which investigated U.S. intelligence agencies after Watergate, declared in its final report 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, the painful lessons of those days appear to go unheeded.