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The NSA’s Racist Targeting of Individuals Is as Troubling as Indiscriminate Surveillance

The latest NSA revelation shows that it has been spying on five distinguished Muslim-Americans, and isn’t above using the term “raghead.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Revelations of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs have highlighted how millions of ordinary internet and phone users — that is, non-criminal targets — have had their communications data swept up by a vast, indiscriminate dragnet. This has occasioned justifiable outrage, but the reaction has overshadowed discussion of how the NSA targets actual individuals — a process that, it turns out, can be quite discriminatory.


As I noted last week, if our national security state’s dangerously loose determination of what constitutes an “imminent threat” is any indication, we should be as troubled by the NSA’s targeting of particular people as we are by its non-targeted spying. The latest disclosure from The Intercept clearly illustrates why.

With the NSA reform bill, privacy is not on the menu. Read more here.

According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA has been spying on five distinguished Muslim-Americans under a law — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — that is meant to target international terrorists or foreign agents. The inclusion of the email accounts of these five people in a spreadsheet listing the targeted accounts of more than 7,000 others belies the NSA’s claim that it’s in the business of marking only terrorist suspects.

Here are the agency’s suspected “terrorists”: Faisal Gill, who was appointed to (and thoroughly vetted by) the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush; Asim Ghafoor, an attorney who has defended clients suspected of terrorism; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of public policy and international development at Rutgers University; Agha Saeed, founder and chairman of the American Muslim Alliance and a former political science professor at California State University; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.


This is anti-Muslim discrimination pure and simple. While the NSA’s broad data collection is disturbingly total and unspecific, its targeted spying is evidently racist. Another leaked document punctuates this point with a dull, disgusting thud: a 2005 training document explaining how to “properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance” offers a sample memo that uses “Mohammed Raghead” as the name of a fictitious terrorism suspect.

Your NSA at work, ladies and gentlemen!

Report finds NSA programs legal, but legal doesn't equal right. Read more here.

As the existence of this document makes clear, legality is a tortured issue at the heart national security misdeeds. NSA agents are trained to ensure that their surveillance practices fall within the letter of the law — and the law here is at fault, shaped not by a spirit of justice but by surveillance-state paranoia. The Intercept report does not skirt around this point:

Indeed, the government’s ability to monitor such high-profile Muslim-Americans — with or without warrants — suggests that the most alarming and invasive aspects of the NSA’s surveillance occur not because the agency breaks the law, but because it is able to exploit the law’s permissive contours. “The scandal is what Congress has made legal,” says Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU deputy legal director. “The claim that the intelligence agencies are complying with the laws is just a distraction from more urgent questions relating to the breadth of the laws themselves.”

This latest Snowden leak adds a new dimension to the troubling stream of NSA revelations, illuminating an even more insidious aspect of the government’s surveillance practices. We know that through dragnet data hoarding programs like PRISM we are all always-already potential suspects. We are all watched. But who falls under the NSA microscope? Who gets to be the needles in the haystack, the targeting of which provides the official justification of total surveillance? Who gets to be “Mohammed Raghead”?

Well, that’s top-secret government business. Don’t worry, though — it’s legal.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Photo via Wikimedia Commons