All These Muslim Organizations Have Probably Been Associationally Mapped

The Intercept has published their long-awaited story profiling a number of Muslim-American leaders who have been targeted by the FBI and NSA. It shows that:

  • American Muslim Council consultant Faisal Gill was surveilled from April 17, 2006 to February 8, 2008
  • al-Haramain lawyer Asim Ghafoor was surveilled under FISA (after having been surveilled illegally) starting March 9, 2005; that surveillance was sustained past March 27, 2008
  • American Muslim Alliance founder Agha Saeed was surveilled starting June 27, 2007; that surveillance was sustained past May 23, 2008
  • CAIR founder Nihad Awad was surveilled from July 17, 2006 to February 1, 2008
  • American Iranian Council founder Hooshang Amirahmadi was surveilled from August 17, 2006 to May 16, 2008

In other words, the leaders of a number of different Muslim civil society organizations were wiretapped for years under a program that should require a judge agreeing they represent agents of a foreign power.

But they probably weren’t just wiretapped. They probably were also used as seeds for the phone and Internet dragnets, resulting in the associational mapping of their organizations’ entire structure.

On August 18, 2006, the phone dragnet primary order added language deeming “telephone numbers that are currently the subject of FISA authorized electronic surveillance … approved for meta data querying without approval of an NSA official due to the FISA authorization.”

Given the way the phone and Internet dragnet programs parallel each other (and indeed, intersect in federated queries starting at least by 2008), a similar authorization was almost certainly included in the Internet dragnet at least by 2006.

That means as soon as these men were approved for surveillance by FISA, the NSA also had the authority to run 3-degree contact chaining on their email and phone numbers. All their contacts, all their contacts’ contacts, and all their contacts’ contacts’ contacts would have been collected and dumped into the corporate store for further NSA analysis.

Not only that, but all these men were surveilled during the period (which continued until 2009) when the NSA was running automated queries on people and their contacts, to track day-to-day communications of RAS-approved identifiers.

So it is probably reasonable to assume that, at least for the period during which these men were under FISA-authorized surveillance, the NSA has an associational map of their organizations and their affiliates.

Which is why I find it interesting that DOJ refused to comment on this story, but told other reporters that FBI had never had a FISA warrant for CAIR founder Nihad Awad specifically.

The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, or for clarification about why the five men’s email addresses appear on the list. But in the weeks before the story was published, The Intercept learned that officials from the department were reaching out to Muslim-American leaders across the country to warn them that the piece would contain errors and misrepresentations, even though it had not yet been written.

Prior to publication, current and former government officials who knew about the story in advance also told another news outlet that no FISA warrant had been obtained against Awad during the period cited. When The Intercept delayed publication to investigate further, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to confirm or deny the claim, or to address why any of the men’s names appear on the FISA spreadsheet.

Awad’s organization, CAIR, is a named plaintiff in the EFF’s suit challenging the phone dragnet. They are suing about the constitutionality of a program that — the EFF suit also happens to allege — illegally mapped out associational relations that should be protected by the Constitution.

CAIR now has very good reason to believe their allegations in the suit — that all their relationships have been mapped — are absolutely correct.

Update: EFF released this statement on the Intercept story, reading, in part,

Surveillance based on First Amendment-protected activity was a stain on our nation then and continues to be today. These disclosures yet again demonstrate the need for ongoing public attention to the government’s activities to ensure that its surveillance stays within the bounds of law and the Constitution. And they once again demonstrate the need for immediate and comprehensive surveillance law reform.

We look forward to continuing to represent CAIR in fighting for its rights, as well as the rights of all citizens, to be free from unconstitutional government surveillance.

EFF represents CAIR Foundation and two of its regional affiliates, CAIR-California and CAIR-Ohio, in a case challenging the NSA’s mass collection of Americans’ call records. More information about that case is available at: First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    EW have you been reading Brad Moss’s Twitter? He’s downplaying these revelations because they happened before 2008. Now, on the one hand, this is disingenuous since the Intercept piece does respond to this by claiming that the law passed regarding FISC simply codified the previous illegal surveillance. But Moss does seem to have a point when he asks why Snowden wouldn’t have provided documents that list surveillance victims post-2008.

    I generally don’t comment here because I don’t feel like I follow this stuff closely enough to pose relevant questions. So if I’ve missed something obvious here please go easy on me. But I am curious about your reaction to the response of Moss and others to this story.

    • emptywheel says:

      Brad’s just being a dolt.

      Snowden took what was available. Given that this is traditional FISA, there’s no reason to believe anything different goes on now (indeed, in some what Obama’s treatment of Muslims has been worse than it was under Bush).

    • emptywheel says:

      Brad’s just being a dolt.

      Snowden took what was available. Given that this is traditional FISA, there’s no reason to believe anything different goes on now (indeed, in some what Obama’s treatment of Muslims has been worse than it was under Bush).

  2. bmaz1 says:

    Faisal Gill worked at DHS and was a political candidate. Were the sign offs from PIN complied with? Not sure it matters much, but I am kind of interested.

  3. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    First, full disclosure: I am NOT a follower of the Prophet Mohammed. I was raised in a Catholic family and currently am not affiliated with any religious group. Now my main point: what America has undertaken since 9/11, and this disclosure reconfirms, is a quasi-religious crusade against Islam. If America does not desist from this pathway, it eventually will be bled dry by futile wars and terrorism in the decades ahead. If you treat every member of a religion as an actual or potential enemy of your country, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that you end up reaping what you’ve sowed. Our leaders need to stop what they’ve been doing for the last twenty years or longer. This approach has transformed radical Islam from a few bands of terrorists living in caves and in other isolated redoubts to a crazy army of Sunni extremists working to set up a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. By targeting moderate Islamists in the United States, the FBI, DoD, and NSA are discrediting the very people needed to convince ordinary Muslims that extremism and violence are counterproductive and unnecessary.

    The United States government to some extent is repeating the strategy it used against communists at home and abroad during the Cold War: trying to label anyone seeking social justice as a communist or a fellow traveler. Now, when any Islamist decries injustice by the Americans or Israelis, he is branded a potential terrorist threat or a representative of a hostile foreign power. It may have worked with the communists to some extent; however, it won’t this time around – not with a billion-plus Muslims in the United States and abroad.

  4. solbus says:

    I do remember OneKade recently noted one fusion center spokesperson claiming anti-war groups were terrorists. Hmm. I suppose anti-terrorist groups would then be terrorists, as well, which is what anti-war groups existentially are by definition. (Mine)

    Conclusion: itty-bitty tiniest tip of the iceberg, I’m sure.

  5. P/K says:

    I don’t see what role NSA played in the monitoring of these 5 people… the spreadsheet clearly says that FBI is the Responsible Agency, which is actually the appropriate agency to conduct such domestic surveillance. Maybe NSA assisted FBI technically, but I don’t think that can count as overstepping legal boundaries…

  6. ess emm says:

    I agree with the EFF that an associational database is unconstitutional.

    Only if a person is participating in a conspiracy for crime, espionage, proliferation, or armed insurrection, should that person be mapped by the government as a node in an associational database—like members of the Gambino family. Any person not participating in the conspiracy, even if she is directly associating with the wiretap target, should never be mapped. Being Gambino’s florist is simply not relevant.

    The judgment in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA might be the deathblow to how the Company Store is currently being stocked.

  7. ess emm says:

    BTW, it’s fun to imagine the scorching judgment Colleen McMahon would write if she, instead of White, was hearing First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA. She’s my hero

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