Our VoiceIslamophobia

Bigotry – as it always has – guides U.S. surveillance practices

Kalia Abiade • Jul 09, 2014

New Greenwald report names five Muslim-American targets, exposes racial slurs in official documents

In a new report by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept this morning released the names of five Americans who were the targets of government spying. The long-awaited report came after Greenwald’s promise that he had another major story to tell from the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The article is the result of a three-month investigation that found that the U.S. government has “wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.” In it, Greenwald and Hussain report that a government spreadsheet shows 7,485 email addresses belonging to individuals monitored by the NSA and FBI between 2002 and 2008. Many on the list appeared to be foreigners with suspected links to al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, according to the authors.

The five Americans featured in the Greenwald-Hussain report do not fit that profile. They are each highly public figures who have not been implicated in any crime and aren’t explicitly connected to one another. They are, however, all Muslim and have been scrutinized over the years in the press, the government and among anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists.

“Part of the message we’d like to drive home with this story is that civil rights are the shared inheritance of all citizens, if they degrade for Muslim-Americans they inevitably degrade for everyone,” Hussain said during an online question-and-answer session this morning after the report’s release. “Our hope is that this has a broader impact and it is not just seen as a ‘Muslim issue’ (which it isn’t).”

Until now, much of the mainstream discussion about NSA surveillance and the Snowden leaks has centered on individual right to privacy or technical aspects including improved data encryption.

But according to Arun Kundnani, author of the book The Muslims are Coming, the current conversation around surveillance, even among committed civil libertarians, is limiting and does little to build safeguards against abuses.

“We need to understand that racism is central to national security surveillance,” Kundnani said during a lecture in Chicago last month. “It is racist fears that legitimize surveillance to the public, it is racist ideas that inform the way surveillance is organized and deployed and it is racialized groups that have actually been the most effective in making sense of surveillance and organizing against it. This is as true today as it has been historically.”

Indeed, the Greenwald-Hussain report points to evidence of racial bigotry in the government’s conduct. In one 2005 document from the Snowden archive, instructions for formatting internal memos to justify surveillance used the fake name “Mohammed Raghead” as a placeholder for where a target’s real name would go.


Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Guandolo cited in report

The authors say anti-Muslim bigotry was also a problem among some of the law enforcement officials involved with the surveillance. Among them was John Guandolo, a now disgraced FBI counterterrorism official, who took credit for some of the investigative work on the targeted individuals. These days, Guandolo offers controversial trainings to local law enforcement agencies – and private citizens – through his website “Understanding the Threat.” He worked with the anti-Muslim grassroots organization ACT! For America to launch a website that purports to offer counterterrorism resources for law enforcement officials. (In actuality, its main offering is a database of home and office addresses of U.S. Muslim civil rights advocates and religious leaders in its “Radicalization Locator Map”.) He once said, in reference to mosque leaders in Tennessee, “They do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Guandolo is among the anti-Muslim camp that claims that the threat of “creeping Shariah” is always near. He is listed alongside birthers and other conspiracy theorists as a contributor to the “Team B” report released by Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, which argues the Muslim Brotherhood and other “Shariah-Adherent” organizations have infiltrated the government.

Greenwald and Hussain said Guandolo made a series of “uncorroborated accusations,” accusing one of the targets, a former DHS official under George W. Bush, of being a “major player in the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States.”

The authors are, rightly, dismissive of some of Guandolo’s claims, calling them “bizarre” and “paranoid.” But, they acknowledge, his tenure at the FBI was significant and problematic given that “his anti-Islamic views were deemed acceptable enough to be reflected in basic training materials within the bureau.”

While most politicians and federal officials are wise enough not to put blatant bigotry on display, it’s clear from today’s report that, in practice, many of them have advanced policies and procedures that reflect such hysteria. What is also troubling, as the authors point out, is that many in the public seem not to care.

“Undoubtedly, some people have been trained to believe that as long as government abuses are confined to Muslims, they shouldn’t and won’t care,” Greenwald wrote during the online question-and-answer session this morning.

He continued:

“But as the serious controversies over things like Guantanamo, torture, drones and surveillance prove, many people do care … abuses that start off confined to one marginalized group ALWAYS spread far beyond that if people ignore it in the first instance.”


Kalia Abiade is the Advocacy Director for the Center for New Community


Image sources: Elvert Barnes/Creative CommonsThe Intercept

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