Meet An American the NSA Snooped On

Faisal Gill is puzzled by the government’s interest in him:

Greenwald’s new NSA piece details the surveillance of Gill and four other innocent Americans:

The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives. All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press. Some have even climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishments.


The targets, all Muslim-Americans, include Faisal Gill, who was an advisor for the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security; Agha Saeed, a civil rights activist who was formerly a political science professor at California State University; Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic relations; Asim Ghafoor, a lawyer who has represented clients in cases connected to terrorism; and Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University. …

The new document marks the first time individual US citizens have proof that they have been targeted by domestic surveillance, and could give them the legal standing to sue the government.

But as Scott Shackford points out:

It’s not just five American targets total.

The file Greenwald is drawing this information from, email surveillance targets from 2002 to 2008, contained more than 7,000 targets. At least 200 of them were of American citizens. The five men named and interviewed by Greenwald were the ones whose names they were able to figure out from their email addresses. More than 5,000 addresses don’t identify whether or not the targets are Americans (or they don’t know) so the number could actually be much higher. Some, indeed, were terrorism suspects, such as Anwar al-Alwaki, killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2011.

Meanwhile, Friedersdorf is miffed by how Gill defends his patriotism in the above video:

[I]n explaining why he finds it absurd that he was surveilled, Gill can’t help but imply that it would be more understandable if he were inactive in his community, or a Reagan-hating liberal, or if he disliked football and sent his kids to a Muslim parochial school.

This is what happens in a surveillance state: to inoculate themselves against suspicion, people seem to legitimize the victimization of other less favored groups, even though they’re every bit as entitled to privacy and civil liberties protections. They do so without intending any prejudice–I assume, for example, that asked directly, Gill would say that of course spying on parents who send their kids to Muslim parochial schools is every bit as illegitimate. He only meant to suggest that it’s irrational to spy on him given America’s paranoid post-9/11 standards, and that people less mainstream than him must undeservedly have it even worse. His words would nevertheless feel like a blow to folks who fall into the groups that he implicitly characterized as more reasonable targets of surveillance.

Benjamin Wittes’ response:

I have little to say about all of this because there’s something big missing from Greenwald’s story: Any sense of what was actually in the relevant FISA applications. Assuming for a moment that Greenwald is correct that these five people were, in fact, the subjects of FISA surveillance, there would have been a substantial document submitted to the FISA court and approved by it. That document would have had to establish probable cause that the subject was an agent of a foreign power under the FISA’s complex definition of the term. Evaluating whether surveillance was appropriate without reference to what was in that document is a fruitless exercise and not an especially interesting one.

Meanwhile, Ambinder weighs in on the WaPo’s recent Snowden story. He isn’t too troubled by the revelation that the NSA collected communications from thousands of innocent Americans and failed to “minimize” or anonymize them. But, in a follow-up post, he outlines what he considers the most reasonable criticisms of the NSA, including one related to the question of data storage:

The NSA wants to store everything it collects for a long time just in case it needs to go back and re-analyze something it missed. That’s reasonable. But it’s not critical. And the balance should tilt in the direction of getting rid of irrelevant communication and SIGINT as quickly as possible, especially those transactions that might contain unminimized domestic selectors — because they are unminimized domestic selectors. Give the NSA a reasonable amount of time to keep the data, then force them to purge it. Six months is reasonable. Five years isn’t. And require the analyst who wants to go back into the data to recertify the foreign intelligence purpose and foreignness of the target before letting him or her do that. Subject the certifications to audits. Have Congress look at the audits.