NSA Spied on Prominent Muslim Americans
The latest story from the Snowden documents is about five prominent Muslim Americans who were spied on by the NSA and FBI. It’s a good story, and I recommend reading it in its entirety. I have a few observations.
One, it’s hard to assess the significance of this story without context. The source document is a single spreadsheet that lists 7,485 e-mail addresses monitored between 2002 and 2008.
The vast majority of individuals on the “FISA recap” spreadsheet are not named. Instead, only their email addresses are listed, making it impossible in most cases to ascertain their identities. Under the heading “Nationality,” the list designates 202 email addresses as belonging to “U.S. persons,” 1,782 as belonging to “non-U.S. persons,” and 5,501 as “unknown” or simply blank. The Intercept identified the five Americans placed under surveillance from their email addresses.
Without knowing more about this list, we don’t know whether this is good or bad. Is 202 a lot? A little? Were there FISA warrants that put these people on the list? Can we see them?
Two, the 2008 date is important. In July of that year, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, which restricted what sorts of surveillance the NSA can do on Americans. So while this story tells us about what was happening before the FAA, we don’t know what—if anything—changed with the passage of the FAA.
Three, another significant event at the time was the FBI’s prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation on terrorism charges. This brought with it an overly broad investigation of Muslim Americans who were just associated with that charity, but that investigation came with approved warrants and all the due process it was supposed to have. How many of the Americans on this list are there as a result of this one case?
Four, this list was just the starting point for a much broader NSA surveillance effort. As Marcy Wheeler pointed out, these people were almost certainly associationally mapped. CAIR founder Nihad Awad is one of the NSA targets named in the story. CAIR is named in an EFF lawsuit against the NSA. If Awad had any contact with the EFF in 2008, then they were also being spied on—that’s one hop. Since I had lots of contact with the EFF in the affected time period, I was being spied on as well—that’s two hops. And if any of you e-mailed me around that time—well, that’s three hops. This isn’t “just metadata”; this is full-take content that’s stored forever. And, yes, the president instructed the NSA to only spy people up to two hops away this January, but that was just one program under one authority.
This is a hard story to analyze, because it’s more anecdote than data. I much preferred last Saturday’s story that tried to analyze broad trends about who the subjects of NSA surveillance are. But anecdotes are more persuasive than data, so this story might be more compelling to a mainstream audience.
One final note: I just couldn’t think of a headline more sensationalist than the descriptive one.