On Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald published a very important piece of journalism on The Intercept that should — in any society that cares how the government decides which citizens it spies on — be part of a meaningful discussion about government transparency.
The report is based on documents provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, and they show that between 2002 and 2008, the NSA and the FBI monitored 7,485 email accounts of individuals the government believed could have links to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Since the spreadsheet on which the emails appear have only the addresses listed, it is impossible to determine the identity of many of the account-holders. But The Intercept was able to identify some, including five prominent Muslim-Americans, who are individually profiled in the article.
• Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush;
• Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases;
• Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University;
• Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights;
• Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.
Our own Bob Cesca took to The Daily Banter to rebut the exposé in what I believe is a largely unfair piece that relies in part on the dangerous belief that because one can’t prove wrongdoing by a government that operates in total secrecy, there is therefore no story. Of course, just because there’s secrecy, it doesn’t follow that something illegal or untoward is happening. After all, that’s how Alex Jones operates. But at the same time, this government has been caught engaging in enough shady and even illegal activity to warrant more scrutiny and less trust.
Central to Greenwald’s piece is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, specifically the court it established to determine whether to issue warrants to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to spy on the communications of the people listed in them, who are supposed to be people the government suspects may be aiding or engaging in terrorism, espionage, or sabotage. FISA warrants are virtual rubber stamps, having been denied only 12 times in 35,434 applications in the court’s 35-year existence — a 99.97% grant rate.
As Greenwald points out, although the emails of the five men listed above appear on a “FISA recap” sheet, there is no way to tell if surveillance on them was approved by the FISA court, or whether they were swept up by the Bush administration’s infamous and illegal warrantless wiretapping program. Greenwald does report however,
“Last week, anonymous officials told another news outlet that the government did not have a FISA warrant against at least one of the individuals named here during the timeframe covered by the spreadsheet.”
This is a claim that Bob sarcastically dismisses as “a reliable source,” but does so on no evidentiary basis. He also defends the FISA court because:
“As anyone who’s familiar with law enforcement or, hell, police procedural TV shows will tell you: investigators attain warrants from judges and, if they can show that a suspect might be up to something, they’re granted a warrant to conduct surveillance and/or searches on that person.”
However, those are done in plain view of the public. The identity of the applicant is known, as is the judge, as is the exact basis on which the warrant was sought. With FISA, there is no such transparency. No one knows which individual is applying to which judge on what grounds to spy on people, including American citizens. If the FISA system has been or should ever be abused, we would have no way of knowing it, and therefore no recourse for amending it.
Bob also criticizes Greenwald making the frank admission that it’s impossible to know why the five men were surveilled:
“Greenwald only knows that the five targets seem like decent guys and, according to the guys, they’re not connected to any terrorist activity. Sorry, but “Scout’s Honor!” isn’t exculpatory. In lieu of a proper explanation, Greenwald speculated that they were targeted strictly because they’re of Muslim heritage.”
First, as mentioned above, 7,485 people were surveilled. These five are ones that Greenwald was able to identify and get to go on record.
Second, Greenwald provides individual profiles of each of the five that go beyond noting that they’re all Muslim. In each bio he provides, it is possible to see why the government might want to surveil them. Here is some of what Greenwald noted about the five men:
“In 2003, [Abdul Rahman] al-Amoudi was arrested for participating in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and for illegal financial transactions with the Libyan government, crimes for which he eventually pleaded guilty. Because Gill’s name had turned up in al-Amoudi’s papers, he was investigated by DHS security officials…”
“In 2003, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi charity, hired Ghafoor after its U.S. assets were frozen by the Treasury Department over claims that it funded terrorist operations. The government alleged that there were “direct links” between the U.S. branch of the charity and Osama bin Laden.”
“The New York Daily Newsattempted to demonize a $50,000 donation[Saeed’s] group made to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign by highlighting Saeed’s support for the right of Palestinians to armed resistance against occupation if peaceful means fail—a right affirmed in a series of resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly.”
“The Justice Department later attempted to justify its inclusion of [Awad’s Council on American-Islamic Relations] by referring to wiretap evidence showing that in 1993, a Palestinian advocacy group that prosecutors believed was linked to Hamas met in a Philadelphia hotel and talked about founding CAIR. In 1994, Awad voiced public support for Hamas—before the group’s campaign of suicide attacks against civilians and subsequent placement on the State Department’s terrorist list in 1997.”
“In 2007, he defended the regime of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claiming in an interview that Iranian connections to terrorism are a ‘myth’ and that “Hezbollah and Hamas are not terrorist organizations, they are defending their country and their nations.”
Contrary to Bob’s claims, Greenwald does not dismiss the men’s surveillance as the result of anti-Muslim bigotry. Rather, Greenwald actually provides available information that could have prompted cause for concern among intelligence and law enforcement officials, and thus, the basis for the surveillance. It doesn’t mean the government was right to spy on them, but Greenwald’s treatment of the subject here is not one-sided.
Then Bob makes the following claim:
“In this story for example, Greenwald was incapable of taking the time to investigate why exactly these five Americans were subjected to surveillance. But that might not be a bad thing for him because it allows him and his followers to fill in the blanks with their own biases and agenda, which fuels outrage, retweets and clicks.”
It’s probably not the case that Greenwald “was incapable of taking the time to investigate” why these men were targeted. Instead, Bob himself notes that “Greenwald asked the Justice Department why these men were being surveilled and, duh, they wouldn’t tell him.” But it’s specious to imply that if only Greenwald had investigated more, he would have surely found something. Given the highly sensitive nature of intelligence, FISA, the Snowden leaks, and security issues involved, it can’t be surprising that a reporter might be unable to find additional sources willing to speak with him about this, especially under an administration that has been more aggressive in prosecuting whistleblowers than any other.
But beyond this, the most troubling point Bob makes is that if the government is doing something in secret and that if we therefore can’t prove that anything illegal or untoward is going on, it is ultimately pointless to report on it:
“While there could always be nefarious deeds and bad actors working inside the intelligence community, in the absence of evidence there is only speculation, and speculation isn’t news.”
Saying that one shouldn’t report on this because one cannot show evidence of wrongdoing of something that’s hidden from view in the first place is a circular and dangerous argument; and one that actually encourages government secrecy. It’s to essentially say that government secrecy is unassailable because no one can ever prove that anything bad is occurring. And so, government secrecy is perpetually defensible. In which case, all the government needs to avoid unwanted scrutiny is to move that which it wants to do into the shadows and out of public view. Inevitably, when transparency-minded citizens object, the government will assure them that it’s doing everything by the book, while its defenders will argue that there’s no proof to the contrary and that therefore we should believe it.
We don’t have to go back very far to see an example of government overreach with George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless wiretapping, or Richard Nixon’s use of law enforcement to infiltrate dissident groups for merely opposing the Vietnam War. It’s true that Barack Obama is neither Bush nor Nixon, but if you trust this president to operate this government out of public view, then you must be willing to allow all subsequent presidents to govern as such as well.
It’s not that the government should never act in secret. Quite obviously that’s neither advisable nor practical. But when it comes spying on citizens by the government — which has the power to take away one’s life, liberty, and property — it would be irresponsible of us to assume that because our view is obscured, there is nothing to see.