Privacy SOS

Racist incitement outside government bolsters racist policies within it, and vise versa

The Intercept's interview with CAIR founder and executive director Nihad Awad, a target of discriminatory FBI/NSA surveillance.

Two items in the news this week draw out the relationship between racism outside government and official government policy that effectively institutionalizes it.

In the latest story on The Intercept sourced from Snowden documents, "Meet the Muslim-American Leaders the FBI and NSA Have Been Spying On," Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain reveal that US intelligence officials intercepted and stored the private communications of five prominent, politically active American Muslims. It's a long, important piece, full of detail and nuance—make sure to read it in its entirety.

Among the many things in the piece that struck me was that, just as there was back in the 1950s and 1960s during the anti-communist hysteria, there appers to be a fluid and influential connection between extremist right wing non-government actors and the FBI. One of the Americans the FBI and NSA spied on, former DHS official Faisal Gill, was targeted for the second time after "hardline" republicans smeared him in the press. The smears were squarely related to Gill's religion.

After leaving the government, Gill founded a law firm with his friend Asim Ghafoor. The NSA spreadsheet indicates that a year later, in April 2006, the email surveillance began. The agency apparently began monitoring a second email account of Gill’s in May 2007, the year he secured the Republican nomination for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. During that campaign, hardline neoconservatives in his own party—inspired by the work of the anti-Islamic pundit Frank Gaffney—resurrected the accusations that Gill had concealed allegedly nefarious ties to a Muslim group, provoking an outpouring of anti-Muslim animus. With the GOP divided over Gill’s candidacy, he narrowly lost the general election in November.

The FBI also targeted US citizen Nihad Awad, the co-founder and executive director of the Center for American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Right wing organizations and individuals have long attacked CAIR, implying the organization is some kind of fifth column. It is a civil rights organization.

Nonetheless, CAIR and its leaders have been publicly maligned as terrorist supporters by the Muslim-focused fringes of the far right, led by activists such as Frank Gaffney, Pamela Geller, and Daniel Pipes. FBI sources told The Intercept that CAIR is still on the government’s “radar screen,” and it was one of the primary targets of a 2011 investigation led by GOP Rep. Peter King into what he called the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” The New York Times denounced those hearings as spreading “fear and bigotry” and seemingly “designed to stoke fear against American Muslims,” while Slate labeled them “Muslim McCarthyism.”

But the FBI doesn't have to go outside of the agency for racist inspiration leading agents to target law abiding Muslims.

The FBI—which is listed as the “responsible agency” for surveillance on the five men—has a controversial record when it comes to the ethnic profiling of Muslim-Americans. According to FBI training materials uncovered by Wired in 2011, the bureau taught agents to treat “mainstream” Muslims as supporters of terrorism, to view charitable donations by Muslims as “a funding mechanism for combat,” and to view Islam itself as a “Death Star” that must be destroyed if terrorism is to be contained.

John Guandolo, a former FBI counterterrorism official who takes credit for developing a training program for agents on the “Muslim Brotherhood and their subversive movement in the United States,” told The Intercept that he participated in investigations of some of the individuals whose email accounts were monitored. Echoing the “red under every bed” hysteria of the McCarthy era, Guandolo believes that “hundreds” of covert members of the Muslim Brotherhood are active in the United States, that some of them have succeeded in infiltrating the Pentagon, and that CIA director John Brennan is a secret Muslim.

Other former and current federal officials say such beliefs are not representative of the FBI or Justice Department. But blatant prejudice against Muslim-Americans is also documented in the Snowden archive.

In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: “Mohammed Raghead.”

Just like during the "bad old days", when J. Edgar Hoover's FBI worked with right wing citizens' committees to round up dissidents during the Palmer Raids, the FBI today seems to have a symbiotic relationship with Islamophobic, right wing extremists.

Another controversial government program in the news this week points to a similar connection in racism inside and outside government, and the relationship between them. In the first lawsuit of its kind, the ACLU of Northern California is suing the Justice Department, challenging the Stasi 2.0 "See Something, Say Something" Suspicious Activity Reporting program.

Today, the ACLU and our partners at Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus and Bingham McCutchen are taking the federal government to court over a surveillance program that targets people even if they are engaging in entirely innocent and constitutionally protected activity, and encourages religious profiling. As if that weren’t enough, the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program also violates the government’s own rules for the collection of criminal intelligence.

James Prigoff is one of our clients. He is 86 years old, and a renowned photographer of public art. He has lectured at universities and had his work exhibited at museums around the world. In 2004, he was stopped by security guards in Boston while attempting to take photos of a famous piece of public art called the Rainbow Swash, which is painted on a natural gas storage tank. Several months later, the FBI tracked him down at his house in Sacramento to question him about his activities in Boston.

Tariq Razak, a young scientist and Pakistani-American, is another plaintiff in our case. He became the subject of a SAR after a visit to a train depot in Santa Ana, California, where he had an appointment with the county employment resource center. He walked around the depot looking for the resource center, and his mother, who was wearing a hijab, accompanied him. He later discovered that this conduct led to a SAR describing him as “a male of Middle Eastern descent” who was suspicious because he was “constantly surveying all areas of the facility” and because he met up with a “female in a white burka head dress.”

Our other clients were also unfairly targeted, falling under government scrutiny for activities ranging from buying computers to playing video games. Several of them were profiled due to their perceived religious beliefs.

More than a decade into the "war on terror," when the government asks people to spy on one another and report innocuous activities to law enforcement, the public apparently hears "report Muslims to the government if they make you nervous." There's nothing legitimate about a program that encourages people to file secret reports with government agents simply because someone took a photograph, or looked nervous in public.

It's especially illegitimate given that we have evidence to show its results are both useless and discriminatory. Even the public has long known that the Suspicious Activity Reporting program produces zero of worthwhile intelligence value. The reports are largely composed of racist, baseless insinuations about Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims.

The government, which processes these reports, knows the program hasn't yielded much besides racist innuendo—and zero of value with respect to stopping terrorism. Law enforcement experts suggest the program actually makes the country less safe. Nonetheless, the program continues and is expanding at an alarming rate.

It probably won't come as a shock to Muslims or anyone else who's been paying attention, particularly since 9/11, but these two stories provide yet more evidence that hostility towards Islam inside and outside of government reinforce one another. The next time you see a pundit or anti-Muslim extremist dragging a Muslim through the mud in the public square, remember the impact that negative publicity can have. In secret, and paid for with our tax dollars, it might just amount to a lot worse than a bad media week.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.