National Security Operations Center floor. (Credit: National Security Agency)
A report released Wednesday identifies two Muslim American lawyers whose electronic communications were targeted in U.S. surveillance efforts.
The report, published by The Intercept and cowritten by Glenn Greenwald, spotlighted the surveillance of five Americans over the course of several years, until 2008. The report was based on secret documents released last summer by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Two of the five individuals identified in the article, Faisal Gill and Asim Ghafoor, are lawyers. According to the report, U.S. law firms and non-Muslim lawyers who represented similar clients and cases as Gill and Ghafoor—such as the Sudanese government and Saudi nationals—did not appear to be on the National Security Agency’s surveillance list. Gill and Ghafoor told The Intercept that they believed they were the targets of surveillance because of their religion.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Department of Justice said it was “entirely false” that intelligence agencies monitored “political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights.”
Two U.S. law firms were mentioned by name in The Intercept’s report: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Hunton & Williams. Ghafoor represented the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct Saudi charity. The U.S. Treasury Department froze Al Haramain’s assets in 2004, finding the group supported terrorism. Ghafoor and Al Haramain later filed a lawsuit against the government claiming they were the targets on unlawful surveillance.
The Intercept noted that Al Haramain had previously been represented by “some of the biggest and most prestigious American law firms,” including Akin. An Akin spokesman declined to comment.
Ghafoor also represented the Sudanese government in litigation brought by victims of terrorist attacks; Gill did contract work on one case, according to the report. The Intercept said Hunton & Williams represented Sudan in similar litigation, but none of the Hunton lawyers involved appeared to be targets of government surveillance. A Hunton & Williams spokeswoman could not immediately be reached.
Ghafoor told The Intercept he believed he was placed under surveillance because of his religion and the work he did as a lawyer. He said many “blue chip” law firms in Washington represented Saudi interests in court, as did former White House officials from the George W. Bush administration.
“There were former Bush administration officials representing Saudi entities, and I doubt their emails were tapped,” Ghafoord told The Intercept. “And if they were, at some point some official would’ve said, ‘Why are we tapping [former Bush Justice Department official] Viet Dinh?’ I’d be shocked if they were tapping Viet Dinh. But Asim Ghafoor—’Oh, well he’s Muslim.’ “
Ghafoor was referring to the founding partner of Washington firm Bancroft. Dinh served in the Justice Department as assistant attorney general for legal policy from 2001 to 2003. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Intelligence officials faced questions from the legal community earlier this year after The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency was aware Australian counterparts intercepted communication from an American law firm. The Times report suggested the law firm was Mayer Brown.
Based on the Times report, American Bar Association President James Silkenat wrote a letter to National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander expressing his concern about any surveillance of U.S. lawyers’ communication with clients. Alexander replied that the agency was “firmly committed to the rule of law and the bedrock principle of attorney-client privilege.”
An ABA representative was not immediately available for comment about The Intercept’s article.
The other three individuals identified in The Intercept’s report were Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University; Agha Saeed, a former professor and an activist; and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is involved in a legal challenge to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents the organization, said in a statement Wednesday that the “government’s surveillance of prominent Muslim activists based on constitutionally protected activity fails the test of a democratic society that values freedom of expression, religious freedom, and adherence to the rule of law.”
Updated at 1:02 p.m.