A Rutgers University professor who was allegedly the target of federal surveillance said he is not a spy, terrorist or agent for a foreign power and that he's proud of his longtime work building dialogue between the U.S. and Iran.
"I'm a very transparent, open man. None of those categories apply to me. I don't know whey they put me on the list (of surveillance targets)," Hooshang Amirahmadi said Wednesday.
He was singled out as one of at least five Muslim-American leaders subject to secret e-mail surveillance by the National Security Agency and the FBI, according to a new report linked to documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden. While allegations of surveillance of Muslim Americans are not new, the most recent report provides new evidence and a connection to the highly controversial NSA spying program that sparked public outrage and congressional hearings last year.
The allegations of e-mail surveillance of five politically active Muslim Americans were published Wednesday in The Intercept, a publication co-founded by journalist Glenn Greenwald who worked with Snowden to expose the NSA surveillance of Americans' phone and internet use.
The Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a prompt and lengthy response stating that they get court warrants for electronic surveillance for people who are spies, terrorists or foreign agents. The government denied targeting people based on their religion, political beliefs or criticism of U.S. policies.
For Amirahmadi, who teaches international relations and runs the American-Iranian Council, the news was not surprising because he said he deals with high-level government officials from both the United States and Iran.
"I am not dismayed. I am seriously disappointed because the USA should do a better job of targeting terrorists," said Amirahmadi, who recalled meetings with officials and lawmakers including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Amirahmadi said he learned that his emails were part of the surveillance during a meeting with Greenwald a month ago and wondered if the government was targeting him or the people with whom he was communicating. He said he was most troubled by the monitoring of his Rutgers faculty email address because it netted students and teachers who had nothing to do with the diplomatic wrangling in which he is involved.
"When you are that level, you certainly will be targeted. My email has also been checked in Iran, I'm sure. Iranian media say I'm a CIA agent," he said in an interview at his home in Princeton.
The report names four other individuals who had their emails monitored: Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Faisal Gill, who served with the Department of Homeland Security and ran for public office in Virginia as a Republican; Asim Ghafoor, a defense attorney who has taken on terrorism-related cases; and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University and chairman of the American Muslim Alliance.
Their information appears on an NSA spreadsheet that shows 7,485 e-mail addresses listed as monitored between 2002 and 2008 -- including 202 "U.S. persons" – according to The Intercept report. Many of the addresses appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, the report states.
The Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence claimed in their joint statement that the agencies help protect Americans "by collecting communications when they have a legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose."
Civil rights leaders claim the alleged surveillance is part of a pattern by law enforcement and intelligence agencies that targets people based on religion or political activity. Recently, the New York Police Department was accused of widespread surveillance on Muslim student groups, businesses and houses of worship as part of counter-terrorism work in New York and New Jersey, including Paterson, Newark and Rutgers University.
In response to the news Wednesday, a coalition of 45 groups organized by the American Civil Liberties Union jointly called for President Obama to provide a full public accounting of surveillance practices of American Muslim leaders.
"While we do not know all of the facts of the individual reported cases, we believe the government has an obligation to explain the basis for its actions," the groups stated in the letter to the president.
Amirahmadi, who has taught at Rutgers for 31 years, described himself as a peace activist and a social democrat with liberal views. "At times my views have been critical of U.S. policy, but within the framework of U.S. interests and national security," he said.
As a non-practicing Muslim, Amirahmadi does not believe he was targeted for his religion but rather for his work. But Greenwald pointed out to him, he said, that the people identified on the list – many yet to be identified publicly -- were mainly Muslims.
"The fact remains that five of us were all prominent and in this case were all Muslims. So there must be something about our Muslimness," he said.