A Rutgers University professor who has twice attempted to run for president of Iran says he is disappointed, but not angry or surprised, that the United States reportedly has monitored his e-mail.
The online news outlet the Intercept reported Wednesday that e-mail addresses linked to Hooshang Amirahmadi, along with four other prominent Muslim Americans, appeared on a list of more than 7,000 monitored by the FBI and National Security Agency beginning between 2002 and 2008. It remains unclear whether monitoring continues.
The Intercept report was based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The news outlet was founded in part to provide a platform for reporting on those documents.
"I think the U.S.A. security system simply wanted to make sure that what I am doing is right," Amirahmadi, 66, of Princeton, said Thursday. "And I think that's not really unusual. I'm not surprised at all.
"However . . . I think what they are doing is not right, and they shouldn't have started."
Amirahmadi, a public and foreign policy professor, said he was troubled by the report that his Rutgers e-mail address was monitored along with his personal accounts beginning in 2007, which he said could have effects on academic freedom.
Electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents must generally be approved by a judge with the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice in a joint statement sent by an NSA spokeswoman in response to questions about Amirahmadi.
"These court orders are issued by an independent federal judge only if probable cause, based on specific facts, are established that the person is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power," the statement reads.
Amirahmadi, who rejects any claim he is a terrorist or spy, said he believes the reported surveillance of him is a failure of governmental targeting.
"Spending probably millions of dollars and thousands of hours reading my e-mails, they should have really done a better job," he said. "That's what my major concern is: Security systems should do a better job of targeting. And again, I do understand that we have a national security issue . . . but we cannot overdo it."
Amirahmadi, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, has been in the United States for 40 years, arriving in late 1974 for an academic career that has included stints as director of Rutgers' Center for Middle Eastern Studies and chair of his department. He received his Ph.D. in planning and international development from Cornell University.
In 2005, he attempted to run for president of Iran, but his candidacy was rejected by that country's Guardian Council, a state governing body that oversees elections. Amirahmadi tried again last year before ultimately withdrawing, he said, knowing his candidacy would again be rejected.
Amirahmadi in 1997 founded the American Iranian Council, a nonprofit think tank based in Princeton.
"I have been a very high-profile person with high-profile activity for 25 years," he said.
Amirahmadi said he did not see himself as targeted for his religious beliefs.
"I have never had a Muslim, Islamic cause, and I've never really considered myself a Muslim leader. . . . My cause is peace and international relations," he said.
The four other prominent Muslim Americans named in the Intercept report included civil rights activists and lawyers.
One Amirahmadi e-mail account was added to a monitoring list in August 2007; a Rutgers e-mail address was added three months later, and a third account was added in February 2008, the Intercept reported. As of May 2008, the surveillance was marked as "sustained."
"That's the way life works," Amirahmadi said of being targeted. He laughed, speculating that the nation's security apparatus monitors many people, including, probably, President Obama.
"I don't know if I'm still on the list; I don't know if they're listening to us or not," he said during the phone interview. "I have no problem with it. I'm not going to change anything in my life."
In fact, he said, being monitored without consequence can be seen in some ways as clearing his name.
"I'm honored to say this: that after all this monitoring and so on, after so many years, they obviously have found nothing wrong," he said. "At least I know that I'm clean. Otherwise, I would be now in some kind of problem with the system."
The monitoring of his Rutgers e-mail would also raise questions about academic freedom, including the potential chilling effects it could have on Amirahmadi's students and colleagues.
"If I am still on the list, I will ask NSA to please remove my Rutgers e-mail from the list and keep my private e-mails on," he said. "It's unfair to my students, young Americans who are supposed to be the future leaders."
Rutgers had no statement or comment Thursday.
"My students now would think twice before sending me something," Amirahmadi said. "I think NSA needs to make a statement about this, whether we are on the list or not anymore. . . . Or they could simply call me privately, and say, 'Shang, you're no longer on the list.' "