An Iranian-American professor targeted for NSA surveillance said he probably wouldn't sue but that, taking a page from President Barack Obama's playbook, "all options are on the table."
Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, said that he "wasn't surprised" but he "certainly was disappointed" when he learned from an Intercept reporter that his email address appeared on a spreadsheet of people targeted for government surveillance about a month ago.
"I obviously had a dissenting view of U.S.-Iran relations," he told Courthouse News. "I was against sanctions. I was against the use of force."
The Intercept defines its "short-term" mission as reporting top-secret information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, including a 2008 NSA document titled FISA Recap.
FISA, short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is a federal law that calls for a top-secret court in Washington only to issue spying warrants against members of international terrorist groups or foreign agents who "are or may be" engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage or terrorism.
In a blockbuster article this week, the Intercept profiled Amirahmadi among five prominent Muslims targeted for NSA surveillance.
A dual citizen, Amirahmadi's secular views banned him from the ballot in two "quixotic" campaigns for the Iranian presidency on a platform recognizing Israel, promising to run with a female vice president and accepting Western liberal values of tolerance for homosexuality, according to the article.
Though Amirahmadi had no comment for the Intercept about his inclusion on the list, other than to condemn it as illegal, he broke his silence after its publication in a series of interviews.
"A lot of people think that this is a profiling issue - that we are Muslim leaders, and therefore we are being watched," he said.
The Intercept hinted at this interpretation by highlighting one top-secret document that named a sample target "Mohammed Raghead."
Responding to the article, the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement calling it "entirely false that U.S. intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights."
"Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone's communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion," the statement said.
Amirahmadi, a self-described "a secular-democratic person with liberal views," rejects that he was singled out as a "quote-unquote Muslim leader."
"I don't think I was on the list because of my Muslimness," he said. "I think that I was there because of my activities as a peace activist."
Shuttling often between Washington and Tehran, Amiramahdi noted that he arranged "very high-level" diplomatic encounters and worked with "high-profile" U.S. officials like Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
"People like me are very well known in the administration," he said. "Everybody knows me. They could even have talked to me at any time. They had access to me, unrestricted. So, to put my email under surveillance and read my students' emails, my faculty's and friends' emails, and my colleagues' emails? It wasn't warranted. It wasn't an intelligent thing to do."
Amiramadhi said that nobody from Rutgers has expressed any concern for their privacy since the publication of the article, but noted that their silence might have to do with summer recess and his reputation in the university.
"The university knows me, and they know there's nothing to be found," he said.
The Intercept reported that, in leaking the list, Snowden hoped to give the targets "the opportunity to challenge the spying as unconstitutional."
"For years, the government has succeeded in having such challenges dismissed on the ground that the various plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they could not prove that they were personally targeted," the article says.
In Clapper v. Amnesty International , a narrow Supreme Court majority rejected a challenge to government surveillance by a coalition of labor, legal, media and human rights groups on those grounds.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which was a party to that lawsuit, confirmed that it would "of course be willing to talk to the five people named in the article about their legal options."
Shane Kadidal, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that any prospective lawsuit would face another hurdle from the case Al-Haramain v. Obama .
In that 9th Circuit case, Washington-based lawyer Asim Ghafoor, who was also profiled in the Intercept's story, "and others had proof in the form of an accidentally-disclosed document from the gov't that they were targeted by the NSA, and yet the court threw the document out of the case," Kadidal noted.
The government achieved that result by characterizing the inadvertently spilled information as a "state secret."
"Between the two [precedents], there is a catch-22 that will knock most cases out of court," Kadidal added.
In addition to Ghafoor, the Intercept's article profiled Faisal Gill, a former Department of Homeland Security official for the administration of President George W. Bush; Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University; and Nihad Awad, the executive director for the Counsel on American Islamic Relations.
The warrants against Amiramahdi, Ghafoor and Saeed were marked "sustained" as of May 2008, the Intercept reported.
George Washington University Law School professor Orin Kerr, an expert in computer crime and Internet surveillance, said the legal issues at stake are already well trod
"They could sue, but this is just an old-fashioned FISA issue," Kerr said in an email. "The question would be whether the warrant was properly issued, which would be up to the judge based on his review of the application for the warrant."
Amirahmadi, for his part, remarked that "legality or illegality is a side issue."
"What is to me most important is that as a private American citizen my privacy was invaded," he said.
"The United States is an exceptional country," Amiramahdi said. "It's exceptional because of its democratic system, its democratic values, its democratic foundation. I think that the NSA, in doing whatever it does, it should have made that democratic value a criteron. ... So to me, the criterion is not whether it's legal or illegal. It's whether it goes against the American core value or not."