The US National Security Agency's (NSA) Prism surveillance programme targeted prominent muslim US citizens – including lawyers, civil rights leaders and academics – according to a document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
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The details of five targets of long-term NSA surveillance were published in a report by The Intercept after a three-month investigation.
The investigation revealed that, despite the surveillance, none of the five had been charged in the six years since the period covered by the Snowden document.
According to the report, these US citizens were targeted for domestic surveillance despite posing no threat to the US, suggesting the surveillance may have been carried out illegally.
The NSA can conduct such electronic surveillance of US citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) only after obtaining a warrant from the FISA Court.
Read more about NSA surveillance
To obtain the court order, the government must show there is probable cause to believe the individual being targeted is a foreign power or an agent, officer or employee of a foreign power; and that the individual is or may be engaged in espionage, sabotage or terrorism.
However, the report said the NSA tracked as much of their personal email correspondence as possible with no motivation other than their positions in the community and their religious backgrounds.
The report said that it was unclear under what legal authority the monitoring was conducted. Because the justifications for carrying out the surveillance remain classified, it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance. Similarly, in June 2014, revelations about a secret UK government policy justifying mass surveillance of social media users in the UK prompted calls for a review of laws governing internet surveillance.
Civil rights groups condemned the NSA's Prism mass surveillance programme: “This story confirms the reality that our government continues to spy on innocent Americans whose only crime has been engaging in public discourse,” rights group Rethink Media said in a statement.
“This is not a story about their religious identity, but rather the appallingly low threshold the NSA will now accept as justification for invasive domestic surveillance,” the statement sent to Computer Weekly said.
NSA targeted US citizens
The latest revelations differ from ones disclosed in a recent Washington Post article on the incidental collection of people, including US citizens, who are not targeted for surveillance but whose communications get caught up in the NSA’s bulk collection of data.
The Intercept report is based on an NSA spreadsheet containing 7,485 email addresses that were monitored between 2002 and 2008.
Most of the email addresses on the list appear to belong to non-US citizens but, under a column with the heading “nationality”, the government tagged 202 of the addresses as belonging to US citizens.
Proof for challenge
The leaked document provides for the first time the proof required by US citizens to challenge the spying as unconstitutional.
For years, the US government has succeeded in having such challenges dismissed on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not prove that they were targeted, the report said.
Richard Clarke – who served on the recent White House intelligence review panel convened to address concerns raised by the Snowden revelations – said that, if he had seen the NSA spreadsheet months ago, he would have asked more questions about the surveillance process and reviewed individual warrants.
The FBI, which is responsible for conducting domestic foreign intelligence surveillance, did not respond to The Intercept’s calls for comments.
But the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence insisted that surveillance targeting US citizens is always conducted with a warrant “except in exceptional circumstances”.
Civil rights group Muslim Advocates has called on US president Barack Obama and Congress to take steps immediately to reform the NSA surveillance programme "to uphold basic privacy rights and civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to every American, regardless of faith".