WASHINGTON (AFP) - The FBI and National Security Agency monitored the emails of prominent Muslim-American activists, academics and a political candidate, according to a report co-authored by journalist Glenn Greenwald.
The report appearing in the online news site The Intercept said the surveillance was authorised by a secret intelligence court under procedures intended to locate spies and terrorist suspects. The report, citing documents in an NSA spreadsheet leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, showed the emails of the individuals, but not their names.
The Intercept said it identified at least five persons, all American citizens, based on their email addresses. They were Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office; Asim Ghafoor, an attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases; Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor at Rutgers University; Agha Saeed, a civil liberties activist and former professor at California State University; and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
According to the report by Mr Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, the spreadsheet shows 7,485 email addresses listed as monitored between 2002 and 2008. Many of the emails appeared to belong to persons suspected of being linked to Al-Qaeda, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike.
The investigation by The Intercept found a number of US citizens monitored in this manner, which requires an order from the secret intelligence court based on evidence linking them to espionage or terrorist activities.
US officials, responding to the report, said communications are only monitored with a "legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose".
"It is entirely false that US 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," said a joint statement from the Justice Department and office of the Director of National Intelligence. "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 added that a court order for any surveillance of this kind requires "probable cause, based on specific facts," which indicate that the person "is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power."
"No US person can be the subject of surveillance based solely on First Amendment activities, such as staging public rallies, organizing campaigns, writing critical essays, or expressing personal beliefs," the statement added.
Muslim-American groups and others reacted angrily to the report. Mr Awad, one of those named in the report, said in a joint statement with Vincent Warren of the Centre for Constitutional Rights that the activity "fits the same pattern as the FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, and other leaders of the civil rights movement."
The statement said the surveillance appears based on "unproven claims of tangential associations with Hamas" and added that "every civic group in this country has the right to peacefully advocate for social justice at home and abroad without fear of government surveillance, intimidation, and harassment."
A statement by the organisation Muslim Advocates said the report "confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: the federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage."
Also responding to the report, a coalition of 44 civil rights, human rights and faith-based organizations sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for "a full public accounting of these practices".
"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," said the coalition, organised by the American Civil Liberties Union. Amie Stepanovich at the digital rights group Access said, "This revelation shows once again the NSA acting with impunity, targeting community leaders in the absence of any accountability or semblance of due process".