James Clapper Issues Non-Denial Denial Of Greenwald's Story About Surveillance Of Muslim-Americans

from the want-to-try-that-again? dept

We already wrote about Glenn Greenwald's big story concerning how the FBI has been spying on prominent Muslim American politicians, lawyers and civil rights activists. If you follow this stuff closely, you may have heard that Greenwald was originally supposed to publish that story last week, but held off at the last minute due to some "new information" from the government. This resulted in some silly and ill-informed conspiracy theories, but in the article Greenwald explains what actually happened:
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, or for clarification about why the five men’s email addresses appear on the list. But in the weeks before the story was published, The Intercept learned that officials from the department were reaching out to Muslim-American leaders across the country to warn them that the piece would contain errors and misrepresentations, even though it had not yet been written.

Prior to publication, current and former government officials who knew about the story in advance also told another news outlet that no FISA warrant had been obtained against Awad during the period cited. When The Intercept delayed publication to investigate further, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to confirm or deny the claim, or to address why any of the men’s names appear on the FISA spreadsheet. Prior to 2008, however, FISA required only an authorization from the attorney general—not a court warrant—for surveillance against Americans located overseas. Awad frequently travelled to the Middle East during the timeframe of his surveillance.
The fact that it was out warning people that the story was inaccurate before anything had even been written is... quite telling. Also, the fact that it only seemed to focus on the lack of a FISA warrant (and against one individual) seems like the standard form of the intelligence community choosing their words especially carefully to say one thing, while implying something else entirely. Now that the report has actually come out, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has issued a statement that is more of the same. You will note, for instance, that it does not deny spying on the five named individuals -- only that it doesn't spy on people because of their political, religious or activist views:
It is 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.

Our intelligence agencies help protect America by collecting communications when they have a legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose.
Again, note the specific denial they're making. They're not denying they spied on these five individuals. They're claiming that if they spied on them, it wasn't because of their religion -- though the evidence presented in the Intercept article certainly rules out many other explanations. And, remember, it was just a week ago that it was revealed that the NSA, does, in fact, consider people interested in Tor or open source privacy to be extremists. So, while it may be technically true that these individuals weren't targeted because of their religion, it does seem fairly clear that the intelligence community has fairly low standards for what it takes to convince themselves that someone may be a threat.

Furthermore, the statement admits that there are cases where it spies on people without approval from the FISA Court, but doesn't say what those examples are beyond "in an emergency." That may imply the only cases are in an emergency, but that's not what the statement actually says:
With limited exceptions (for example, in an emergency), our intelligence agencies must have a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to target any U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident for electronic surveillance.

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.
And, again, as the Intercept report itself notes, prior to 2008, there were different standards in place for people traveling overseas (even Americans) which could explain how some of these individuals were targeted.

The ODNI statement more or less concludes by suggesting that the five people named may have been agents of foreign powers, which is quite a claim:
No U.S. 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.

On the other hand, a person who the court finds is an agent of a foreign power under this rigorous standard is not exempted just because of his or her occupation.
It's a neat little out. Accused of spying on five Americans who pretty clearly do not appear to be agents of foreign powers, just hint strongly that they really are agents of foreign powers. It's back to the good old days of McCarthyism.
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Filed Under: fbi, glenn greenwald, james clapper, muslim americans, odni, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    David, 9 Jul 2014 @ 4:32pm

    Aaand you swallowed the doublespeak

    They're claiming that if they spied on them, it wasn't because of their religion --

    Oh no, not even that:
    It is 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.

    No, they conduct electronic surveillance of religious figures solely because of their religion. See anything contradicting it?
    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.

    Instead, they are spying on them in order to track their behavior. That may have the side effect if suppressing criticism or putting those people at a disadvantage, but that's not the main incentive.
    No U.S. 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.

    But being of a particular belief is not a "First Amendment activity". Also notice the use of "solely". First Amendment activities will very well make you the subject of surveillance, like when you additionally have the wrong skin color. Or religious affiliation.

    Really, it is not worth listening to anything Clapper says if you don't have a fetish for being smothered in strawmen and red herrings.

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