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10 Jul, 2014

Gays join Sikhs, Christians, Jews in protesting U.S. surveillance of Muslim-Americans

Four gay, lesbian and transgender rights groups have signed up on a letter of protest sent by a coalition of 44 civil rights, human rights, privacy rights, and faith-based organizations to U.S. President Barack Obama seeking accountability and full disclosure over the U.S. government’s continued discriminatory surveillance of American Muslims.

Agreeing that discrimination on the basis of religion should be considered just as offensive as that on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, caste or colour, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda, and the National Center for Transgender Equality joined the coalition of organizations in signing the letter following reports disclosing more U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of American Muslim leaders.

The full text of the letter and signatories is published below. Indeed, the list of signatories is what makes the letter interesting. In addition to the traditional groups at the front of civil liberty rights, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, the signatories include a number of Sikh, Christian and one Jewish group, but not a single Hindu group.

Says the letter, “In an earlier era, during the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights leaders, activists and members of minority communities were subjected to unlawful and abusive government surveillance based not on what they had done, but what they believed and who they were. Despite reform efforts, abusive practices continue today. Federal, state, and local law enforcement are targeting entire communities— particularly American Muslims – for secret surveillance based on their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.”

In Glenn Greenwald’s published article in The Intercept, it was revealed that thousands of community leaders, organizations and activists were targeted by the NSA. The article co-authored by Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, details the NSA’s activities in targeting Arab- and Muslim-Americans, along with respective community organizations, and civil rights groups solely due to political beliefs or religious affiliation.

Says the letter, “The NSA has unlawfully spied on organizational emails, phone records, member and donor lists, and civil rights strategies, among other information. This government activity is not only discriminatory, but is also in clear violation of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth amendment.”

Various groups have issued statements independent of the coalition letter.

Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates said: “This 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.  The report clearly documents how biased training by the FBI leads to biased surveillance.

“Nearly three years ago, the Obama administration pledged to purge bigoted training materials from federal agencies. This report clearly calls into question whether that commitment has been fulfilled and the urgent need for re-training of law enforcement officials.  We urge the President and Congress to take steps immediately to reform the NSA surveillance program to uphold basic privacy rights and civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to every American, regardless of faith.”

She added, “Our position is that no one should be targeted by the U.S. Government because of their faith.  With your support, we will hold law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies accountable to that fundamental American value.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization in the U.S., said: “This is an outrageous continuation of civil rights era surveillance of minority community leadership by government elements who see threats in all patriotic dissent.”

The statement added: “The Obama administration continues to allow some government agencies to treat all Americans as objects of suspicion. It is time for a full public accounting regarding surveillance of American minorities. This includes explaining the use of the blatantly prejudiced ‘Mohammad Raghead’ as a placeholder in a document describing how to properly format surveillance justification.”

It noted that the Washington Post had last weekend revealed that the vast majority of the information in a cache of NSA intercepted communications contained within the Snowden documents were not from intended surveillance targets. Among the files were “medical records sent from one family member to another, resumes from job hunters and academic transcripts of school children.”

CAIR said that in response to the new revelations, the White House had merely called for a review of training and policy materials for racial or religious bias, but has not yet offered a position on the surveillance issue.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it “stalwartly condemns the National Security Agency (NSA)’s systematic, unconstitutional, and profiled surveillance of the Arab- and  Muslim-American communities.”

Abed Ayoub, ADC Legal & Policy Director, stated, “The magnitude of these revelations is shocking. The Obama Administration, through its directives and instructions, has shown zero regard for protecting the Constitutional Rights of the Arab- and Muslim-American communities.

“It is important to note that this discrimination is not limited to Arab- and Muslim-Americans; it extends to those that share similar views of equality and justice as the respective communities. This unlawful activity pervades and is alarmingly normalized in many facets of the government — from the Transportation Security Agency’s racial profiling of Arab- or Muslim-looking travelers for searches and detainment, or the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslim Student Associations both within and outside of their jurisdiction.

“ADC denounces the unlawful profiling and surveillance of the Arab- and Muslim-American communities and will continue to stand in defense of the basic civil and human rights of all Americans. ADC will be following up this issue with upcoming actions items, demanding that the NSA cease its unlawful and immoral activity.”

Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying on the HRW website: “American Muslims have been under surveillance by their own government for years, often based on nothing more than a misguided belief that terrorists might be hiding in their midst. In light of that history, and the chilling effect these revelations will have on other human rights and civil liberties groups, the government has a heavy burden to show that this secret electronic surveillance was both lawful and necessary.”

Full text of the letter

July 9, 2014

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

Re: Secret Surveillance of American Muslim Community Leaders

Dear Mr. President,

The undersigned civil rights, human rights, privacy rights and faith-based organizations write to express our concerns following a report published by First Look Media indicating that the FBI and NSA targeted American Muslim community leaders for secret surveillance. We call on your Administration to provide a full public accounting of these practices and to strengthen protections against the infringement of civil liberties and human rights. We also request a meeting with you, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI director James Comey to discuss these matters.

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. Moreover, we cannot presume that the government acted without prejudice or bias. Too often, both in the past and in the present, we have observed the government engaging in patterns of discriminatory and abusive surveillance.

In an earlier era, during the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights leaders, activists and members of minority communities were subjected to unlawful and abusive government surveillance based not on what they had done, but what they believed and who they were. Despite reform efforts, abusive practices continue today. Federal, state, and local law enforcement are targeting entire communities— particularly American Muslims—for secret surveillance based on their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.

The First Look report is troubling because it arises in this broader context of abuse. Documents obtained through an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act request show that the FBI has been mapping a broad spectrum of communities, including American Muslim communities, the African American community and Latino American communities, without any basis for individualized suspicion. Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has also stigmatized innocent Muslims by placing them on the No Fly List and other watch lists. In short, the government’s domestic counterterrorism policies treat entire minority communities as suspect, and American Muslims have borne the brunt of government suspicion, stigma and abuse.

These practices hurt not only American Muslims, but all communities that expect law enforcement to serve and protect America’s diverse population equally, without discrimination. They strike the bedrock of democracy: that no one should grow up fearful of law enforcement, scared to exercise the rights to freedom of speech, association and worship.

Federal agencies must fulfill their important law enforcement and security missions consistent with the Constitution and this nation’s laws, with effective checks and balances and public oversight. To that end, we urge you, as many of the undersigned organizations have previously and repeatedly urged your Administration, to strengthen the Department of Justice’s Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies (“DOJ Guidance”). The DOJ Guidance was an important step forward in clarifying the Justice Department’s position against racial profiling in law enforcement when it was crafted in 2003. However, it must be amended to ban profiling on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin, and loopholes in the DOJ Guidance that permit all forms of racial profiling in the national security and border contexts must be closed.

The need for these amendments is critical given the proliferation of new forms of technology used by law enforcement to conduct surveillance of all Americans—and particularly minority communities and their members. While we are still learning about the cases reported by First Look and cannot draw firm conclusions about what effect a revised DOJ Guidance would have had in these instances, we believe that now more than ever, your Administration needs to repudiate the notion that racial profiling is ever acceptable.

To be sure, we do not know the scale of surveillance conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on American Muslim community leaders and whether there is a pattern of discriminatory abuse in this particular context. Yet that is in large part because of government secrecy. Unnecessary government secrecy surrounding the government’s surveillance activities invites abuse and feeds the sense that surveillance is being use for illegitimate ends. We cannot trust government assurances of fairness and legality when surveillance is being conducted without sufficient public oversight. As a first step, we urge you to provide the public with the information necessary to meaningfully assess the First Look report.

As organizations that support your commitment to equal protection, we look forward to working with your Administration to strengthen civil liberties and human rights safeguards for all. Thank you.


American Civil Liberties Union
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Amnesty International
Arab American Institute
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus
Brennan Center for Justice
Center for Community Change
Center for Constitutional Rights
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Defending Dissent Foundation
Free Press
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders
Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Watch
Interfaith Alliance
Islamic Society of North America
Lambda Legal
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Muslim Advocates
Muslim League Fund of America
Muslim Public Affairs Council
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
National Immigration Law Center
National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
National Lawyers Guild
National Network for Arab American Communities
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
National Security Network
National Urban League
New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute
New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good
Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
The Sikh Coalition
South Asian Americans Leading Together
Transgender Law Center
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries