(Patrick Semansky, File/Associated Press)
(Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

In a much-discussed story published this week on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain highlight the cases of five Muslim American leaders whose e-mails have been monitored by the U.S. government “under secretive procedures intended to target terrorists and foreign spies.” Information on the surveillance came from none other than Edward Snowden, whose mammoth document dump has been fueling investigative journalism in the United States for 13 months.

The Greenwald-Hussain story focuses on Muslim Americans who appear to be ill-advised targets of government surveillance. As the story notes, “none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press” — a claim that Greenwald & Co. vetted “endlessly,” Greenwald told the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview earlier this week. The five people profiled in the story are Faisal Gill, a Republican who served in President Bush’s Department of Homeland Security; Asim Ghafoor, a lawyer who has worked on terrorism-related cases; Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Rutgers University professor; Agha Saeed, a former professor at California State University; and Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which sticks up for the civil rights of Muslims.

The scoop is based on a spreadsheet in the Snowden file titled “FISA recap,” meaning Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the Justice Department must “convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to believe that U.S. targets are not only agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also ‘are or may be’ engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism,” explains the Greenwald-Hussain collaboration. The “recap” includes Americans who’ve long been suspected of terrorism, reports The Intercept, which notes that the legal setup “affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.”

Busting out the government for overreach is a specialty of Greenwald, who scolds other media outlets for failing to sufficiently challenge the powerful. “Adversarial journalism” is a mantra for him.

Tucked deep into the story on surveilled Muslim Americans is this passage, which burnishes Greenwald’s adversarial credentials:

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.

Knowing how careful and measured — and usually silent — highly placed government intelligence officials tend to be, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Greenwald for specifics on this allegation. He said that the remarks of the officials were “designed to poison our relationship with people in the Muslim community by bad-mouthing us and saying this story is inaccurate before it’s even written. They literally did it before we put pen to paper,” says Greenwald.

Charges of inaccuracy, says Greenwald, flew in a meeting between government officials and Muslim American leaders in early July.

According to these community leaders and the Justice Department, there was indeed a July 1 gathering at the main Justice building, part of a regular series of quarterly meetings convened by Justice’s civil rights division that date back more than a decade. Though the get-together preceded publication of the Greenwald-Hussain story, Muslim American community leaders had heard about the goods that The Intercept had acquired. And so it was they, and not the Justice Department, who insisted on discussing the pending story. A letter from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), in fact, specifically asked that the surveillance issue be placed on the meeting’s agenda:



The timeline here bears some explanation. The “reports” in the letter above refer to rumors kicked up by The Intercept’s reporting, even though the story hadn’t been published yet. Greenwald pledged that the story would drop on June 30, though it ended up being postponed:

In any case, that the ADC placed this matter before the government raises doubts as to just how strenuously Justice officials were “reaching out” to discredit the pending Greenwald-Hussain story.

Now to the alleged “errors and misrepresentations.” According to various participants, the government officials who spoke to the Muslim-surveillance issue — primarily National Security Agency General Counsel Raj De and FBI General Counsel James Baker — walked the attendees through an explanation of the legal structure designed to protect Americans from surveillance. One of the officials reportedly counseled the group, “Just don’t make assumptions. Please think about what you read based on what the legal structure is.”

Abed A. Ayoub, the ADC’s director of legal and policy affairs, confirms that’s how things went down. At the same time, Ayoub vouched for the accuracy of the Greenwald-Hussain description of the proceedings. “What we were told was to look at the legal framework of the way the surveillance took place . . . the FISA courts and so forth,” says Ayoub, who insists that the “legal framework is part of the problem and we need to seriously address this.”

ADC National President Samer Khalaf says of the message from government officials: “It wasn’t that they were saying it was false. They were saying they can’t respond to a story that wasn’t out yet.” When asked about alleged warnings of errors and misrepresentations, Khalaf says that the government reps said that the article may not represent the “full scope of the program.” A recording of the meeting would help sort out the fine points, but this is Washington, so the meetings are off the record.

Marc Raimondi, the Justice Department’s national security spokesman, takes issue with The Intercept. As to the claim that the Justice Department didn’t respond to comment requests, Raimondi writes, “The Justice Department was part of the interagency working group that responded to The Intercept staff numerous times during the creation of their story.” And as to the reaching-out-to-debunk claim, Raimondi writes, “The Justice Department had a regularly scheduled interagency meeting with Muslim/Arab/Sikh/South Asian community groups on July 1st at Main Justice and did address an agenda item regarding NSA surveillance that the ADC asked the government to respond to. I am unaware of any outreach that occurred with the Muslim-American community by DOJ personnel other than that.”

Note to readers (3 p.m., July 16): Since it was published on Friday, this post has come under attack. The Intercept’s John Cook wrote a rebuttal a day saying that it is wrong. As evidence, he cited e-mails that he’d sent to the Justice Department in June. Those e-mails said that he’d heard from sources that the Justice Department had been briefing Muslim Americans and indicating that The Intercept’s story would contain errors or misrepresentations. Also over the weekend, Greenwald forwarded to us a June 19 e-mail from someone who made similar allegations about Justice’s outreach efforts.

The post above outlines our efforts to track down such allegations with respect to one particular Justice meeting. In a phone conversation with Greenwald prior to the post’s publication, he indicated that this was one of the instances in which government officials had reached out and essentially bad-mouthed the reporting. After checking out the particulars of the meeting, we discovered that it didn’t fit neatly into the accusation that the Justice Department was “reaching out” to trash The Intercept’s reporting pre-publication.

In our conversation, Greenwald mentioned that the trashing had started before that July 1 meeting, and both he and Cook were dismayed that the post didn’t make that explicit. Fair criticism there.

That said, the pre-July 1 e-mails cited by Cook and Greenwald don’t prove that government officials actually did what they’re alleged to have done – just that The Intercept received tips to that effect. What are the names of the officials who did this? What, precisely, did they say and when did they say it? The Intercept didn’t supply those specifics in its original story and hasn’t since. It’s that lack of substantiation that first prompted the Erik Wemple Blog to take a deeper look. If this back-and-forth yields such details, then great – they’d make a nice update to The Intercept’s piece.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.